BOSTON — The process through which position players appear on the mound is mostly the same. In the midst of a blowout, a manager or bench coach of the team getting crushed will approach a veteran player who is closer to the fringe of the roster than at its core. The player is asked if he can try to pitch an inning, to save the bullpen from some wear and tear.
Most accept the assignment with good humor, others with relish. When Pablo Sandoval pitched earlier this year, he looked like someone who had thrown some innings on the mound, showing off his athleticism with a turn of hips and a nice breaking ball. The Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo had all but begged for the assignment, and had to assure manager Joe Maddon that he wouldn’t overthrow — and he kept his promise, retiring a batter with two pitches, one at 54 mph, the other at 63 mph. Jose Reyes was smiling at the outset of his mound appearance for the Mets last week. But in style and substance Reyes threw more like a batting-practice pitcher than an actual pitcher; after six runs and a 25-4 loss, his smile was mostly gone.
Through Friday’s games, 39 position players have combined for 49 emergency appearances this season, a record-shattering total — with eight weeks to play. (Shohei Ohtani is not included in those numbers, by the way.)
Calling on a position player to pitch is becoming standard operating procedure, almost commonplace. Which raises larger questions, such as: Should it be?
Should the Major League Baseball Players Association and the players go along with it, given how the sport got to this place? Or should the union push back on this practice and use it as leverage to get something else it wants?
The application of analytics is at the root of the position player-pitcher trend. Because of the data on the effectiveness of starting pitchers, most are asked to do less than ever before. Just get through the lineup a couple of times, and then turn it over to the bullpen. Or, on some days, the Tampa Bay Rays will start a reliever and follow with more relievers, a lot of the matchups scripted out before the first pitch.
Along the way, however, the whole plan can fall apart if one or two or three of the pitchers have a bad day, and that’s when the manager is asking his position players if they can pitch. For example: Reyes pitched after Steven Matz failed to get out of the first inning, and the Mets’ relievers who followed got pounded.
Generally speaking, the application of analytics has not been a good thing for the MLBPA. The starting pitchers, who have historically driven free-agent prices, have seen their pre-eminence increasingly diminished. The growing reliance on relief pitchers is pushing up the number of free-agent relievers, and except for those at the top of each class, that’s not a good thing. Through detailed study of value, teams are veering away from older players, like a lot of those who are being asked to pitch.
But on those days when the numbers-based pitching plan falls apart, union members are being asked to bail out the organization. Should they?
It seems like an opportunity for the players’ association to glean a concession. During the collective bargaining agreement talks a couple of years ago, MLB was prepared to add a 26th player to each roster — but the union pushed back, believing that by adding a 26th man, it was only increasing the likelihood for specialized roles. Thus, the MLBPA walked away from the possibility of 30 extra jobs, and with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, this seems like a mistake, because the specialized roles continue to grow regardless, with a lot of teams using daily minor league promotions to round out active rosters.
The evolving position-player-as-pitcher development could be one more issue among many through which the union seems to have some negotiating leverage, along with the growing problem of tanking teams, baseball’s need for them to embrace pace-of-play initiatives and the possible addition of designated hitter to the National League, as clubs work to protect their pitchers from enhanced injury risk.
And the position player/pitcher thing is one more reason why the union should be in active discussions with MLB right now to create a change from which the players can benefit as soon as possible.
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Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez is known as one of the most prepared and informed hitters, someone who studies and knows pitchers, and when he was asked whether he could think of someone with a cut fastball similar to the vicious, hard-veering cutter thrown by Nathan Eovaldi here Saturday, he hesitated.
“I want to say [Corey] Kluber,” Martinez said, but then dismissed that comparison, because Kluber’s cutter breaks downward. The cutter that Eovaldi threw against the Yankees, on the other hand, moved on a horizontal plane, sweeping at ridiculously high velocity. “Nasty,” Martinez said, chuckling. “It’s hard. What is it, 91, 92 [mph]?”
It was a conversation that might have been unexpected earlier in Eovaldi’s career, when he was known for throwing one of the best fastballs in the game — and one of the straightest fastballs. Fast going into the plate, often faster going out. Eovaldi’s great career challenge, beyond some devastating injuries, has been to create movement with his stuff.
