There are a lot of great things about the era of baseball we're currently living in. Somewhere on that list is the preponderance of position players taking one for the team and pitching, either in a blowout or the sort of marathon, total-bullpen-exhaustion slugfest that you remember for the rest of your life. It's not just wishful thinking, either; as Jeff Sullivan wrote last June, 2014 represented a high-water mark in terms of appearances of and innings pitched by position players, with 2015 eventually beating it in appearances and nearly matching it in innings pitched. A quick look at the data (from Baseball-Reference.com) confirms it: we are living in the Golden Age of position players pitching.
2014 and '15 represented incredible new highs, but really all of the 2010s saw more pitches from position players than most prior years in baseball history. I say "most," however, because of the very strange, short-lived surge in innings pitched by position players from 1986 to 1991, which was the original unprecedented bump in position players taking the mound. The above chart can be a bit hard to track with its drastic fluctuations; here's a smoothed version, using a weighted ten-year average.
If we're in a Golden Age currently, it's the second Golden Age. In 1986, Vance Law led the charge, throwing four innings in three blowouts for the Expos; he'd do it again in 1987 and be joined by luminaries like Tim Wallach (also on the Expos, current bench coach for the Marlins), Paul O'Neill, and Jose Oquendo. This continued through 1991, when Bill Pecota, projection system eponym himself, made his pitching debut, but in 1992, a single one-inning appearance from Pecota was the only time a position player manned the mound, and the first Golden Age was over.
Figuring out why it happened then, and why it's happening now, isn't easy. At first blush, it seems almost counterintuitive that the era of shrinking roster spots for position players and larger bullpens would also be the era of position players pitching. With more pitchers lying around on the roster, why not throw one of them in for the mop-up work?
But while larger bullpens have probably decreased the number of position players pitching in close games, it seems plausible that the forces and thought process behind their expansion led to more position player appearances in blowouts. In the modern era, relievers have very narrow, clearly delineated roles, and with teams trying to stay prepared for as many situations as possible, using a valuable arm in a lopsided game can have real consequences. In most of baseball history, however, relievers were just not-very-good pitchers and not a resource worth conserving.
This original Golden Age did come in the early part of the increase in bullpen size, as the below chart from this FiveThirtyEight article shows, but there doesn't seem to be anything to set apart 1986–91 or 2014–present from the rest of this era, and no reason to think bullpens had anything to do with these years specifically.
Alternately, this might have something to do with the run environment. When scoring is low (or "normal," depending on your point of view), managers might be more inclined to throw a position player at the game when the deficit might not be totally impossible to come back from. In the steroid-fueled run environments of the 90s and 2000s, however, fewer deficits seemed insurmountable, and managers were more likely to try to keep a game close, even when it was already out of any normal reach.
This theory doesn't seem implausible, as the current and past Golden Ages of position players pitching have neatly flanked the period of inflated offense. It gives managers a lot of credit for strategic thinking when facing eight- or ten-run deficits, however, and I'm hesitant to conclude it explains it all.
Maybe you can concoct some kind of injury-based argument and say that, along with bigger bullpens, the defining feature of the modern era is injuries to pitchers, leading teams to worry more about incurring risk in games where there's virtually no reward. That doesn't really explain the original heyday of position players, however, and it certainly doesn't explain why it overlapped with a similarly brief period of starters throwing insane numbers of pitches.
From 1980 through 1987, precisely zero pitchers had an outing with more than 140 pitches. Only two threw more than 130 pitches in a single outing, Rick Mahler on August 1, 1987, and Nolan Ryan on September 9, 1987. Then, in 1988, there were 60 – sixty! – outings with more than 140 pitches, with Charlie Hough and Roger Clemens both crossing the threshold on seven occasions and numerous other pitchers doing so multiple times. I don't know what made 1988 special, but the following years would see still-high numbers of workhorse performances from starters, though declining from this level. There was an average of 28 mega-starts each year from 1988 to 1999; from 2000 through 2006, the average was just above two, and from 2007 through the present day, there have been only two, total. If the original bump in position players pitching had anything to do with fears for the health of pitchers, that fear didn't extend to starters, or manifested itself in an extremely weird way.
I think the conclusion I'm most comfortable with is that this is all quite silly, and that, when we're talking about 20 innings per year (if we're lucky), there are going to be some fluctuations that look meaningful and perhaps aren't. Even the bumps of 2014 and 2015 may have been ephemeral; so far, after nearly a quarter of 2016, position players have pitched in only two games and 1 2/3 innings, well below the pace of the previous years.
Managers are probably in a state of constant terror for their jobs and therefore extremely reluctant to do anything that hasn't already been done. They seem more comfortable putting position players onto the mound than they have been in the past, now that their peers won't think it's crazy; they also seem to enjoy it nearly as much as all of us do. Overanalyzing aside, we really are in an unprecedented age of 70MPH straightballs; best to enjoy it as long and as fully as possible.
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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.