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The brief history of utility player/pitcher hybrids

Reports say Cliff Pennington was pursued this offseason as a potential utility player and pitcher hybird. What has that role looked like in the past?

Pennington was the first position player in MLB history to pitch in the postseason.
Pennington was the first position player in MLB history to pitch in the postseason.
Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

Update, 2/29/2016: Multiple people on Twitter noted the obvious exclusion of Brooks Kieschnick from the below lists. After doing a little digging, it turns out that he actually pitched in too many games from 2003-2004 to fall under Baseball Reference's "position player pitching" list (linked below).

This omission led me to fire up SQL and the Lahman database, and double check for missing qualifying individual seasons. My new constraints required at least 10 innings pitched, 50 plate appearances, and pitching appearances to be no more than half of a player's total games in a season. The query is available here for interested parties, and the following more complete table is the result.

Player Season G_all G_p PA OPS+ IP ERA+ Total rWAR
Brooks Kieschnick * 2004 77 32 69 78 43.0 117 1.3
Willie Smith 1964 118 15 374 125 31.7 118 2.2
Don Newcombe * 1959 61 30 124 115 222.0 129 6.7
Mickey McDermott ** 1957 58 29 60 135 69.0 72 0.1
Mickey McDermott * 1956 46 23 61 59 87.0 92 0.3
Johnny O'Brien 1956 73 8 114 8 19.0 134 -0.1
Mickey McDermott * 1955 70 31 104 78 156.0 105 3.1
Ruben Gomez * 1953 61 29 79 14 204.0 128 4.2
Johnny Lindell 1953 69 32 133 141 199.0 95 3.2

This list removes Erv Dusak and one of Johnny O'Brien's seasons, due to lack of plate appearances. However, it does properly recognize Kieschnick and several other interesting names - most notably Don Newcombe and three (!) Mickey McDermott seasons.

However, all names with asterisks above were exclusively used as pinch hitters - which says something about their hitting ability (particularly McDermott), but I'm more interested in those who also fielded as it relates to Pennington's hypothetical utility role. Note that McDermott's 1957 season did feature five innings as first base. For those expecting Kieschnick's 2003 season to appear, he actually pitched in more than half of all his games that season, falling beyond these bounds.

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Earlier this week, Los Angeles Times beat writer Pedro Moura reported that Cliff Pennington, recently signed by the Angels, had generated some unusual interest early in the offseason.

The cause for this blatant positional heresy? Pennington's performance as the first ever true position player to pitch in the postseason. In a blowout ALCS loss to the Royals, the Blue Jays tasked him with getting the final out.

That event in and of itself would not merit consideration as a part-time pitcher — position players frequently take the mound at the end of blowout losses. What differentiated Pennington were the pitches themselves, which included a 91-mph sinker and changeup with impressive movement.

FanGraphs' Owen Watson had fun scouting the individual offerings and came to some surprising comparisons (while noting the comically small sample sizes involved). The results were impressive for a player who had no prior professional pitching experience, and teams clearly believed dedicating time to pitching could make him a viable option in this strange role.

Instead of following this path, Pennington opted to sign with the Angels, where he is in the mix for the wide-open second base job. This makes a lot of sense for the player, as pursuing pitching would almost certainly lead to spending part of the season in the minors to refine his repertoire.

This possibility leads me to wonder about this role in the past — players who legitimately played both the field and pitched for significant portions of the same season. To examine this phenomenon, I used Baseball Reference's all-time position players pitching leader board. I limited the list to those with at least ten innings pitched while having a career that extended beyond 1949. That query generated the below list.

Name From To IP ERA G HR % BB % K %
Johnny Lindell 1941 1954 251.2 4.47 55 1.8% 14.1% 12.8%
Rick Ankiel 1999 2013 242.0 3.90 51 3.1% 12.5% 25.9%
Johnny O'Brien 1953 1959 61.0 5.61 25 3.3% 12.7% 10.9%
Willie Smith 1963 1971 61.0 3.10 29 2.7% 9.3% 15.1%
Erv Dusak 1941 1952 54.0 5.33 23 1.6% 17.5% 10.3%
Eddie Lake 1939 1950 19.1 4.19 6 2.3% 12.6% 8.0%
Eddie O'Brien 1953 1958 16.1 3.31 5 4.4% 5.9% 16.2%
Granny Hamner 1944 1962 13.1 5.40 7 0.0% 11.9% 7.5%
Jason Lane 2002 2014 10.1 0.87 3 2.6% 0.0% 15.4%

From here some individual digging is required, but the list can be quickly pared down to legitimate examples of the hybrid.

Rick Ankiel famously converted to hitting after a long period of struggle and never attempted both roles in a single season. Jason Lane attempted a comeback in 2014 as a pitcher for the Padres, again in only one role. Granny Hamner and Eddie O'Brien were single-use players as well.

Eddie Lake had what appears to be a legitimate hybrid season in 1944, with 19.1 innings pitched and 153 plate appearances, but that fell earlier than the intended "recent" time frame of 1950-present. This reduced list leaves four players with five total individual seasons since 1950, with the latest coming in 1964.

Player Year IP ERA+ PA OPS+
Erv Dusak 1951 16.2 46 44 137
Johnny Lindell 1953 199.0 95 133 141
Johnny O'Brien 1956 19.0 134 114 8
Johnny O'Brien 1957 40.0 63 39 117
Willie Smith 1964 31.2 118 373 125

Erv "Four Sack" Dusak was a utility player not too dissimilar from Pennington today, but with a little more positional flexibility. In 1951, Dusak played all three outfield positions, second base, third base, and pitcher. "Four Sack" threw only 16.2 innings to a poor 9.18 ERA with more walks than strikeouts, and despite playing so many positions, he only received 44 total plate appearances. Though his playing time was limited, he still produced a 137 OPS+ for his trouble.

Johnny Lindell had the most valuable of these five seasons in 1953. He made a career comeback as a knuckleball starter but also saw time at first base and right field. He faced command problems with the pitch, leading the league in both walks and wild pitches while still managing to prevent runs. Offensively, he was used 28 times as a pinch-hitter and produced a 141 OPS+ in his appearances.

Johnny O'Brien featured back-to-back relief/utility seasons for the Pirates in 1956 and 1957. Over those two combined seasons, he pitched 59.0 innings to a 76 ERA+ and came to the plate 153 times while producing only a 36 OPS+. In addition to pitching, he saw time at second base and shortstop, where his defense was slightly above average. He was roughly replacement level in both roles. Pennington would likely be better with the bat, but O'Brien is probably a realistic reference for what he'd produce in a hybrid role.

Finally, Willie Smith had the most recent season that could be considered in the hybrid context. In 1964, he appeared as a pitcher in 15 games, while also playing all three outfield positions for the Los Angeles Angels. He received 373 plate appearances and was behind only Jim Fregosi and Joe Adcock as the third-best hitter on the team. He was above average as both a pitcher and hitter, producing a total of 2.2 rWAR between both roles.

Had Cliff Pennington accepted this joint role, he could have potentially been the first hybrid "utility pitcher" in over 50 years. However, given his lack of experience as a pitcher, the 31-year-old switch-hitting utility man would likely have had a long road to travel with little benefit. None of the above players served double duty more than twice, and none played well over a large enough sample to have it considered a sustainable skill.

It is a bit surprising that this idea isn't more explored in an era of more frequent pitching changes and increasing bullpen specialization, but perhaps that's because there is limited upside for a player like this.

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Spencer Bingol is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.