Commentary

Hey, who's that mystery pitcher?

A dozen different position players have been summoned to the mound this season

Updated: June 11, 2014, 2:07 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

As George Herman Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and even Tyrus Raymond Cobb could tell you, this wouldn't be the first year in baseball history when every time you looked up, it's seemed as if a position player was trudging toward the old pitcher's mound.

But now that we've got that out of the way ...

There has never, ever been a season like this in mystery-pitcher history.

And trust me: As America's foremost demented authority on position players who show up on a mound near you, I can assure you this is shaping up as one of those seasons for the ages.

Oh, not necessarily the golden ages. But whatever. History is history. And here's what we've seen already this year:

  • We're up to 12 different pitching appearances by men who normally don't pitch for a living, by far the most before this date in the expansion era (1961 to present).

  • In fact, there has been only one year in that expansion era in which more than 12 position players pitched all season. (And that was last year, when it happened 14 times.)

  • We'd gone 22 consecutive seasons (since Doug Dascenzo in 1991) without seeing any position player pitch twice in the same week. Then, of course, it happened this year two weeks in a row, thanks to the special-pitching-guest-star exploits of the Dodgers' Drew Butera and then the Tigers' Danny Worth.

  • And three teams -- the Dodgers, Tigers and Brewers -- have already used position players to pitch in multiple games. That hadn't happened this early in a season since 1989.

So, obviously, something is happening here. The question is: Um, what exactly? Is it a coincidence? A unique confluence of ugly events? Or possibly even (gasp) a trend?

"Oh, I doubt that it's a trend," said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, a man who never envisioned going this route twice in the first two months of his managerial career. "I don't want to spoil your piece or anything, but I certainly don't think it's a growing trend. I definitely hope it's not a growing trend in Detroit, anyway."

But Brewers manager Ron Roenicke isn't so sure of that. Even in an age of 13-man pitching staffs, he said, you "have to do what you have to do" to get your team's actual pitchers through the season without starting a parade to the fabled door of Dr. James Andrews.

"I just think it's a time where we're doing what we can to protect pitchers more," Roenicke said. "The medical staffs get involved now, because of all the injuries to pitchers. We're not happy about all the Tommy John surgeries. So we're counting pitches. We're watching innings. And your biggest fear as a manager is pitching somebody too much and having him get hurt. So I think this is just a sign we're protecting pitchers more than ever."

Well, whatever it's a sign of, it's provided us with some rollicking entertainment in a bunch of otherwise forgettable games this year. And since I've already established that I'm a hopeless fan of this sort of rollicking entertainment, I've talked to several of the men who provided it.

So here it comes, the ultimate look at the Mystery Pitcher Epidemic of 2014:

The Knuckleball King

Danny Worth never set out to become an honorary member of the Niekro family. It just happened. Fortunately for all of us knuckleball fans.

When he was a kid, he said, he used to throw and catch bullpen sessions with his dad, who "pitched a little," had a mean knuckleball himself and eventually taught it to his son. Little did his father know ...

All these years later, his boy would make him proud by stomping into a May 22 Tigers-Rangers blowout and unfurling a knuckleball that danced like Maksim Chmerkovskiy.

[+] EnlargeDanny Worth
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesDanny Worth and his dancing knuckleball appeared in not one, but two games last month.

Worth fluttered 19 knuckleballs up there that day -- and only one of them got put in play. Which was almost as mind-boggling as the fact that the Rangers swung and missed at five of them, which computes to a whiff rate of 26.3 percent. Just to put that in perspective, the whiff rate against R.A. Dickey's knuckleball in the year he won the Cy Young (2012) was 14.7 percent. So there. Got your attention yet?

Well, that might have been the day that the legend of Worth's knuckleball was born across America. But in Detroit, it's been a hot topic for years.

"I'm always throwing it, and guys on our team are always talking about it," Worth said. "In fact, [Max] Scherzer and [Justin] Verlander want me to give up my position-player career and become a pitcher. No joke. They think it would be a good career move."

