Some of the most popular moments of the 2022 Major League Baseball season have been when two Cardinals legends, Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols, entered the box score as pitchers. Position players making pitching appearances used to be a rarity, however, the once-obscure sight has now become commonplace. In 2011, eight position players pitched, in 2019 that number was 90. The reason for the explosion of position players pitching: Major League Baseball has a competitive balance problem.
With Major League Baseball’s recent decision to limit the number of pitchers able to be carried on a roster to 13 or 14, pitchers become scarcer. Managers of teams who were getting walloped or teams who were doing the walloping were forced to decide between wasting a pitcher to eat innings in a deciding game or using a position player. Naturally, managers have begun deciding to use position players to preserve their bullpen.
As a matter of respect, managers have typically refrained from using position players to pitch in games where they are winning, however, that feeling has changed a bit in recent years. Managers are now willing to use position players to pitch in games where they are winning and opposing managers appear to be taking less and less offense to this practice.
Major League Baseball has a genuine competitive balance crisis and position players' pitching is simply a symptom of the more significant problem.
While the practice of position player pitching is beloved by many, not everyone is a fan. Ruben Amaro Jr., the former general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, has routinely criticized the practice on Twitter. During a 2021 game between the Phillies and the Chicago Cubs, the Cubs sent infielder Eric Sogard to the mound in a seven-run ballgame. Amaro responded, tweeting, “Everything that is embarrassing about MLB. SOGARD PITCHING IN A SEVEN RUN GAME. #Embarrassing.” Amaro is correct that Major League Baseball has a genuine competitive balance crisis and position players' pitching is simply a symptom of the more significant problem.
Increasingly, Major League Baseball is marred by a group of teams who are making little to no effort to win in a given season. More and more teams are writing offseasons in the name of “rebuilding” and field teams with little to no chance of being competitive. In a league where one team, the Los Angeles Dodgers spend $208,488,480 on their 26-man roster, and another team, the Baltimore Orioles, can only be bothered to spend $33,258,246 there will naturally be a lack of competitiveness. This lack of competitiveness has created a situation where non-competitive teams will routinely be blown out by teams who are attempting to win. In these blowouts, which are becoming more common, managers often resort to using position players to pitch rather than using up innings from pitchers.
Prior to the 2020 season, Major League Baseball unleashed a new set of rules that were seemingly aimed at reducing the number of position players pitching. Position players were barred from pitching in games where the deficit was six or fewer runs unless the game was in extra innings. This rule figures to do little to reduce the number of position players who pitch as position players rarely pitch in close games in regulation. Rather than regulating how often and when position players may pitch, solving the competitive balance crisis is how Major League Baseball can return position players pitching to a rarity.
As we have chronicled over the past few months at The Drummey Angle, both the owners of Major League Baseball’s 30 clubs and the Major League Baseball Players Association spent much of this winter’s owner-imposed lockout proposing solutions to the competitive balance crisis. Owners clung to the idea of instituting a salary cap and floor that would implement a range in which teams must spend on their players' salaries. Players rejected this proposal on the grounds of its limit to the growth of player salaries. The Player’s Association proposed a system that conditioned revenue sharing upon performance. In essence, the World Series champions would receive the most money in revenue sharing and the team with the worst record would receive the least amount of money. Owners rejected this proposal rather quickly as the owners of clubs who are uncompetitive have no interest in agreeing to a proposal that takes money out of their pockets. Ultimately, neither one of these proposals made it into the final Collective Bargaining Agreement.
One item designed to achieve greater competitive balance that did reach the final CBA was the institution of a draft lottery. The draft lottery was aimed to reduce tanking by removing the benefit of the worst team having the first overall draft pick. Clearly, this was unsuccessful as teams began dumping salaries and their will to compete as soon as the league opened for business after the owner-imposed lockout ended.
Position players pitching is an often fun and unusual twist to what can become a rather mundane 162-game season. The practice is beloved by many fans and is a valuable tool for managers looking to save their bullpens. At the same time, position players pitching is the symptom of baseball’s largest problem: competitive balance. The issue of competitive balance is not going anywhere under the newly ratified CBA; therefore, the number of position players pitching will continue to skyrocket. On its own the practice of position players pitching is harmless, however, looking any deeper into the practice paints a picture of a league in crisis.