At this writing, the biggest baseball news of the last few days is that the Brewers haven’t ruled out signing free-agent starter Kyle Lohse. Or maybe it’s that the Mariners are reportedly getting closer to signing Kelly Shoppach, or maybe it’s that Jair Jurrjens might or might not pitch for the Netherlands in the WBC. There are still important things that could happen, but none of them have just happened, which is why you’re presently reading a FanGraphs article about position players pitching toward the end of January.
The thing about position players pitching is that it’s not supposed to happen. It happens very infrequently, but it does happen, and from those things that happen that shouldn’t, we’re often able to learn. Over the past five years, covering the PITCHf/x era, pitchers have thrown well beyond 200,000 major-league innings. Non-pitchers, by my count, have thrown 42 major-league innings. We’re talking about the difference between well more than three million pitches, and just more than 700 pitches. What can we see when we poke around? And I mean aside from the fact that non-pitchers are terrible at pitching.
Everything within this table ought to be pretty familiar to you, as the clearly dedicated reader of FanGraphs. So I won’t issue explanations. Here’s data, covering 2008-2012:
It doesn’t surprise you to learn that position players have trouble throwing pitches in the zone, and therefore they have trouble throwing strikes. Of course, a 57% strike rate is still better than Kyle Drabek‘s career strike rate, and Drabek was once a top prospect. And as long as we’re poking fun at pitchers, a 93% contact rate is virtually identical to Aaron Cook‘s 2012 contact rate. Non-pitchers throw strikes more or less like Kyle Drabek, and they allow contact more or less like Aaron Cook. This is an ugly combination, but then, position players don’t get paid for their pitching ability.
Position players generate fewer swings at pitches out of the zone, but the rate might be higher than you expected. For one thing, it’s a small sample. For a second thing, position players are often pitching in blowouts, when conditions are unusual. For a third thing, balls thrown by position players are more hittable than balls thrown by pitchers, so there’s greater value to be had swinging at a pitch a little out of the zone, thrown by a catcher or a shortstop. Something you don’t see in the table — for pitchers, the average O-Contact% rate is 65%. For position players pitching, it’s 91%. Pitches out of the zone can still be drillable meatballs when they’re thrown by non-pitchers.
There’s also something to be said for the idea that hitters might be less discerning when they see a non-pitcher take the hill. The pressure isn’t off — in a way, the pressure might be higher — but the hitter knows he won’t be seeing an ordinary array of pitches. The idea that hitters might swing from their heels against non-pitchers is refuted by the nearly identical Z-Swing% rates.
Called Zone Statistics
I don’t know how many times I’ve explained my process for calculating expected strikes. I then compare that expected strikes total to the actual strikes total, and put it over a denominator of 1,000 called pitches. We see something interesting here, when we compare non-pitchers to pitchers. I’ll just get right to it:
Non-pitchers: 28 more strikes than expected per 1,000 called pitches
Pitchers: 19 fewer strikes than expected per 1,000 called pitches
That’s a difference of 47 strikes per 1,000 called pitches, in the non-pitchers’ favor. Or, about one strike per 21 called pitches. It’s based on the PITCHf/x strike zone, which we use for plate-discipline statistics here at FanGraphs. It sounds really extraordinary until you realize that, since 2008, non-pitchers have thrown just 425 called pitches overall. So the sample is really really small, reducing the significance of the results. But still, you wonder. On average, sure, non-pitchers will be working with a bigger effective strike zone, because they’ll more often have fallen behind in the count. But do umpires give non-pitchers a bigger zone overall, just because they’re non-pitchers? Are umpires somewhat trying to even things out? Is this an indication of umpires speeding the game along when the score’s out of hand? Do we want umpires to speed the game along when the score’s out of hand, or would that destroy the integrity of the competition? That’s a separate conversation.
For now, we have very limited evidence that non-pitchers pitch to bigger strike zones. Non-pitchers are generally pitching in blowouts. So it doesn’t really matter.
Mark Buehrle, according to Pace, is baseball’s quickest worker. Over the PITCHf/x era, he’s averaged one pitch per 16.5 seconds. Terrific! Twice as fast as Jonathan Papelbon. Fast is better than slow. Here are the non-pitcher and pitcher numbers:
Non-pitchers: 16.3 second pace
Pitchers: 21.7 second pace
For pitchers, that’s starters and relievers combined. Non-pitchers pitch exclusively in relief situations. Relievers have averaged a 22.9 second pace. You are not surprised to learn that non-pitchers work faster than pitchers do. They work, on average, about as fast as Mark Buehrle does. One reason is because non-pitchers don’t really have multiple pitches to think about. Another reason is because, in blowouts, why take your time? Just get the ball, throw, and get off the mound. Yet not all non-pitcher pitching appearances have such a tempo, and there appears to be a link of some sort to leverage. Wilson Valdez had a 24 second pace in his high-leverage outing. Chris Davis came in at 18.6 seconds, which is fast, but not incredibly so. Darnell McDonald had a 15.5 second pace in his low-leverage 2011 appearance, and he had a 19.2 second pace in his high-leverage 2012 appearance. Position players don’t often throw meaningful pitches, but when they do, they seem to give them a little more thought. (As if it matters.)
.Gifs To Make You Hate Baseball
Catcher Kevin Cash appeared on the mound one time in 2010. He threw ten pitches, in a low-leverage inning, and his pace was nine seconds. We close by simultaneously showing Kevin Cash and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
I might prefer my favorite team to sign Kevin Cash as a pitcher instead of Daisuke Matsuzaka, on this basis alone.