2021’s Best (Position Player) Pitching Performances

A definitive ranking of the best of the very bad.

One of the weirdest, most frustrating, most strangely exciting, most mind-numbingly boring, most strategically sensible, most delightfully dumb things in all of baseball is when a position player pitches. Nine times out of ten it’s the most slam-your-head-into-the-TV conclusion to a massively lop-sided game possible. A symbolic (and very, very sad) white flag.

But every now and then, magic happens.

This year, there were more than 75 instances of a team calling a position player to the mound. And I watched all of them. So that you didn’t have to. Because I value your time more than my own. I watched all of the very, very slow curveballs…

All of the fastballs, some of which were barely faster than the very slow curveballs…

All of the humiliating strikeouts and the junk home runs…

… and I ranked the best of the best. Or at least the most entertaining of them all. Why? Because we’re approaching week eleven of the lockout and I’m desperate to relive any and all moments of the 2021 season.

 

The Criteria

 

There were a few things I considered when going through and ranking the appearances, in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, the Wilmer Difos from the Eric Sogards, so to speak.

The Swagger: It can come in many forms. Facial hair. Walk-up songs. Intimidating warm-up routines. Strutting off the mound after a 45 MPH called strike three. Vibes might not win ball games, but they matter here.

The Characters: It may not be fair, but the name on the back of the jersey is important, both on the mound and at the plate. It’s inarguably more fun to see a former MVP candidate throwing gas to a first-round fantasy stud. My apologies to Stevie Wilkerson of the Orioles, but if I wanted to watch someone whose name I barely recognized get crushed in relief, I could choose from many of the other real pitchers in the Orioles’ bullpen.

Are They Shohei Ohtani?: If someone’s name starts with an “Sh” and ends in an “ohei Ohtani,” I’m not counting them for this exercise.

The Performance: In a nod to Eno Sarris’ Stuff+, let’s use the term Stuff? to talk about what these would-be-aces do (and do not) have in their arsenals. When evaluating a position player’s Stuff?, I want the extremes: I want 45 MPH curveballs or cutters hitting the high-80s. I want the side struck out or multiple obscenely loud home runs given up. What I don’t want is a twelve-pitch inning with mid-60s heat-inducing two grounders and a shallow fly to center. None of that.

 

Honorable Mentions

 

Harold Castro (multiple games) for maintaining a 0.00 ERA through three starts despite his… 9.85 xFIP.

Marwin González (June 13) for being chock-full of Stuff?, with both a 43 MPH eephus and a 90 MPH cutter.

Andy Burns (June 12) for making his triumphant return to MLB action after five years away, picking up his first career hit on the same day as his first career pitching strikeout.

Josh Reddick (July 10) for having the honor of serving up Albert Pujols‘ career 675th home-run.

 

5. Andrew Romine – 8/12/21 (1 IP, 1 ER, 1 K)

 

Andrew Romine entered the game with a career 12.71 ERA and his Stuff? was questionable at best; his primary pitch was a “change-up” that sat comfortably in the low-60s and his fastest of three four-seamers thrown lit up the radar gun to the tune of 82 MPH. Luis Urías blasted one of those change-ups 408 feet dead center, but Romine did manage to strikeout Jackie Bradley Jr. looking on three straight pitches to end the game.

What makes this appearance worthy of the top five, however, is who caught Andrew Romine’s inning: none other than Austin Romine, Andrew’s brother-from-the-same-mother. That’s right, send a memo to Philly and tell them Chicago is the new city of brotherly love. The Rominebattery was only the sixteenth sibling battery in MLB history and the first since 1962. That’s pretty awesome. For perspective, the most impressive thing my brother and I have ever done together is clean the kitchen after Thanksgiving dinner. And we barely managed even that. Siblings all around the world should bow down to the Brothers Romine.

 

4. Willians Astudillo – 5/17/21 (1 IP, 1 ER, 0 K)

 

There’s a lot to love here. First and foremost, there is something inherently satisfying about watching an MLB player nicknamed La Tortuga throw multiple sub-40 MPH pitches. To watch La Tortuga hurl that kind of heat is to experience a unique form of joy: his leg-kick rising no higher than a toddler’s shin, the arc of the ball more closely resembling a Steph Curry three than a major league pitch. And the Stuff? Astudillo was working with is legit. After starting Nick Madrigal with a 39 MPH eephus high and outside, Astudillo froze him with a 75 MPH fastball. How’s that for changing speeds? Nasty is as nasty does. Take a look at this overlay from an appearance earlier in the year:

And while this wasn’t Astudillo’s first or last appearance on the mound of 2021, it was his most controversial. After retiring Madrigal and Jake Lamb on five pitches, Astudillo gave up an absolutely mammoth home run to Yermín Mercedes. You know, the shot that spawned an entire news cycle of awful takes. But what could Tony La Russa expect? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets a barely moving ball.

