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With nine position players already pitching in MLB games this season, the novelty is becoming practical

With nine position players already pitching in MLB games this season, the novelty is becoming practical
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On Monday morning, Willians Astudillo posted a picture to his Instagram. “I am officially announcing my candidacy for the 2021 American League Cy Young,” the squat utilityman wrote, showing off an image of him on the mound late in a blowout on Friday.

It was funny! The whole thing had been funny — Astudillo threw a 46 mph strike. That’s delightful; Minnesota had been down by seven runs when he entered, there was nothing to lose, and there was joy to be gained. But perhaps it all seemed a little less funny a few hours later, when baseball saw another position player take the mound (Yermín Mercedes of the White Sox), followed by a different one in the same game (Danny Mendick), followed by another in a later game (Hernán Pérez of the Nationals). They were the seventh, eighth and ninth instances, respectively, of a position player pitching in a game in 2021.

That’s more than MLB saw in all of 2011. This season is still less than a month old.

It’s hardly a secret that this figure has been on the rise for the last decade. That’s why MLB announced new rules limiting the practice before 2020: no position players pitching unless a game was in extra innings or had a scoring deficit of six runs or more. But the pandemic meant those rules were temporarily put on hold, and they were left off the table for 2021, too.

It’s not clear if those guidelines would have actually done that much —the vast majority of position players pitching already come when their teams are down by six or more. But putting the rules in place would have at least meant an acknowledgement of the dramatic spike and a step toward trying to stop it from growing further. And the spike has been dramatic indeed: It went from eight in 2011 to a record-high 90 in 2019.

Naturally, last year marked a drop-off, on account of the fact that the season was less than half as long as usual due to the pandemic. But the 2020 number may be the most striking of all: 35 position players pitching in a 60-game season. That’s more than there were in every full season prior to 2018.

And while it came in a year with a jam-packed schedule that placed heavy stress on pitching staffs . . . it was also a year that came with expanded rosters to better carry that load! This means that it’s not terribly precise to try prorating this figure out to a 162-game season; there were lots of various factors that made last year unusual, and it’s hard to say if position players would have continued pitching at the same rate, or less, or more if the season had been any longer. But it’s still useful as a rough approximation. And had those 35 position players pitching in 60 games kept going at the same rate, in a full season, there would have been a record-high 95 of them for 162 games.

That’s more than three a week! You do not have to go back that far to find a time when it was typical to have scarcely three a year. That brings us to April 2021 — and the nine examples of position players pitching so far this season. It puts baseball on track for something close to another record high. Which makes it feel hard to ignore a foundational question here: How fun can position players pitching be if there are this many of them?

There are some occasional gems to be found — Astudillo’s ultra-slow curve is among them — but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. Generally, the pitching is bad, and the game itself is worse. It’s fun only because it’s all so absurd: It’s a rare pocket of delight, a concession toward silliness, in a situation that should otherwise be dull.

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That held when there were a dozen or so instances of position players pitching per year. But when there are more than 90? When there are eight before the end of April? That comes across less like a rare pocket of delight and more like the simple result of a calculated decision to surrender. Which is perfectly logical — if you’re down by six or more with an inning or two to go, your chances of winning are probably somewhere around one per cent, if not less.

When Astudillo took the mound on Friday, Minnesota’s win expectancy was 0.1 per cent; Pérez started pitching for Washington on Monday with the same expectancy of 0.1 per cent; Mercedes had just a tad more intrigue pitching for Chicago with 0.6 per cent.

If you’re intent on maximizing the value from your bullpen, then, why not preserve your relievers for a situation that has more of a potential payoff? More teams have clearly decided to embrace that way of thinking over the last decade. Again—that’s perfectly logical. But it’s certainly not quite as fun. If this was once an unusual flash of delight, it’s now an increasingly common nod toward simple practicality.

Which does not necessarily lessen the joy of a 46-mph curveball from Willians Astudillo. But it does contextualize it: This joy might have a limit.

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