Over the last decade, baseball has seen a surge in position players pitching. The practice is practical and enjoyable, though as Sports Illustrated’s Emma Baccellieri wrote earlier this week, it might not be as fun as it once was because it has become far more common.
SI’s MLB staff considered whether the increasing number of position players pitching is good for baseball and what (if anything) the league should do to address it.
Watching a position player go to the mound is not sacrilege. It’s fun. There is no need to legislate against something that’s done on every level of baseball—and that especially takes us back to Little League days. It doesn’t happen nearly enough to be a “problem.” It happens in games that for all practical purposes are already decided—late in games with a big lead.
A good rule of thumb is let managers manage and let players play. Three years ago with the Phillies, manager Gabe Kapler explored having utility players throw occasional bullpen sessions in spring training just so they were somewhat prepared to pitch off a mound in a game situation. I thought it was good foresight. Maybe that’s the way forward.
I don't really mind it, but I think hitters find it less fun than we might expect. There's a lot of pressure to beat up a guy who doesn't know what he's doing out there, and when you're used to 95 mph, 60 mph is pretty hard to hit. With that said, though, I don't think it's high on the list of things the league needs to fix. Besides, teams openly concede seasons; why not games?
I'm on record as not being particularly fond of the increase. What was once one of my favorite quirks in baseball has started to feel pretty tiresome ... but I'm not sure how MLB should react. I'd be fine with the rule that was originally supposed to be installed before the pandemic in 2020: no position players pitching unless a game is in extra innings or there's a score deficit of six runs or more. But it wouldn't actually do that much to change the landscape—most position players already pitch when down by six runs or more!—and we'd probably still be looking at an annual number of instances here several times bigger than what it was just a decade ago. In the grand scheme of things, I don't think this is terribly important, so I'd be hesitant to introduce any more restrictive rules. But I don't think it's great for the game, and I'd like to see it change.
I don't think the league needs to do anything else here. Relief pitchers don't love pitching in blowout losses; it's a no-win situation for them that could feature injury or embarrassment (and they especially hate the term "mop-up duty"). But you know who loves pitching any chance they can? Position players who have been waiting for years at the chance to show off their "fastballs" in a major-league game. Sometimes we get Willians Astudillo. Sometimes we get Christian Bethancourt, whose mid-90 fastballs were so impressive the Padres briefly converted him to being a full-time pitcher. Most of the time, we get a rather unremarkable showing. But those instances are still more notable than a reliever wasting his arm in a rout, and more fun, too.
I enjoy watching position players pitch. What better way to liven a blowout game entering its fourth hour than to let Astudillo toe the slab and throw some 46-mph lollypops? There's nothing compelling about the ninth inning of a seven-run game, especially in this three-true-outcomes era of baseball. Beyond the benefits of saving the arms of actual pitchers for competitive innings, having position players pitch also offers the chance for some excitement. Sure, it's no longer a novelty to see position players pitch, but baseball loses nothing if these outings are uneventful—the final inning of blowout games is almost always uneventful.
I don't think MLB needs to do anything to prevent or limit position players from pitching—these instances inject something interesting into what's usually a very uninteresting stretch of baseball. This is a somewhat natural side effect of the growing pitch usage trends widely adopted throughout the game. Starting pitchers rarely face lineups a third time through the order, and bullpens are throwing more and more innings every year. Rather than put unnecessary mileage on an actual relief pitcher, getting low-stress outs from a position player is the logical move. If the current setup gives us moments like these, I see no need for that to change.
Position players pitching isn’t exactly the most aesthetically pleasing aspect of the modern game, but this feels like a necessary evil unless baseball is willing to institute forfeit rules. There’s too much attention paid to the innings thrown by each member of a given staff, and uselessly burning arms in a blowout doesn’t seem to be an accepted practice by managers and front office members throughout the sport. It’s not a perfect answer, but I think the best practice is to grit our teeth, accept the new reality and enjoy the beauty of an Astudillo changeup.