Are position players actually good pitchers? Yes -- and definitely no

The increasingly common sight of some utility guy throwing a perfect inning? It's fun, but it's also kind of a fraud. Dylan Buell/Getty Images

From 1992 through 2006, position players made 58 pitching appearances in major league games. This year, they've already made 54. In that 15-year period, a fan who watched every game his or her favorite team played would have seen a position player pitch once every four years, making it a true novelty. The same fan would have seen it three or four times already this year.

Even at this frequency, a position player pitching has some entertainment value. Relative to the low-leverage alternative -- the forgettable last man in the bullpen, who throws just like any other pitcher but a little worse -- a position player offers a different set of emotions and a bit of unpredictability. It gives us a chance to learn something: What happens when the closest thing to your athletic cousin gets to pitch, with no training, in the major leagues?

It's interesting because of how bad he is. But it's more interesting because of how bad he isn't. For example, this month's position players pitching:

Those are eight pitchers, seven of whom were basically the best pitcher on the staff that day -- and one who was accommodatingly awful. Every time a backup catcher trundles up the mound and throws a scoreless inning, it feels like a dang miracle.

But -- and I'm not sure if I'm being a bad friend here, potentially ruining this for you -- the miracle is kind of a fraud.

Since 2010, position players have made 202 pitching appearances. (Our count excludes two-way player Shohei Ohtani, converted outfielder-turned-pitcher Jason Lane and Christian Bethancourt in 2017, when the Padres attempted to use him in a hybrid role.) These "pitchers" have been bad. Batters have hit .304, with a .386 OBP and a .599 slugging percentage, and collectively, the 202 appearances have resulted in a 7.16 ERA.

That's awful, but it's well within the range of normal-ish baseball: Over the past two seasons, for instance, Chris Tillman has an 8.42 ERA in 120 innings, and batters have hit .333/.416/.593 against him. Tillman isn't some stranger the Orioles pulled from the crowd; in 2016, immediately before this stretch of pitching like a position player, he was the guy they chose to start the 2016 wild-card game. Their ace! Indeed, 12 major league pitchers this season have ERAs of at least 7.16 in at least 25 innings, and besides Tillman they include:

The guy who led the majors in saves last year, Greg Holland, has an ERA that only just squeaked under 7. Reliever Oliver Drake had an ERA of 7.57 with four teams this year -- and after the fourth put him and his 7.57 ERA on waivers, a fifth team picked him up and put him right into the bullpen. Which is all to say, a 7.16 ERA is terrible, but we all know that it's part of the game.

So there's the miracle: Position players are actually shockingly good, relative to what they should be. One of four explanations probably occurs to you.

1. Sure, position players aren't pitchers, weren't good enough to be drafted as pitchers and weren't developed as pitchers, but they're still elite athletes. It's amazing to see what elite athletes can do when they're asked to do something other than their specialty. It puts their physical genius into a whole new perspective. These aren't athletes who have mastered a narrow range of skills; these are athletes who move through the physical universe with more control and dexterity than the average human being. It is wonderful to see this fact demonstrated at the most difficult level of sports.

2. Hitting is just hard. "I'm not sure pitchers understand how difficult hitting is," Sean Doolittle -- a former first baseman who converted to the mound -- said. Batters pop up or foul balls off their shins in batting practice. "It's hard to hit .400 off a tee," a player once told me. This is the proof: Literally any player in uniform can apparently get most batters out, which in turn makes it more interesting when we watch hitters face actual pitchers in huge moments with the whole thing on the line.

3. Major league hitters struggle particularly against position players because the pitches position players throw are so bad, so odd, so unlike the pitches batters have trained themselves to hit. They are too slow, the pitching motions are too unorthodox, the movement is too wan, and the balance is just off. Give the batters a few days to get used to it and they'd probably never make an out, but for a few pitches, we get to see a kind of backward world that turns batters half-drunk.

