Archive for the ‘Swisher’ Category

Thing One: Playing at Being a Pitcher

April 14, 2009

Note: Welcome to my new blog. I’m going to write about one thing per day–usually not nearly as long as what follows here. Some might be this long, others might just be a sentence. But I’ll do my best to have something every day. I hope you enjoy, and leave a comment.

One of my favorite things in baseball happened last night. And it’s not just that the Yankees were destroyed, though that being part of this certainly made it even sweeter. I’m talking, of course, about the rare and wonderful Pitching Appearance by a Non-Pitcher. They’re a little scary, usually pretty funny, always interesting, and often kind of stupid. What’s not to love?

For your comparative enjoyment:
Wang, real pitcher (for now): 1 IP, 6H, 8R, 8ER, 3BB, 1SO
Swisher, lovable schlubby Moneyball guy: 1 IP, 1H, 0R, 0ER, 1BB, 1SO

Nick Swisher typically has to be content with being the world’s best and least justifiable non-starting corner OF/IF, but last night, after starting at first for the injured Mark Teixeira, he was also the best of the Yankees’ five pitchers, the only one not to surrender a run to the mighty Rays. Pretty solid performance, and against a bunch of actual hitters: Upton, Aybar, Kapler (your embarrassed strikeout victim), Pena and Burrell. (From that picture, though–click it for a closer look–how is that kind of performance even possible? He looks like he doesn’t really know what that round thing is he’s holding, but he saw a picture of this sort of thing once and thought he’d strike a pose.)

So Swish’s performance got me thinking about the history of position players pitching. What’s the best pitching performance ever by a guy who obviously wasn’t in any way a pitcher? The worst? What kind of player gets the “honor” of serving as sort of the ultimate garbage man?

Well, it turns out that just as it does with everything else that matters in the world, has this covered. So for this blog’s inaugural something, we’re going to look at some of the more interesting ones. We’re going to stick to the recent years, though–it’s interesting and all that Frisch travesty #347Hall of Famer George Kelly pitched five shutout relief innings in one game in 1917 and got the win, but what I’m interested in is the tendency to use position players as pitchers in embarrassing blowouts, and for that we need to stick to the era for which we have online boxscores.

So what players make usable mop-up pitchers? If you, the manager, are going to do this at all, you know you don’t want to waste another real pitcher on a game that’s already over. But then who among your 13 to 14 non-pitchers do you pick? I assume that everyone pitched at least in high school and can get the ball over the plate, more or less; beyond that, pitching effectiveness really isn’t a consideration when it’s already 15-1. So how do you pick that guy?

My thinking would be that you want to give the players a little levity at the end of a long evening (and give the fans a reason to buy more food, if you’re at home), so they’re going to tend to be your happy-go-lucky boys, your fan and clubhouse favorites. But the bigger concern is the injury risk, right? I mean, pitching is hard, and unnatural, and almost all baseball players are going to need two working arms to hit and field and such. So you want someone who can pitch just a little, who is fun and likeable, who is in good physical condition and won’t do anything careless or stupid, and at the end of the day, frankly, you want someone you can afford to lose.

All of which is what makes The Canseco Incident so memorable, and probably part of what makes Kevin Kennedy the manager so forgettable; letting Canseco come in to pitch in what was a 12-1, lost-cause game is profoundly stupid on every possible level. He’s your best hitter and highest-paid player; he’s already shown himself to be kind of a screwball; he’s injury-prone and not exactly your prototypical lithe, wiry athlete; and nobody likes him. That was one of those managerial decisions that just smells like failure; in retrospect, the season-ending injury (which took hold a month later, but which the team admitted was related to the pitching) seems like almost a foregone conclusion, and the surprising thing is that the team that watched that reeking travesty from the other side, your Boston Red Sox, saw fit to bring Kennedy on as a manager just two short years later.

For the most part, though, I think that managers have pretty much done it right. The BBREF list is littered with names like Manny Alexander, Danny Heep, Lenny Harris, and Mark Loretta (ca. 2001, before his little flirtation with stardom)–guys who, if nothing else can ever be said about them, don’t try to do more than they can with what God gave them (unlike, say, Jose frigging Canseco). Good guys. Sensible guys. Role players. Usually, expendable guys. Of course, it’s the insane exceptions to this rule that are the interesting ones, but I think it’s all worth a look.

So, the Canseco debacle aside, here are some of the most interesting hitter-pitching performances in (retrosheet-era) history:

Missed His Calling: John Cangelosi, May 3, 1988; June 22, 1995; and July 21, 1997. Cangelosi, in his day job, was a good reminder to we sabermetritcally-inclined types that man doth not live by walks alone. He couldn’t hit for average, had no power, couldn’t field, and wasn’t an efficient basestealer. His switch-hitting and career .370 OBP certainly gave him some value, but wouldn’t he have been a lot more valuable as a switch-hitting, .370 OBP-having lefty finesse artist?