 

3. Anthony Rizzo – 4/28/21 (.2 IP, 0 ER, 1 K)

 

Batman versus Superman. Popeyes versus KFC. And now, Anthony Rizzo versus Freddie Freeman. Two of the premier first basemen of the past decade, a combined 74 fWAR and eight top-10 MVP finishes between them, now facing off in a less-than-expected arena.

Freeman came into the at-bat scorching hot, with two singles, a double, and a homer in the game already. But none of that mattered to Anthony “ice-water-in-his-veins” Rizzo. For Rizzo, the slate was blank. All that mattered was the here and the now. And it all came down to five pitches.

Anthony “the chessmaster” Rizzo started the at-bat with a 61 MPH curveball and a 70 MPH heater, both well outside of the zone. After having lulled Freeman into a false sense of safety, Anthony “the-Cubs’-best-pitcher” Rizzo then locked up the reigning MVP with 71 MPH gas that perfectly painted the outside edge of the zone. Next, Rizzo turned the heat way, way up—all the way to 74 MPH—for a fouled-off strike two.

And finally, Anthony “odds-on-favorite-for-the-2022-Cy-Young” Rizzo went for the kill, returning to his curve and forcing a swing from Freeman that can only be described as humiliating.

A true David and Goliath moment.

 

2. Brett Phillips – 7/2/21 (1 IP, 1 ER, 0 K)

 

Legends are made on the mound. Sometimes. In Brett Phillips‘ case, however, legends were made before he even made it to the mound. That’s not to say his first career pitching performance was without on-field value. After all, his first pitch rocketed in at 94.3 MPH. Do you know who else averaged 94.3 on his four-seamer last year? Max Scherzer.

But what really lands Phillips on this list is the obscene amount of fun he injected into every moment of his appearance, from his bullpen routine to his wind-up, to clowning around so hard that he actually balked someone. If swagger was an illegal substance, Phillips would be looking at a lifetime ban.

“I like to think that I have like a Mariano Rivera-esque cutter, a Randy Johnson-type fastball, a repertoire that I didn’t even show last night because I didn’t have to,” said Phillips later on, in one of the more entertaining post-game interviews you could watch.

 

1. Jake Cronenworth – 4/16/21 (.2 IP, 0 ER, 1 K)

 

I hope everyone remembers this game because it was awesome. It was the season’s first match-up between what was supposed to be the two powerhouses of the NL West. And for nine innings it did not disappoint, as the Dodgers and Padres traded the lead back and forth until the Padres tied the game in the bottom of the ninth. Then, in the top of the 12th, the Dodgers took a decisive lead.

And that’s when things got weird.

Technically speaking, second baseman Jake Cronenworth was once developed as a two-way player, but that experiment was abandoned long ago. And when the Padres called on him to pitch, down three runs with the bases loaded, it was Cronenworth’s first time taking the major league mound.

To accommodate the move, the Padres pulled Jurickson Profar from left and put him at second, and put Joe Musgrove into the game in left field. One batter later, the Dodgers let David Price (who’d pitched the 11th for L.A.) face Cronenworth, and Price promptly smacked a sac fly to left field.

There are a lot of moving parts here that make this moment so special, so I just want to be crystal clear: the Padres’ pitcher (who wasn’t a pitcher) gave up a sac fly to the Dodgers’ hitter (who wasn’t a hitter) that was caught by the Padres left-fielder (who was, in fact, a pitcher).

And then, as if that wasn’t enough sweet nonsense already, Cronenworth struck out former MVP Mookie Betts.

 


 

And there you have it, an extremely scientific process that produced infallible rankings. With that out of the way, we can all go back to dreaming about baseball in 2022. For now, I leave you with this:

May the ongoing labor negotiations move as swiftly as a Brett Phillips heater, and may they be resolved as quickly as the Yerminator’s homer left the stadium.

Otherwise, who knows what I’ll rank next.

 

Photos by John McCoy/Icon Sportswire and Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)

 

 

 

 

Sam French

Brooklyn-based writer-- primarily of fiction, sometimes other stuff like baseball. Was once almost ejected from a rec softball game for employing too many infield shifts.

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