Something you might not have heard from the past few days is that Micah Owings became a free agent. Owings opted out of his contract with the Washington Nationals, and the Nats granted him his release. Something you probably did hear from the last few days is that Casper Wells pitched in relief. Wells wasn’t the only recent-days position player on the mound, but Wells didn’t just pitch — Wells looked good. Or, all right, and good for an outfielder. The standards are quite a bit different, because only pitchers are trained to be pitchers.
In the ninth inning of a blowout between the White Sox and the Indians, Wells retired three of four batters. Mike Aviles popped out, Drew Stubbs walked, Asdrubal Cabrera whiffed and Jason Kipnis lined out to the track. Wells was the only White Sox pitcher who didn’t allow a hit, which isn’t to say he didn’t get a little lucky with the Kipnis drive. Still, what got people talking was Wells’ style. He threw hard, and he also mixed in an offspeed pitch with which Cabrera was neatly put away.
Let’s step back. When position players pitch, they usually aren’t chosen arbitrarily. There tends to be a reason, and with Wells, he pitched a few years in college with Towson University between 2003 and 2005. He wasn’t great, but he got experience. Wells is known to have a strong arm, and he nearly pitched for the White Sox in early June. Throw in the fact that Wells is a bench player and the ingredients were present. Wells makes sense as an emergency reliever.
And how about that arm? According to the 2011 Fan Scouting Report, Wells got a 73 rating in Arm Strength, tied with Hunter Pence and Jack Hannahan. In 2012, he came in at 69, tied with Wilin Rosario and Josh Donaldson. As an outfielder, Wells’ arm is a weapon, and now we no longer need to guess what Wells might do from the mound. Now we have actual readings, and information.
Wells apparently threw 13 fastballs. They averaged between 91 mph and 92 mph, and he topped out at 93.4 mph. It’s not unprecedented for a position player to get into the 90s, but it’s unusual, and therefore remarkable. According to Brooks Baseball, Wells averaged 91.7 mph. The average big-league reliever this year has averaged a hair more than 92 mph. If the typical differences between position players and pitchers are that position players throw softer, have worse control and have fewer pitches, Wells negated the first issue. Just by velocity, he fit in with other relievers.
Here’s what a Wells fastball looked like:
But Wells didn’t stop there. Here’s an offspeed pitch:
Here’s a better offspeed pitch, that managed to go a little bit viral shortly after the moment:
PITCHf/x makes it look like a changeup or a splitter. This screenshot makes it look a little more like a splitter:
It wasn’t a slider, unless Wells really messed up. In a garbage-time relief appearance, Casper Wells topped out at 93 mph and threw an interesting slower-speed alternative. He pitched well enough to strike out Asdrubal Cabrera swinging, and Cabrera owns a wRC+ well north of 100. Though anything can happen in one at bat, Wells opened some eyes and he might well pitch again down the road if needed. He enjoyed himself on Friday. Not that you ever want to end up in a situation where you need a position player to pitch, but those situations arise and Wells has proven himself capable.
Here is where we get to get experimental. Imagine a hypothetical player who is both a good hitter and a good pitcher. That player would have no trouble getting a job because bullpens are getting bigger and benches are getting smaller. Teams are prioritizing versatility. Some players are flexible because they can play around the infield or the outfield. Some players might become flexible because they can both hit and pitch. This was the Micah Owings idea, and this had been the Brooks Kieschnick idea. If we accept that teams would take a good two-way player, it follows that teams might accept a decent two-way player. There’s a point at which such a player is good enough to earn a spot.
Now take Casper Wells. Wells is 28, so he’s no longer a prospect. He’s currently a bench player on a bad team, and this past April he went from the Mariners to the Blue Jays to the Athletics to the White Sox. The market has demonstrated that it more or less views Wells as a fringe replacement-level player, good enough to pick up but not so good that he isn’t easily dumped if something else comes along. Wells is in a position where nothing’s going to be handed to him, and he’ll need to work to carve himself a longer career. He’s perfectly fine as an outfield backup, but so are a lot of guys, and many of them are in Triple-A. A lot could be riding on luck.
Wells could really stand to add to his value. A way to do that is to become more versatile. Wells’ employer would like for Wells to be more valuable. Wells just pitched for the first time in the better part of a decade, and he didn’t embarrass himself. Some of his pitches were major-league quality. You can see where this is going.
If there’s going to be a baseball future of two-way players, Wells seems to be an ideal candidate. He’s not quite good enough to play regularly, but he has a good arm and something of a pitching background. He probably knows he needs to earn a long career, and he’s seen his stock fall. If Wells were to work on his pitching, he could double as a reserve outfielder and a reserve reliever, and he could be better than just an emergency stopgap. He’d provide unusual flexibility, and while pitching carries with it certain injury risks, Wells isn’t sufficiently high-profile for that to be a deterrent. If Wells were to get hurt pitching, his team would manage, and it would just be a little bit less flexible.
Chris Davis looked good in that one relief appearance, but Davis is too valuable now to use as a pitcher. You can’t let him risk hurting his elbow or his shoulder. With Wells, you can experiment, and you’re starting from a foundation of a useful fourth outfielder who can throw in the 90s with a splitter or changeup or something he already used once to whiff a good player. No one knows quite how Wells might develop as a part-time pitcher, but it wouldn’t make him worse. What he did Friday, he did after effectively zero prep.
Given a few bullpens, Wells could work on his consistency and stamina. He could work on his approach against righties, since that might be a thing at present:
“There was one I tried throwing kind of hard and came up and in a little on Drew Stubbs. And I was like, ‘That’s the last thing I want to do is hit someone,’” Wells said. “It’s nice that I had lefties, so I don’t have to worry about yanking one.”
At first, it can be a little daunting to face same-handed hitters, because you’re worried about drilling them. They hang over the plate. That goes away with repetition, and it’s been a while since Wells repeated a pitching motion against live batters. This is one of those fundamentals that Wells could probably overcome pretty easily. Experienced pitchers improve slowly, by a little. Inexperienced pitchers improve quickly, by a lot, at first.
This is quite a bit to make of one inning of emergency relief in a blowout. But this is only in part about Casper Wells; really, there ought to be more two-way players in the game, and Wells himself is a seemingly perfect candidate. He’d be starting from two decent foundations, the flexibility would help his team, and the flexibility could also help extend his career, which now might be hanging by a thread. Teams value having more options, and players value having more job security. Though there’s no guarantee Wells could succeed, it seems like an experiment worth trying, because the results could be both exciting and helpful.
At some point, we’re probably going to see Wells pitch again. Odds are that’ll happen late in a game that’s well out of hand. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Wells could be made into a manager’s pet. What team wouldn’t want a 26-man active roster?