Lots of guys have thrown one scoreless inning, many with something Cangelosi is notably missing (a strikeout), but Cangelosi gets the nod for throwing 4 innings (which I count as the second-most since at least 1977; Jose Oquendo got through 6, but it wasn’t pretty), in three games spanning ten seasons, and never allowing a single run, with a career total of one hit allowed (a double), two walks and a wild pitch. Some highlights:

        • He pitched two innings in the 1988 stint, virtually unprecedented among non-pitchers.
        • He pitched for three different teams, but only two managers (Jim Leyland used him with both the Pirates and Fish).
        • The batters he retired include Sammy Sosa, Franklin Stubbs, Steve Finley, Wally Joyner, and fellow (but much less successful) ersatz pitcher Todd Zeile.
        • He also threw 3.2 innings as a minor leaguer with Denver in 1991, allowing one earned run.
        • It appears that he was drafted as an outfielder, and there’s almost no biographical info about Cangelosi online, and of course those minor league appearances happened after the first of his major league ones; so, where did his pitching prowess (such as it was) come from? I’m going to guess he was tired of being shuttled up and down from the minors and started fooling with a knuckler or something.

        Larry Harlow Award for Pitching Awesomeness: John ‘F.’ Mabry, May 28, 2000; October 5, 2001. I couldn’t decide who the all-time worst was among these two, so we’ll name the award after the first and give it to the second. Harlow takes the ERA crown with a sparkling 67.50 in his two-thirds of an inning. The 1978 game in which Harlow appeared (click his name above for the boxscore) is probably the most interesting in the history of pitching non-pitchers; Harlow’s appearance came in the first two thirds of the fifth inning.

        With the O’s down 19-5 to the fledgling Jays, old Earl Weaver got so disgusted with his pitchers that he turned the damn thing over to Harlow (an otherwise nondescript outfielder in his only year as a full-time starter) less than halfway through the game. Then, two outs and five more runs later, he actually pulled Harlow mid-inning in favor of catcher Ellie Hendricks, who threw 2 1/3 brilliant innings of shutout ball, the only pitches of his career. Finally (perhaps ironically?), Earl brought in for-serious closer Don Stanhouse to shut the Jays down in the 9th for a final score of 24-10. Crazy game, and I really wish I could find a recap somewhere. More (tangentially) about Harlow here, from whence this scan was stolen.

        Mabry actually made two appearances; I love the idea that his 0.67IP of three-hit, one-walk, two-run ball for the Mariners (following up a truly epic 9-run performance by the never-boring Jose Mesa) made the Marlins think that it was a good idea to use him in the same role the following year. But that second appearance was the true gem; down 15-3 to the first-place Braves at the end of a lost year and having already run through five guys who threw pitches for a living, manager Tony Perez (Perez managed the Fish? Really?) called on supersub John Mabry to tackle the bottom of the 8th.

        Mabry’s problem was that he lacked the one skill a pitching non-pitcher must have: getting the ball over the plate where they can hit it and get you out of this godawful mess. Three of the first six batters against him walked, and the other three all singled. Mabry finally induced the seventh batter, Marcus Giles, to ground out, but by then Perez had decided we had all suffered enough, moving Mabry to left field (apparently so he had a close-up view of the destruction he had wrought) in favor of real (replacement-level) pitcher Vic Darensbourg, who allowed a Julio Franco single before coaxing a DP out of Chipper, ending the carnage. Mabry’s final line for the night and season included 5 ER in a third of an inning for a shiny 135.00 ERA, bringing his career ERA up to 63.00 (7 ER in 1 IP: 6 hits, 4 walks, 3 outs recorded).

        Other Interesting Notes:

        • A nice subset of the good candidates laid out above are former stars who are no longer terribly useful players (thus expendable), but who are still fan favorites. Nine-time All-Star Davey Concepcion did yeoman’s work as a 40 year old in 1988, and Mark Grace fared less well as a 38 year old in 2002. Grace was one of relatively few to give up a homer in his appearance (to David Ross), but he did a pretty funny and dead-on impression of eccentric teammate Mike Fetters.
        • Wade Boggs is probably the best all-around player of the last 30 years or so to make a pitching appearance, and actually made two, but both (like Concepcion and Grace) came after stardom had passed him by, in 1995 with the Yankees and ’97 with the Rays.
        • Sadly before the retrosheet era, but Stan Musial has one pitching appearance to his credit (and in his prime, 1952, age 31). He’s credited with one batter faced, no walks, no hits, and no HBP. Apparently (according to this), it was an error on the third baseman that the batter (naturally) felt should have been ruled a hit.
        • Ted Williams did it, too, pitching 2 innings and giving up a run. According to this, it happened on August 24, 1940, at the close of a 12-1 loss. Williams was just 21 years old, and had already established himself as one of the game’s best hitters. Can you imagine the reaction if Evan Longoria or Jay Bruce were sent out in that situation today? Yikes.
        • Of the four players I know of to have played every position on the diamond in one game, two fared pretty well in their turns on the mound. Cesar Tovar threw a scoreless inning with a walk and a K, and Scott Sheldon struck out the only batter he faced in 2000 (which seems like cheating–shouldn’t you have to go an inning for a stunt like that?). Meanwhile, Bert Campaneris was a bit shaky, giving up a run and three baserunners in his inning, while Shane Halter (who had previously pitched a scoreless inning with the Royals) walked the only batter he faced — Matty LeCroy, which couldn’t have been easy — on the last day of the 2000 season…but did go 4-for-5 at the plate that day.

        That’s all for now…back tomorrow with something else (and something shorter).