Baseball is an inherently funny game. Stories of baseball's biggest winners and greatest moments are told and re-told as the generations pass, but so are stories of its funniest moments. I wrote recently about some of the best baseball pranks, most of which are a tribute to the game's great characters, but one need only watch a game to see moments of hilarity. To my eye, none are funnier than when a position player is asked to go to the pitcher's mound, handed a ball, and told to get the batter out. It's funny because it's rare, but mostly it's funny because it humanizes professional baseball players. "See daddy? I'm like the second baseman, because the second baseman can't pitch in the majors either!"
Some portion of the humor also lies in the strategy itself. In essence, putting a position player on the mound is giving up without technically giving up. It's admitting defeat without forfeiting. The troops are swarming over the ramparts and all that's left to stop them is a single banana. The rational thing to do is surrender, but instead, we grab that banana and start swinging it because maybe, somehow, some way, it will work. "Oh no," maybe the troops will yell in unison. "A banana!" And they'll all faint or sprint in the other direction.
But unfortunately, just as no army surrenders to a single banana-wielding soldier (this was the central failure of Napoleon's plans to conquer Russia), no baseball team loses to a utility infielder-turned-pitcher.
Except, sometimes, rarely, they do.
Come with me back to a time far away, when gas was a mere $3.60 a gallon and James Bond was tops at the box office. Come with me all the way to 2012! On May 6th of that year, the Red Sox were facing the Orioles in Boston. The score was 6-6 going into the 16th inning. The Orioles went down in order. They had already used eight pitchers -- their bullpen was empty. So on to the mound walked first baseman Chris Davis. This was it: The Red Sox were surely going to win now. And in fact, they almost did. But instead, pinch runner Marlon Byrd was thrown out at home plate to end the 16th inning four batters in. Baltimore scored three in the top of the 17th, and out for yet another inning of work came Chris Davis. This time he was to face the 2-3-4 of the Red Sox lineup. The first two runners reached, but then a strikeout (of All Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez!) and a double play later, the game was over. Davis's final line was two hits, two strikeouts, one walk, and no runs in two innings pitched. It remains his only time on a major league mound and, oh yeah, he got the win.
As of this writing, just three position players have taken the mound this season: Mike Carp, Dean Anna, and Leury Garcia. Together they've authored a combined line of five runs, seven walks, and no strikeouts over three innings pitched. This illustrates perfectly why position players rarely pitch: namely that they're terrible at it. The modern game produces only two scenarios where the phenomenon occurs. The first is when a team is getting blown out, and the manager decides he'd rather save his relievers for a game they haven't lost yet, presumably tomorrow, and asks around the dugout to see if anyone feels like rekindling some high school memories/humiliating themselves.
That scenario is funny because of the event itself, but the outcome of the game has long since been decided, so there's no real drama. The second scenario, though, that one has drama: When one team just runs out of bullpen options. That's when you get Chris Davis for two innings in a tied extra-inning game.
While pitching Davis for two innings worked that time, the strategy itself is at best debatable and at worst, an invitation to failure. Most teams carry at least 10 pitchers, sometimes 11, and a few carry 12. That means even if the manager burns through eight guys, there are still a bunch of guys left who A) pitch professionally, and B) haven't pitched in the game yet. So why does someone like Chris Davis ever see the mound?
The answer is that most managers would rather have a position player on the mound in a tie game than ask a starter to break his normal schedule and throw an inning or two (or three) to save the team. Regular work patterns for starting pitchers are believed to decrease the risk of injury, or so the theory goes.
