Baccellieri: Position players on the hill? Not just fun, smart too

From Emma Baccellieri at Sports Illustrated on July 26, 2018:

Ten years ago last week, Tony Peña, Jr. headed to the mound for the ninth inning of a game between the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals. The Tigers were winning, 19-4, and Peña’s Royals were about to slip into last place as a result. It was getting late on a Monday night, and what had been a sparse crowd to begin with was now more “sparse” than “crowd.” There was nothing to make the final inning of this game seem even remotely appealing. Or at least, nothing except for Peña, a shortstop making his first and only major-league pitching appearance.

Peña faced three batters and sat them all down, touching 90 mph and even striking out Iván Rodríguez. It made the final inning of the game remotely appealing, and then some. It was fun! It was weird, and it was silly, and, perhaps most crucial—it was unusual, a sign of a game gone really and truly off the rails. Peña was one of just three position players who threw so much as one pitch that season.

With that in mind, return to this week. Three position players pitched on Monday, two of them for the same team and none in an extra-inning game with an otherwise empty bullpen. What was an entire year’s worth of position players on the mound a decade ago is now the action of a single night. It’s a movement that’s been building for several seasons now, but this year, it’s reached a new level. In 2017, MLB saw a record number of position players’ pitching appearances, and the league isn’t just on track to break that record this season—they’ve already broken it, scarcely halfway through the year. The record set last year was 32. This year? There have already been 42, and it’s not even August.

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Originally published: July 26, 2018. Last Updated: July 26, 2018.