The 2019 campaign marked a banner year for position players pitching: 90 games featured non-pitchers moonlighting on the mound, mostly in blowout losses. (And the occasional one-sided victory. And, um, a save situation? We’ll get to that.) During the offseason, the league mandated restrictions on position players pitching, limiting appearances to extra-inning affairs and games with at least a six-run differential. Amid the chaos of a season slashed to 60 games, MLB ran that rule back: at least for 2020, position players can pitch whenever, whether they’re a two-way player or not.
MLB officially announces rules changes:
– DH in the National League
– Extra innings will start with runner on 2nd
– Arguing/brawling and spitting prohibited
– No pregame lineup card exchange
– Three-batter minimum remains in effect
– Any player may appear as a pitcher
— Kyle Glaser (@KyleAGlaser) June 29, 2020
But just how good can non-pitchers be when they’re tasked to toe the rubber? And, to take an exercise in frivolity a step further, how might nine of the most momentous innings pitched by position players last season look framed in the context of an entire game? That’s the guiding principle as we embark on this no-pitcher no-hitter: Cobbling together the best and bravest outings over the course of an imagined contest.
A caveat: This thought experiment could have easily encapsulated a perfect game instead of a no-no, but that would have meant sacrificing more memorable appearances for ordinary one-inning, no-strikeout ones. And while those outings have their place, part of the joy of position players pitching is watching professional batters strike out against a player clearly not paid to pitch. A tip of the cap to all the non-pitchers hurling scoreless, hit-free innings, but for the sake of sheer GIF-ability, we’ll put up with a few walks along the way to max out on strikeout potential.
First inning: Tom Murphy (May 18)
Unleashed from a reserve role with the Rockies, the backstop acquitted himself well in his first season behind the plate in Seattle, belting 18 homers in just 281 plate appearances, sporting a sturdy .273/.324/.535 slash line, and rating in Statcast’s 73rd percentile for framing. Not all of Murphy’s stints on the flip side of his usual battery position were winners (6.00 ERA across three innings in the same number of relief appearances), but we’ll kick-start this no-hitter-by-committee with a gem of an inning in the twilight of a loss to the Twins. Down 14 runs to the Bomba Squad in front of the Mariners’ home faithful, Murphy remained undaunted when called upon to close out the top of the ninth. The moonlighting catcher coaxed four swinging strikes in 14 pitches, including running this high heater (a respectable 90 mph!) past Miguel Sano for strike three.
The secret weapon in Murphy’s arsenal, though, was his slider. In an infinitesimal speck of a sample (five pitches), the breaking ball flashed Money Pitch metrics — a 20% swinging-strike rate, 60% zone rate, and 50% chase rate make this, if nothing else, a Loose Change Pitch — and posted a positive 1.0 pVAL. After peppering in a steady string of high fastballs, Murphy made hard-hit darling Jason Castro bend the knee fishing for this one.
Mikey Ajeto chronicled his heroics in an Across the Seams article last season if you’re feeling obliged to read more about Murphy playing valiantly out of position, but, for now, let’s hand the ball off to the second catcher of our nine-inning, pitcher-free odyssey.
Through one: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 2 K
Second inning: Russell Martin (June 26)
For the sake of poetic license, let’s front-load this effort with backstops, shall we? Veteran catcher Russell Martin spent thirteen years making mound visits in the major leagues before toeing the rubber himself in 2019, appearing in relief on four separate occasions without ceding a single run. Not bad! Two of his performances qualify for this exercise (one a lopsided June loss, the other an 18-5 mash-fest in late March; both, fittingly, against the Diamondbacks), but we’ll take the inning that includes a punchout for a little flair. Christian Walker was the victim in this one, first whiffing on a heater on the outside half of the zone before foul-tipping this high heat (we’re grading on a scale, here) into the catcher’s glove for strike three. Martin uncorked his fastball 39 times in relief, and for good reason: The pitch notched a double-digit swinging-strike rate (10.3%), earned a 1.2 pVAL, and found the strike zone at a reliable 61.5% rate.