And there Eovaldi was, dominating the Yankees for eight nearly pristine innings with his cutter. Aaron Boone’s hitters had to be aware of and anticipate his 98-100 mph fastball — and time and again, they were attacked by that cutter that moved like a Wiffle ball. Eovaldi threw the cutter inside to left-handed hitters, jamming Brett Gardner repeatedly, and on his final pitch, he aimed a cutter generally at the thigh of the right-handed-hitting Austin Romine, with the ball breaking perfectly across the inside corner for a called strike three. That inside cutter, Eovaldi said, is a variation of the pitch he has been working on.
He had started to throw his cutter in his last starts with the Yankees in 2016 and really liked the pitch, and as he went through a lost season of 2017 with the Rays, Eovaldi continued to be intrigued by the pitch. As he moved closer to his return with the Rays earlier this season, he altered his grip on the pitch in such a way that he could throw it harder — greatly differentiating it from his slider, but also making it look it more like his fastball. “His stuff is some of the best in the big leagues,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said after Saturday’s game.
“Today, it was moving a little bit more than normal,” Eovaldi acknowledged. “Why, I’m not really too sure.
“I feel like I’m still working on little things right now. But right now, with the fastball, the cutter, the slider has been pretty consistent. If I can keep working on that splitter — once I feel like I get those pitches going, I’m going to have a lot more success.”
• Cora was a valued utility player for most of his 14-year career, accumulating 140 games in a season only once, in 2003. You might think, then, that his philosophy of consistently resting players might be built on his experience as a part-time player. Instead, it’s based on the change he saw in the sport after amphetamines were banned — what he saw in the players’ ability to bounce back day after day — and what he saw watching Jose Altuve last year while Cora was the bench coach of the Houston Astros.
Altuve loves to play and plays ferociously, but Cora could see that sometimes he was a little run-down. The challenge in picking a day off for him was complicated by baseball’s conventional wisdom that you should not take a hot hitter out of the lineup, because Altuve generates 200-plus hits annually and is almost always riding some kind of a streak.
Managing the Red Sox this year, Cora has put a priority on resting his regulars and trying to pick out spots when he can give Mookie Betts a 48-hour window of rest — perhaps with a game off leading into an off day. Cora generally will not wait for a player’s offensive surge to end to give him a day off, because he believes that in some respects, it’s better to rest a hot player when first signs of fatigue emerge, before the weariness manifests in his play and maybe a mechanical issue.
After having at least one day off this season, Betts is hitting .327 — very Betts-like — but with big power, six homers in 49 at-bats. It’s a small sample size for Betts, but the larger sample size might be found in the team’s play. Only two players appeared in at least 100 of the club’s first 111 games, Andrew Benintendi and Martinez, and those two have been out of the lineup seven games apiece.
• Kevin Gausman made his debut for the Braves on Saturday, the first chapter since being traded from Baltimore to Atlanta. Evaluators have long felt that Gausman’s stuff has been better than his game results, and as Gausman joined the Braves, they presented some ideas for him about pitch selection and mechanics. There is precedent for a talented Baltimore pitcher having success after leaving the Orioles: Jake Arrieta went to the Cubs and won a Cy Young Award in 2015.
• Mike Scioscia ranks 18th all time among managers in victories, more than many Hall of Famers — including Earl Weaver, Dick Williams and Scioscia’s former manager, Tommy Lasorda. Scioscia’s long-standing contract with the Angels expires at the end of this season, and if Scioscia decides to step away from managing — as some friends expect — he is likely to one day make a speech at Cooperstown. Scioscia’s Angels won the World Series in 2002.
• Roberto Osuna joins the Astros’ roster Sunday, having completed his 75-game suspension under MLB’s domestic violence policy. Some teams passed on Osuna because of the unknowns in his case, some teams passed because of the known and some teams were surprised the Astros would take on Osuna and his baggage because of his stuff. Some rival evaluators believe Osuna’s stuff and performance ceiling is not really that much different than a lot of other relievers who were available in the market. But now he is with Houston, and the Astros will have to cope with whatever is to come, in his performance, and in any more details that emerge in his case. We’ll see.
And today will be better than yesterday.