Mitch Maier is a position player who recently threw effectively in relief. He is not the only one to have done this. It's high time we consider what the numbers are trying to tell us about pitching, and about baseball.
Tuesday night, a day after playing 14 innings, the Kansas City Royals were getting blown out by the Boston Red Sox. The Royals scored but the Red Sox scored more, blowing through every pitcher the Royals sent to the mound. It was 13-7 when, in the bottom of the eighth, Ned Yost decided to spare his bullpen and call on Mitch Maier.
This is notable because Mitch Maier is an outfielder, and has been an outfielder ever since the first days of his professional career, when he was an infielder. It's always an event when a position player takes the mound, and all eyes were on Maier as he worked around a one-out double to throw a scoreless inning. The final at-bat of the frame ended with a soft pepper back to the mound by Jason Varitek, and also included this:
There was much delight when Maier returned to the dugout, because as a position player, the expectation is that he will suck as a pitcher. Pitchers aren't position players, and position players aren't pitchers, so when a position player takes the mound, it's supposed to spell disaster. Thus, when a position player survives, it's amazing and hilarious. Right?
I would've thought so, too. But then I went to the numbers. I couldn't believe what I found.
Over the past two years, there have been 14 desperation appearances by position players on the mound, spanning 15-1/3 innings. Of those 14 appearances, 11 were scoreless. They've all combined for a 2.94 ERA, which I will put in perspective for you:
Position Players: 2.94
The expectation is that a position player will suck as a pitcher. What the numbers are showing us, however, is just the opposite. Position players haven't sucked as pitchers. As pitchers, they've looked like aces. They've thrown as well as some of the best starting pitchers on the planet.
The potential implications of this revelation are staggering. This discovery may shake baseball, and everything we thought we knew about baseball, to the very core. What follows is a thorough yet incomplete list of possible consequences.
Immediate devaluation of starters and relievers
The market for Ubaldo Jimenez and Heath Bell will be dealt a blow. The market for guys like Jeremy Guthrie and Aaron Harang will disappear completely. Teams will have little to no use for non-elite pitchers, since they can get comparable if not superior performances out of position players in the minors or on the bench, like Aaron Miles or Bryan Petersen.
Elimination of all pitching coaches
Pitching coaches exist to instruct. It's been thought that their instruction helps make pitchers better. But here's a bit on Mitch Maier from after his outing:
This was Maier's first pitching effort since he was 10 or 12 years old. He was always a catcher before the Royals converted him to the outfield in the Minors.
Maier didn't have any idea what he was doing. Most of his position-playing pitcher peers could say the same. And still they have succeeded, because it turns out you don't need to know anything to succeed as a pitcher, other than the actual rules of baseball.
Massive shift in roster construction
Say goodbye to 11-man, 12-man, and even 13-man pitching staffs. The only pitchers worth hanging onto anymore are those pitchers that have been front-of-the-line, and the other pitcher spots will be given to position player call-ups or free agents. Some of these players will have to go sit in the bullpen, but only because dugout benches are too small.
Experimentation by pitchers who remain
Not all pitchers will be dropped, but the elite ones who keep their jobs will start to toy around and change their approaches. All their lives, they've heard that they need to throw hard, locate, and mix up their pitches. The position players have shown that none of these things are necessary, so we could shortly see Roy Halladay screw around with some lobs, or Felix Hernandez throw left-handed, just to see if it makes them better.
Dramatic reduction in DL stints and surgeries
I don't have hard data with me, but my impression is that the majority of time lost to injury and the majority of operations trace back to injuries sustained while pitching. Many of these injuries are sustained because, until now, pitchers have been operating at or near the physical limits of their elbows and shoulders. Henceforth this should not be the case, because most position players throw between 70 and 85 miles per hour. They don't throw max effort and they seldom throw breaking balls, reducing the strain on their joints.
Dramatic increase in balks
One of the problems with not knowing what you're doing is that you don't know what you're doing.
Deconstruction of PITCH/fx systems
PITCH/fx technology was a big deal when it was introduced, because it brought with it the potential to revolutionize analysis of the game. As pitchers cease throwing distinctly different pitches, and as pitchers cease throwing with any particular plan, PITCH/fx data will no longer be of any use, and dozens of analysts will find themselves scrambling for another specialty.
We will observe these consequences, and we will observe countless more. Baseball, as we've known it, will no longer exist. What we will have instead is a different baseball, a new baseball, a baseball that may not exist were it not for Mitch Maier doing something other than his regular job on a dark Tuesday night. Does this make Mitch Maier a candidate for the Hall of Fame? That's a debate for another day, but he has a better case now than he did last week.