Just for the record, that's not a career move Worth is ready to make at age 28. But he has to admit his amazing mound debut was a lot more electrifying than your average day in the life of a utility man. Especially when the crowd at Comerica Park started treating him like, well, Scherzer and Verlander.

"At first," Worth said, "I don't think they knew I was throwing a knuckleball. I think they thought I was lobbing balls up there at 68 miles an hour. But by the last batter, they were really getting into it. They were on their feet, chanting my name. It was one of my coolest moments in baseball."

When Worth flipped one last knuckler past Leonys Martin for his second strikeout of the ninth inning, it made him just the second position-player pitcher in the expansion era to rack up two strikeouts in an outing in which he faced no more than four hitters. The other, according to Baseball-Reference.com, was Greg Gross, who did it way back on June 8, 1986. Pretty cool.

"All the guys I faced talked to me the next day," Worth reported. "They were laughing, saying how nasty that pitch was. Martin [who took a 3-2 knuckler for strike three] said, 'I was either going to walk or strike out, because I knew I couldn't hit it.'"

So there you go. He was officially unhittable. But one Ranger he didn't get to face -- not until his second appearance two days later, anyway -- was his old college summer-league teammate, Mitch Moreland. And there's a story behind that.

"My coach that summer wouldn't let me pitch, but he did let Mitch pitch," Worth said, the mock frustration over that "affront" welling up in his voice. "Mitch was our 3-hole hitter and our go-to guy in the bullpen. When I heard he hit 94-95 [mph] on the gun the time he pitched this year [more on that momentarily], I said, 'I believe it dude. He was one of the best pitchers on our team.'"

But his admiration for Moreland's work didn't stop Worth from "begging my coach all summer" to let him toss up a few knuckleballs, too. Then again, he laughed, "I begged every coach I ever had."

OK, epilogue time: Two days after his spectacular pitching debut, Worth had to go back out there for yet a second appearance against Texas, in an 11-1 game, even though his fingertips were still "pretty sore" from the first outing. That one didn't go so hot, we regret to announce (3 hits, 1 run, 16 knucklers, just one swing-and-miss). But the good news is he did get Moreland to bounce to first for the final out.

"I was just happy to ground out," Moreland told us. "I was afraid he was going to strike me out."

Return of the closer

Back in another time and another place, it was no shock to find Mitch Moreland on anybody's mound. Back at Mississippi State, in 2005-07, he split his time as a part-time masher, part-time closer. And by his own admission, more big league teams thought his future was as a pitcher, not a first baseman.

"Scouts were always asking me whether I wanted to pitch or hit," Moreland said. "And I just said, 'I want to play.' I loved both. I still do."

So while 12-1 wipeouts don't normally make many dreams come true, the Rangers' ugly May 6 loss in Denver turned into one of Moreland's favorite days ever in the big leagues.

[+] EnlargeMitch Moreland
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiFormer Mississippi State closer Mitch Moreland touched 93 mph with his fastball and retired the Rockies in order on May 6.

How about this for a claim to fame in your pitching debut: He became the first position player ever to throw a 1-2-3 inning at Coors Field, and the first visiting position player to even put up a scoreless inning at Coors since Gary Gaetti did it on July 24, 1998. And this was after the regular pitchers had just coughed up 21 hits and 12 runs.

Oh, and did we mention he hit 95 miles per hour on the gun, according to Pitch f/x? Much to the amusement of his teammates, who'd been egging him on to light up the local radar board.

"All the position players wanted to see what [speed] I could throw," Moreland said. "They were all looking at me like, 'Let one go. Let one go.' So I'll admit I tried to do that a couple of times, just to see if I could still get it up there."

Moreland also admitted that he sneaked a peek at the radar board himself after giving up a fly ball by Jordan Pacheco to right field, where you can just happen to find those MPH readings at Coors.