Those three hypotheses are all fun. They all make watching position players pitch more interesting. They add some insight into pitching, into hitting and into professional athletics in general. The fourth is less fun:

4. The hitters just aren't trying.

I've generally been skeptical of the fourth hypothesis. Players want to get their stats, and a home run hit off Phil Ervin would be worth as much in free agency or arbitration as a home run hit off Clayton Kershaw.

But it looks like my skepticism was wrong. The evidence suggests that what we're seeing might be entirely due to hitters not trying.

Remember, we have 202 examples of position players pitching. Most of those are in blowouts, but 15 of them came in meaningful, high-leverage situations, most commonly in extra innings when the rest of the pitching staff had been depleted. That is not just high leverage but the highest leverage. Fifteen appearances is, unfortunately, a tiny sample, but the difference between the 187 blowouts and the 15 close games is stunning:

In blowouts, position players do almost everything about as well as the lowest tier of major league pitchers. A 59 percent strike rate is the same as Lucas Giolito or Lance Lynn this year, a 9 percent walk rate is the same as Jake Odorizzi or Vince Velasquez, a 6.75 ERA is just like Martin Perez or Jake McGee this year, and a .262 BABIP is actually, incredibly, better than the league average. But in close games, position players do everything much worse than virtually any pitcher in the majors ever does. No pitcher this season has a strike rate as low as 53 percent or a walk rate higher than 20 percent. No pitcher with 200 career innings has ever allowed a BABIP of .354, and no pitcher since integration has allowed an ERA higher than 12.22 in a season, minimum 25 innings.

Again, it's a small sample, but that's probably a lot closer to how you'd expect the world to work. What we have observed from position players pitching is that if the hitters have real incentive to do damage, they can and will do an inhumane amount of damage. It might be hard to hit .400 off a tee, but it looks pretty close to attainable against the other team's fourth outfielder.

If, that is, the hitter is trying. The evidence suggests that in most blowouts, hitters aren't really trying. They're certainly not drawing walks or working their way into hitter's counts. They're being decent human beings. They're being kind.

The evidence further suggests that position players pitching might themselves not be trying as hard as they used to. We looked at the highest velocity reading for each position player pitching in 2018 as well as in previous years. The median fastest fastball this year is more than 2 mph slower (84.2 mph) than it was in 2014-2015 (86.5). Twelve position players who pitched this year also pitched in a previous year; 11 of them threw a faster fastball in the past outings.

It's inconclusive, but if that's the case: good! Don't get hurt out there. And if batters aren't really trying to hit against them: probably also good! Trying too hard as a batter is more likely to get the pitcher hurt, forcing him into long innings, high pitch counts, general strain and stress, not to mention embarrassment. I'll take a little more kindness in the world.

It makes you wonder, though, what the next stage of all of this will be. Position-player pitching is up almost 1,500 percent from a decade or two ago, and it might well keep rising as teams punt seven-, six- and even five-run games late. One side -- the offensive side -- takes that as the signal to quit trying. The other side -- the pitching side -- increasingly stops trying to even pretend to care. Put those together and the unwritten rules start to kick in, and trying too hard becomes a breach of etiquette and a punishable offense. One way this all plays out is that sometime in the next few years, a first baseman comes in and throws 59 mph with a big grin, a second-year outfielder takes a big swing and hits a home run, and everybody gets really mad at him. The next day, the second-year outfielder gets hit in the back with a fastball from a real pitcher. A few innings later, the other team's cleanup hitter gets one under the chin. There's a brawl. Somewhere in the process, someone actually does get hurt. And that's how, a decade from now, baseball comes to have a mercy rule.

In conclusion: It's fun to watch position players pitch, but they are probably not nearly as good as their collective stats suggest, and batters are much more capable than their stats suggest. But because the world is not all the way dark, these hitters voluntarily extend a bit of mercy, which will inevitably turn into a brawl someday, and so I guess we learned something after all.