It's fun, but when position players pitch, bad things usually happen
Last Saturday's 20-inning thriller between the Mets and Cardinals featured one of the most unusual sights you're likely to ever witness on a baseball diamond: a position player on the mound with the game on the line. There's nothing quite like seeing an outfielder or a shortstop atop the hill, and as fun as that is to watch in a laugher, it's even more interesting when it occurs in a pressure situation.
Saturday night's classic featured three innings of work from Cardinals position players
An opposing hitter might look forward to facing a non-pitcher with glee -- after all, it's a great opportunity to pad his stats. An at-bat against a non-pitcher seems like an awfully good place to look for a cheap home run, and fans might expect to see a power show when a position player takes the mound. However, while it would seem that facing a steady stream of batting-practice fastballs would turn pretty much anyone into a long-ball threat, non-pitchers don't give up homers at the astronomical rate that you might expect. While it's true that they do give up more homers than average, don't expect a slugfest when a position player trots in from the bullpen. At .039 homers per at-bat, this mark is actually better than the rates that some pretty respected pitchers posted in 2009.
The real difficulty with non-pitchers is their stuff and their control. Predictably, non-pitchers aren't fooling a lot of hitters. They do manage to strike out, and thus embarrass, 7% of batters they face, but this is well below the 18% strikeout rate that the average pitcher posts. That means more balls in play and more hits against them. It's possible, of course, to succeed without being a strikeout king.
Any one of these traits might be overcome on their own, but someone who has the strikeout prowess of Lannan, the control issues of Marmol and gives up homers like Looper is going to give up an awful lot of runs. And thus, it's not surprising that things can get pretty ugly with a position player on the mound.
So, knowing this, when is an appropriate time to put that backup catcher or fifth outfielder on the hill? Obviously not with the game on the line. While 120 pitchers have taken the mound, only six have factored in a decision:
No matter your team affiliation, it's hard not to root for a position player on the mound. He represents the ultimate underdog -- someone who has no business being anywhere near a pitching rubber who is thrust into the game and forced to get out major league hitters. Most fans have at one point or another pictured themselves on a big league mound staring down a slugger, despite the fact that they haven't pitched since Little League. In a small way, that fantasy is fulfilled when we watch another guy who also hasn't pitched since Little League attempting to do the same. The scenario becomes that much sweeter when the game is on the line and the position player can pitch his team to victory. On Saturday night, Lopez and Mather almost did just that.