41 position players have pitched in a big-league game this season. By my count, 28 different position players have taken the mound since the start of June. This is too many! A good thing is being spoiled, here.
Sports are sometimes good—sometimes spectacularly good—when they’re bad. For the most part, though, sports are best when they’re good. In all but the rarest cases of good sports badness, good sports are more good than bad sports.
Bad sports can be redeemed when they produce something rare and unexpected. So, for example, when Pablo Sandoval takes the mound in a lopsided April Giants loss, the sheer unlikelihood of the moment injects some excitement into late innings that would otherwise be a dismal formality. Never mind that using a position player as a pitcher is the same thing as surrendering—what is being traded is a small chance at a comeback in exchange for what could be a one-off event in a player’s career, and the opportunity to enjoy a rare quirk of mid-season baseball.
But this season we’ve had position players being used as pitchers in six-run games, as was the case Monday night when the Cubs used two position players as pitchers in what ended as a 7-1 loss to the Diamondbacks. We’ve had three position players taking the mound for a team in one game, as happened for the Cubs (again) in a loss to the Cardinals. And we’ve had two position players combining to pitch more than half of a whole game, as Daniel Descalso and Alex Avila did for the Diamondbacks earlier this month. Apart from being a pretty clear marker of bad, one-sided baseball, the sudden prevalence of this historically rare form of surrender saps it of all its delicious juice. A 75 mph fastball is only interesting if it’s uncommon—when it happens a couple times a night it just becomes lousy pitching.
Mike Axisa of CBS Sports says the 2018 regular season has already set a new record for most position players used as pitchers, and attributes the rise to a corresponding drop in innings pitched per appearance by starting pitchers. NBC’s Hardball Talk agrees:
While teams carry far more relievers than they ever have before, they actually carry far fewer swingmen or mopup men who are capable of throwing multiple innings in a blowout to save other pitchers’ arms. Rather, teams focus on max-effort, high-velocity relievers who go one or two innings tops, thus requiring catchers and utility guys to help do the mopping that actual pitchers used to do.
Functionally there’s no difference between having some dirtbag mop-up pitcher come in to pitch a couple of pointless innings versus having the same work done by a utility infielder, but the more the work is done by utility infielders, the less weird and interesting it is each time another utility infielder is called to the mound. And it turns out July baseball, stripped of its moments of random weirdness, is a pretty fucking tedious march! That haggard mop-up guy isn’t just ushering a shitty baseball game to its conclusion, he’s also protecting the position player-as-pitcher phenomenon from overexposure, like a true hero.
Baseball is getting this wrong. Smart baseball has already taken the stolen base away from us, and even dingers are becoming less special. Let us keep this one dumb joy, baseball managers!