"He hit it to right field, and I looked up real quick," Moreland said with a chuckle, "so it didn't look like I was dying to see what [the speed] was. I saw '93,' and I said, 'I've still got it.'"

He'd been bugging his manager, Ron Washington, for a chance to do this "from day one," he said. But you know what his reward was for spinning that epic 1-2-3 inning at Coors? He got fined by his teammates in Kangaroo Court. What else?

"We were doing our Kangaroo Court, and [Joakim] Soria said to me, 'You're in the box,'" Moreland reported. "I said, 'What for?' And he said, 'You threw harder than the closer. You threw harder than me.'"

Like father, like son

Only one father-son position-player combination in history has ever done what Drew Butera and his dad, Sal, have done: pitch in an actual big league baseball game. (The Boone family can eat its heart out.)

And now the Buteras can say they've each done it for two different teams.

Sal threw hitless innings in two different appearances, for the 1985 Expos and 1986 Reds. Drew continued that proud family hitless streak for the 2012 Twins. And then, on May 13, with the Dodgers trailing the Marlins 13-2 in the ninth, it was once again Butera time.

[+] EnlargeDrew Butera
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesDrew Butera made a pair of appearances last month, his four-seam fastball topping out at 94 mph.

He spun off a perfect ninth inning, finishing it off by punching out Marcell Ozuna with 94 mph smoke. And you might think that somewhere, his dad was beaming. Uh, guess again. He got back to the clubhouse and found a text from his father that congratulated him on whiffing Ozuna, but then said: "You looked like a pitcher hitting." Hey, what's up with that?

OK, so the guy had struck out the inning before as a pinch hitter. Give him a break, considering the circumstances.

"I was so nervous," Butera said. "I was so caught up in the fact that I was pitching, I honestly don't remember my at-bat. But put it this way: It wasn't a very good AB."

The nerves did melt away after he threw his first pitch. But we should report he'd had a long, long wait to fire that pitch -- since his manager, Don Mattingly, had told him he was working the ninth five innings earlier, after the Dodgers had fallen behind 12-zip in the fourth.

"I told Donnie afterward, 'Hey, next time, tell me later in the game,'" Butera laughed. "I had way too much time to get nervous."

Butera mostly threw a bunch of 86-88 mph fastballs, mixed in with a few changeups. But two of those changeups were clocked so slow (74 mph) that Pitch f/x originally recorded them as knuckleballs.

"I think they must have put down 'knuckleball,' because I threw a changeup to Ozuna that moved pretty good," Butera said. "I wouldn't say it dropped off the table, because I don't have that kind of stuff. But it did move. Maybe gravity took it down."

Just for the record, Butera doesn't have a Worth-esque knuckleball in his repertoire. "But if I get to be in a video game and throw a knuckleball," he quipped, "I'll take it."

Finally, after floating all that slow stuff up there, he let one go on his last pitch -- and blew a 94 mph four-seamer past a startled Ozuna. Butera then tried to catch a quick glimpse at the gun reading, "but I couldn't find it," he confessed. "So I came back in and asked what [speed] I hit. I really wanted to throw one ball hard. So I let one go to see what I could hit."

Ah, but there was a price to pay, it turned out, when he tried to come back and pitch again three days later in an 18-7 game in Arizona. He promptly served up a double and a Paul Goldschmidt two-run homer, ending the Butera family's sterling 29-year run of hitless and scoreless mop-up relief artistry.

"I'll tell you what," Butera said. "I threw 11 or 12 pitches [the first time], and I was exhausted. And I wasn't even throwing that hard. I have a completely different respect now for what pitchers do. I mean, I always knew it was hard. But until you do something at that type of level, you never really know. Now that I've done it a few times, I can honestly say that's not easy."

Yeah, but it felt good anyway, if only because it was excellent ammunition to use on his dad.

"My dad never let me pitch when I was a kid, because he didn't want me to hurt my arm, and I always gave him a hard time," Butera reported. "So this was pretty cool. It gave me a chance to prove to him I could pitch."

