First baseman Michael Cuddyer of the Minnesota Twins pitches against the Texas Rangers in the bottom of the eighth inning at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas. The Texas Rangers beat the Minnesota Twins 20-6. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Position players have thrown just over 200 innings on the mound since 1970. Rather predictably, their numbers are terrible. Except for one number.
A week ago, inspired by a shutout inning of relief work from outfielder Mitch Maier, I was inspired to write this piece about the recent success of position players on the mound. It was intended mostly as humor, built around one small-sample-size statistic I found interesting in its absurdity.
It was supposed to be a one-off. I said what I had to say, and I planned to move on. But I couldn't shake the feeling that there was more. It's always an event when position players pitch, and I wanted to dig into their numbers further, to see what I could find.
A problem, obviously, is that position players don't pitch very often. Sample sizes aren't easy to build up. But thanks to Baseball-Reference, I identified 126 position players who have taken the mound since 1970. That's 126 position players, with 184 games and 202-2/3 innings. That's not a huge sample size, but it's decent, and it gives the numbers some heft.
So what do we see in the numbers? Not surprisingly, the numbers are terrible. These are hitters, not pitchers.
Over those 200+ innings, the position players have posted a 7.64 ERA, and a 7.82 RA/9. That ERA is supported by the peripherals, as the position players have generated 77 strikeouts, 157 walks, and 33 home runs. The home runs aren't laugh-out-loud horrible, but they're bad, and the strikeout-to-walk ratio is ghastly. Predictably ghastly, sure, but ghastly nonetheless, as position players possess neither command nor putaway pitches.
But there was one statistic that blew me away. One statistic that caught me so off guard that I double-, triple-, and quadruple-checked it to make sure I didn't screw up the calculation. I looked at the position players' collective batting average allowed on balls in play (BABIP). I was expecting something in the mid-.300s or so, figuring that they'd allow a greater rate of solid contact than the typical figure you see with real pitchers. Why wouldn't they? They aren't real pitchers.
But I didn't get a BABIP in the mid-.300s. I got .296.
In other words, I got a BABIP very near the league average. The league average for real pitchers. I think it's a little higher -- the .300 BABIP rule we have in our heads doesn't apply to the 1970s and '80s, when the league BABIP was lower -- but it's not off by much. Over the last few decades, position players have seen a similar number of balls in play find holes as pitchers have.
That's absolutely wild to me. There are caveats, of course. For one, we're dealing with a sample size of 200 innings. That's basically a full season for a starter, which isn't that big a sample size at all. For two, it's possible that, by the time a position player gets called in to pitch, the other team isn't trying as hard anymore since that usually happens only in blowouts. And for three, even though these are position players, they are presumably position players who were selected for their perceived ability to pitch, either because they had strong arms or some kind of pitching background.
But still. There's always been that idea that BABIP theory falls apart the further you get from the major leagues. That you and I would run BABIPs in the .400s or .500s, and that BABIP theory only truly applies to pitchers selected to pitch at the highest level.
This is evidence to the contrary. This is evidence that players who aren't pitchers at all can still run a pretty normal BABIP when given the opportunity.
That's insane. I think that's insane, anyway. I almost want to be wrong, because if it's true that non-pitchers can post a normal BABIP when they're pitching, then my brain is pretty unprepared for the implications.