Through two: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 3 K
Third inning: Alex Avila (August 17)
Our third straight catcher to tag in on the mound is also the first with pitching experience under his belt prior to the 2019 season. Avila faced seven batters in 2018, blanking the Rockies in a two-inning outing. Avila tallied a pair of appearances during his last campaign, including this clean sheet against the Giants. Avila’s relief endeavors are an adventure in pitch classification: FanGraphs registers the singular offering he touts (clocking in at an average 73.5 mph) as a four-seamer. Statcast, maybe a little uncharitably, calls it a curveball. So, velocity isn’t the name of the game for Avila, and it doesn’t have to be when he can get Mike Yastrzemski flailing out of the zone with this nice radar-gun reading.
Avila maxed out on velo when he needed it most during the at-bat, painting the corner of the zone at a season-best 77.5 mph for a called third strike. He didn’t bring the heat like fellow catchers Murphy (average fastball: 88.1 mph) and Martin (86.8 mph) did, but Avila buoys our K rate as we hop along to (finally!) an infielder in the fourth inning.
Through three: 3 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 4 K
Fourth inning: Sean Rodriguez (June 16)
What didn’t Sean Rodriguez do in 2019? That’s not a rhetorical question, and the answer, full stop, is play catcher. Rodriguez carved out time at every other position in a bench role with the Phillies (with a game at DH during interleague play as a feather in his cap), and that includes an inning-and-a-third coming in from the bullpen. In stark contrast to Avila’s lone inscrutable pitch, Rodriguez created separation between his curveball (71.7 mph) and fastball (85.8 mph). Of course, he only snapped off a single curve in his 11 pitches, but this looping little number was all he needed to fan Tyler Flowers.
Later in the inning, Rodriguez dials it up to 87 and paints the low outside corner against Ronald Acuna. Several major leaguers can lay claim to positional versatility and flexibility, but Rodriguez’s diamond-hopping 2019 campaign may have made him the most utilitarian utilityman of them all.
Through four: 4 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 5 K
Fifth inning: Luke Maile (May 5)
Of the three pitchers to flirt with the knuckleball in 2019, only the Blue Jays’ reserve catcher notched a positive pVAL (0.1) on the pitch. Maile’s dual relief appearances in the campaign fell twenty days apart from each other, and while he racked up a pair of strikeouts in a May 25 pummeling at the hands of the Padres, a Ty France single disqualifies that outing from contention. But this one, shutting down the Rangers in the bottom of the eighth, plays like a reel of Maile’s greatest hits. After dropping in a fastball for strike one, Maile sneaks a nifty knuckler over the outside part of the zone to leave Shin-Soo Choo down 0-2 in the count.
And after Choo spits on a couple of knuckleballs out of the zone, Maile reaches back for a four-seamer that registers 10 mph over his 77.6 mph season average (on 20 heaters thrown) to get the steady veteran whiffing. A 13.50 K/9 and 37.5% strikeout rate in two innings isn’t especially Karinchak-ian, but Maile managed to provide some punch in a pinch for his Jays.
Through five: 5 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 6 K
Sixth inning: Tyler White (May 7)
Tyler White, still an Astro at the time before being jettisoned further west to the Dodgers, has the dubious distinction of squandering our chance for a perfect game. During this outing against the Royals, White promptly issued a free pass to Ryan O’Hearn, the first batter he faced. Considering he posted a K-BB rate in the red (a less-than-ideal -13.6% in four games), that probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. He only managed to throw nine of 20 pitches for strikes during his first of four relief appearances in 2019 (no swinging strikes, five looking, four by contact), but despite allowing a base-runner, White stymied the bottom of the Kansas City lineup in the one game that didn’t contribute to his 21.60 ERA. But, hey: Even if it’s not especially sexy, catching Chris Owings looking notches a backwards K on the score sheet as we move to the seventh inning.
Through six: 6 IP, 0 H, 1 BB, 7 K
Seventh/eighth inning: Jared Walsh (June 30)
Okay, so maybe tapping Jared Walsh for this project is cheating. Or, at the very least, creatively bending the rules a little. The less-heralded of the Angels’ two-way threats made his major league debut in 2019 to mixed results, racking up a 40.2% strikeout rate in the batter’s box in 87 plate appearances and a 21.7% K rate across five innings on the mound. Oh, to flip-flop those figures! While the versatile lefty is perhaps best known for his prodigious power at the plate — netting 36 home runs, along with a gaudy .686 SLG and .361 ISO in Triple A last season, despite his growing pains in the Los Angeles lineup — Walsh proved a capability for generating outs in relief, despite an MLB Pipeline scouting report that details a lack of “wow stuff on the mound.”