And one final tremendous ripple effect: Eleven days after throwing that hitless inning against the Marlins, Butera got to catch Josh Beckett's no-hitter against the Phillies. So does that make him the first man ever to catch a no-hitter and throw a no-hitter in the same month? Just asking.

Scouting the mystery pitchers

Drew Butera says of himself: "Everyone always jokes that I should be a pitcher. But if I was a [full-time] pitcher, I'd get shelled. My fastball is really straight, and I've got no breaking ball. So the real pitchers have nothing to worry about."

OK, but are there any of these position players about whom those real pitchers should worry? Just for the heck of it, we asked a veteran scout to watch video of these guys and rank his three best and three worst mystery pitchers of 2014 (so far):

The best ...

First prize: Mitch Moreland, Rangers

(May 6 vs. Rockies: Three up, three down on 15 pitches.)

The scouting report: "I liked the way he delivered the ball. I liked the way the ball came out of his hand. His fastball had a little more life than the other guys. You could see he hadn't been on the mound in a while. But at least you could see he'd been on a mound. He resembles a pitcher more than any of these guys. He could be a legit two-way guy. Or, at the very least, he'd be the easiest guy to put out there and find out."

Second prize: Danny Worth, Tigers

(May 22 and May 24 vs. Texas: 2 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 2 K)

The scouting report: "His knuckleball got me intrigued. A lot of guys screw around with that pitch on the sideline and play catch, and their knuckleball has no spin, but it doesn't do anything. But he threw a couple that actually danced. He kind of reminded me of [Red Sox knuckleball prospect] Steven Wright], the way the ball comes out of his hand. I'm not saying he should try this full time. But it would at least be worth finding out at some point before he packs it in."

Third prize: Drew Butera, Dodgers

(May 14 vs. Miami and May 17 vs. Arizona: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 26 pitches, 17 strikes)

The scouting report: "He's got arm strength. I'll say that. I wasn't wild about the way he delivered the ball. He throws like a catcher. And it didn't look like he had any real mound awareness. So he was out there on arm strength, mostly. But I've got to admit, he wasn't afraid to throw it over the plate. And you've got to like that."

The worst ...

First prize: Mike Carp

(April 24 vs. Yankees: 1 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 5 BB, O K, 38 pitches, 15 strikes, became first pitcher in the past 90 years to walk five hitters in one inning.)

The scouting report: "That was horrible. That was embarrassing. Players don't want to embarrass themselves, but he did a pretty good job of it."

Second prize: Leury Garcia, White Sox

(April 16, vs. Red Sox: 1 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 25 pitches, 11 strikes, became fifth position player in past 25 years to lose a game as a pitcher and the first to lose one as early as the 14th inning since John Upham in 1967)

"Ugh. That might have been worse than Carp. I didn't get a good feel for him. But I didn't like what I saw."

Third prize: Dean Anna, Yankees

(April 19 vs. Rays: 1 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 0 K)

"You could see he was under instructions not to throw hard, but he was just tossing it up there, playing flip-flop. It was like he was playing catch with his kid. If you're going to throw a guy out there, don't you at least have to let him go out and actually compete?"

And finally ...

At this rate, we'll have 31 position players pitch this season. Only 17 did it in the entire decade of the '70s. And it might be more than 31, since history tells us there are more mystery-pitcher appearances in June, July and August than in April and May. So who knows where this is leading.

"I've definitely seen it more this year, but I don't know what it means," said Roenicke. "Every position player wants to do it. Heck, I wanted to do it when I played."

But Roenicke also concedes he might be the last manager we should be asking where this is leading. Already this season, he's used two position players (Martin Maldonado and Lyle Overbay) to pitch -- and got a walk-off pinch-hit from one of his pitchers (Yovani Gallardo).

"Now that was crazy," Roenicke said with a laugh. "Just when you think you've seen most things that can possibly happen, you've got all these goofy things happening. This game is hard to figure out. Isn't it?"

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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