However, starters have regular throw days in between starts, often once, and sometimes twice. For example, Baltimore manager Buck Showalter could have used starters Wei-Yin Chen, who had thrown 100 pitches in five innings the day before; Jake Arrieta, who had thrown 111 pitches over eight innings four days earlier; or Brian Matusz, who had thrown 97 pitches over 6 2/3 innings five days previous. All of those choices brought a higher likelihood of success than Davis. The only reason not to use those pitchers is the fear of over-working them and/or causing injury. Chen's workload the previous day makes it difficult to argue he should have been anything other than a spectator that day, but both Arrieta and Matusz were closer to their next start than their previous start. Breaking this down further, Showalter would have rather lost that game, a game he'd already burned through his entire bullpen in attempt to win, than ask his starters to break their patterns. Teams are rightly very concerned about pitcher injuries, and it makes sense for managers to be protective, but in an instance like this where the team is in the midst of a winnable game, it's a questionable choice; the Orioles were likely to call up a pitcher or two from Triple-A anyway. Besides, Arrieta's and Matusz's decreased potential for injury must to be balanced out by the increased risk of injury to Chris Davis. If you had to pick the player more likely to get hurt, wouldn't you pick the player being asked to do something strenuous that he hasn't done in years over the player doing the thing he always does, but whose schedule is adjusted by a day or two?
The silliness of that strategy not withstanding, if managers stopped putting position players in to pitch, the real losers would be us, the baseball fans. Consider, again, Chris Davis. Davis has turned into a pretty good player with a bright future, but whether he continues down the star path or not, and in fact, no matter what else he accomplishes in his career, Davis's two scoreless innings puts him in rare company in baseball history. There have been 129 position players who pitched at least a third of an inning and finished their careers with an ERA of 0.00 in all baseball history. During that same time there have been 282 no-hitters.
And yet, Chris Davis is not the greatest position player pitcher of all time. Excluding all pitchers who became hitters and all hitters who became pitchers, that particular (peculiar?) honor goes to…
…Doug Dascenzo, or possibly Honus Wagner? I don't know. Even the players who didn't give up a run are pretty bad. Wagner threw 8 1/3 innings over two games, striking out six and walking six. He threw more innings than most non-pitchers ever throw, and he finished his career with a 0.00 ERA because he didn't allow an earned run -- but he did allow five unearned runs. Very clever, that Wagner. Dascenzo, an outfielder with the Cubs in the late 80s and early 90s, didn't allow runs of any kind over five career innings. He pitched in four games, striking out two and walking two, though the average score of the games was 15-6, not what you'd call high-leverage situations. You wouldn't think a 1:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio would net you Best All Time status.
You actually could make a case for Chris Davis as the greatest ever non-pitcher pitcher. He's thrown only two innings (so far!) but nobody else has much more, and while most of these guys entered games when the score was way out of hand, Davis pitched in the highest leverage situation the game can offer. He pitched multiple innings, he actually struck batters out (Adrian Gonzalez!), he got a ground ball, had a double play turned behind him, and he got the win. Since World War II, the only position players to win games are Willie Smith, Johnny and Eddie O'Brien (brothers who won games for the Pirates in consecutive years, 1956 and '57), Wilson Valdez, catcher Brent Mayne, and Davis. That's only five other guys, and Davis was probably the best of all of them. We're talking about two innings, but still.
So there you have it. Chris Davis not only won the Orioles a baseball game, he saved two rotation regulars from having to pitch on a day they weren't scheduled to pitch*.
* Kindly ignore that both Arrieta and Matusz went out on the scheduled days and got trucked. Maybe in retrospect Showalter's decision to use Davis was less about trying to preserve the rotation and more about trying to put his best pitcher on the mound in extra innings.
I haven't even mentioned that Davis wasn't the only position player to pitch in that fateful game. After the 16th inning, the Red Sox ran out of relievers as well and called upon outfielder Darnell McDonald. McDonald was the reason the Orioles scored three runs in the top of the 17th, as he gave up a homer and two walks to go with his three runs. After the homer, McDonald retired both Matt Wieters and, of course, Chris Davis on ground balls. Then, in the next half inning, after Davis struck out Adrian Gonzalez, he faced McDonald with one out and runners on first and second, and got him to ground into that game-ending double play.
With the game over and history accomplished, the greatest non-pitcher pitcher walked off the mound, probably forever. I like to think that, after the crowds had gone home, after the lights were turned off, both Davis and McDonald sat alone in their respective locker rooms, head in hands, thinking, reflecting. It was only then that the weight of history descended upon them and it was then that they both, deep in contemplation, threw up.