Sitting 90 on the radar gun may not make for eye-popping velo while toiling in mop-up duty against the A’s, but spotting his heater up and out of the zone does the trick to change Ramon Laureano’s sight level to pick up a second strike after working him low for three straight pitches to start the at-bat.
Before coming back inside with another fastball to catch Laureano looking for a called third strike.
Despite posting a 1.80 ERA, Walsh had his own shortcomings on the pitching side of the two-way player equation: Namely, a 10.80 BB/9 (and, subsequently, a -4.3% K-BB rate) that helps explain why we’ve chalked up a second walk in our pitching line. (This one on four straight balls to Mark Canha.) That free-pass blemish aside, we’ll gladly take Walsh’s otherwise clean sheet in an inning-and-a-third to bridge the gap to a pair of one-batter outings in the eighth — halcyon reminders of life before the three-batter minimum.
Through seven: 7 IP, 0 H, 2 BB, 8 K
Eighth inning: Jose Peraza (July 30)
Peraza’s pitching debut may linger as a footnote in a game that roiled with intrigue and fisticuffs, mostly in that order, but the fleet-footed middle infielder found himself on the mound following Amir Garrett’s headlong charge into the Pirates’ dugout and ensuing ejection with one out left in the top of the ninth. Peraza would go on to pitch a full inning in an August matchup with the Cardinals, but we only need one out here. He had a feel for finding the strike zone in his 15 pitches thrown (like Avila, delineated as curveballs on Statcast and primarily four-seamers on FanGraphs), pairing his pedestrian velo (averaging 78 mph) with a dependable 71.4% zone rate. Here’s a look at the lone out Peraza recorded, because life’s too short to not watch Jacob Stallings hit a lazy fly to center.
Eighth inning: Jedd Gyorko (April 26)
The final strikeout notched in this no-pitcher no-hitter belongs to Jedd Gyorko, who bailed Dominic Leone out of a gas-can top of the ninth (tagged for six earned runs on six hits and pulled after only recording a pair of outs) by making quick work of Phillip Ervin on just four pitches. The Cardinals’ infielder confirmed the 68 mph swing-and-miss pitch that sent Ervin back to the dugout was a changeup, and although this wasn’t his first rodeo in a major league relief role (Gyorko previously allowed a Lewis Brinson home run and plunked JT Realmuto in a 2018 outing against the Marlins), it marked the first time he’d struck out a batter since high school. With our staff’s 9.00 K/9 safely secured, we’ll tackle the final three outs with a milestone moment.
Through eight: 8 IP, 0 H, 2 BB, 9 K
Ninth inning: Stevie Wilkerson (July 25)
Wilkerson rises above the rank-and-file legion of one-inning-no-strikeout position players to close out the ninth simply by virtue of making history. When the Orioles outfielder entered this July game as the tenth (!) Baltimore pitcher used, charged with closing out the 16th (!) inning, he was up for the task, shutting down Brian Goodwin, Kole Calhoun, and Albert Pujols in order, en route to recording the first-ever save by a non-pitcher. Remarkably, he did so without one of his 14 pitches ever reaching 60 mph on the radar gun and nary a swinging strike in sight. Just admire the moxie of this lob-and-a-prayer delivery against an unassailable future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
FanGraphs tallied 45 four-seamers (no, I’m not calling them fastballs) thrown by Wilkerson in 5.1 innings last season, averaging 57.9 mph, maxing out at 72.6 mph, and notching a 1.2 pVAL. And that, I think, is what draws us to watch position players courageously toeing the rubber: They’re not armed with the deep arsenals and filthy stuff their pitching-minded counterparts possess, but you might just witness something special if you stay tuned long enough.
Final line: 9 IP, 0 H, 2 BB, 9 K, SV
Featured image adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter and Instagram)