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Pitchers in the Outfield — An Insane Strategy That Just Might Work

Baseball can be a crazy sport sometimes. How about we make it a crazy sport ALL of the time?

Left handed pitcher Travis Wood makes a catch on the ivy at Wrigley Field (via Statcast)

Okay. This is going to sound crazy, but hear me out.

On June 28 of last season, the 50–26 Chicago Cubs squared off against the 29–49 Cincinnati Reds for what seemed to be just a normal ballgame. However, Joe Maddon proved us wrong.

In the bottom of the fourteenth inning, tied 2–2, RHP Spencer Patton set up on the mound to face RHH Brandon Phillips, with LHP Travis Wood manning left field. Phillips flew out to center field. Problem was, Jay Bruce was on deck. Bruce, a lefty, has been proficient at hitting right-handed pitchers in his nine-year career. Spencer Patton wasn’t so good against left handed batters. Luckily, Joe Maddon thought ahead.

Out of options in the ’pen, Maddon put Travis Wood, who is respected as a left-handed specialist, to face Bruce, who was poor against same-handed pitchers. Maddon sent Patton to take Wood’s spot in left field. This gave the Reds a platoon disadvantage, and ultimately led to to a 3–1 groundout.

But wait, there’s more! With righty Adam Duvall next up, it would seem pretty senseless to keep Wood on the mound. So Maddon did it again, switching Wood into left and Patton to pitcher, which ultimately led to a 4–3 groundout, and thanks to a Javy Baez grand slam, a 7–2 victory.

So, what’s the point? Besides the amusing story, who cares?

I care.

What if a (hypothetical) team was able to do this throughout an entire season? Could it work?


First things first, how would this work out every game?

Well, here’s how I see it. An NL team makes its starting lineup as usual, except for the following:

  1. Make sure the starting pitcher is of the opposite handedness as the opposing leadoff hitter; if they’re a switch hitter, use your best pitcher available.
  2. Put another pitcher, of opposite handedness as your starting pitcher, at a corner outfielder spot. If the leadoff hitter is a righty, put him in right field; if they’re a lefty, put him in left field. This is the position they’re least likely to hit it to (usually). RHH pulled the ball 74.6 percent of the time against RHP in 2016; LHH pulled the ball 74.1 percent against LHP.
  3. Put the two pitchers in the eighth and ninth spot of the batting order.
  4. Do everything else the same.

The order should look something like this:

  1. Leadoff
  2. Second batter
  3. Third batter
[…]

7. Seventh batter

8. Starting pitcher

9. Secondary pitcher

To avoid a lack of offensive production, make sure you pinch hit for the pitcher who has faced more batters in the game when they come up. So after the first eight batters, if Pitcher A has faced six opposing hitters to Pitcher B’s two, pinch hit for Pitcher A with the best hitter on your bench. You can also pinch hit for pitchers in situations where you need to score a run.

With a roster of 13 hitters and 12 pitchers or 14 and 11, you can get through your own batting order four (or five) times without running into problems.

What does this do?

From an offensive standpoint, surprisingly not too much. Suppose all of your starters are league-average hitters, your pinch hitters are league-average pinch hitters, and your pitchers are league-average hitting pitchers.

Instead of being able to pinch hit at will, one of your pitchers will need to bat each time through the order. Of the 92,450 PA by NL teams this year, eighth and ninth hitters had 18,679 of them. Divide by two, since you’ll sub for the opposite spot every time (if you subbed for the ninth spot first time through, you’d sub for the eighth time the second time through to prevent pitcher fatigue), and you get that your pinch hitters and pitchers should each account for 10.1 percent of your plate appearances, with the other 79.8 going to your actual hitters. I’ll give a half a percent more to PH and subtract that from pitchers for the occasional occurrence of pinch-hitting due to circumstances, making them 10.6 percent and 9.6 percent, respectively.

This means your team should have an estimated wOBA of .306.

[(.798 * position player average of .327) + (.106 * NL PH average of .288) + (.096 * NL pitcher average of .153)]

The NL wOBA for 2016 was .316. For every 20 points down in wOBA you go, you lose ten runs of offense per 600 PA. This means for every ten points in wOBA you lose, you lose five runs. Over the course of a season, of an average 6,170 PA, you’re losing about 51 runs.

But, what happens with pitchers?

First, we need to take into account 12.7 percent of all PA in the MLB in 2016 were from switch hitters. They are, for this argument’s sake, unaffected by this strategy, as they can always have the platoon advantage. The average switch hitter had a wOBA of .313 in 2016.

In 2016, around 51.2 percent of the PA were taken by pure righties, and 36.1 percent by pure lefties. All of them, in every PA against our team, will never have the platoon advantage. Using 2016 numbers, we can see NL righties had a wOBA of .304 vs RHP, and NL lefties had a .291 wOBA vs LHP.

This gives us an estimated opponent’s wOBA of .300.

[(.313 wOBA of SHB * .127) + (.304 wOBA of RHB vs RHP * .512) + (.291 wOBA of LHB vs LHP * .361)]

A wOBA of .300 is 16 points worse than the NL average of .316, meaning for every 600 PA, our opponents will lose eight runs (16/20 * -10 runs). This means over the course of our 6,170 PA season, our opponents will lose 82 runs.

I think while pitchers won’t pitch as much per game, making them more efficient in games, they will pitch on shorter rest, which should average out.

So far, our strategy has lost us 51 runs, but lost our opponents 82 runs, worth a net gain of 31 runs.

There’s only one problem, and it’s called defense. There isn’t a good way of estimating what a pitcher would do in the corner outfield, but as long as they perform at least 31 runs below average, the positives should outweigh the negatives. That means your pitching staff can be two runs worse than JD Martinez, the worst corner outfielder by DRS, and you’d still have gained one run throughout the process.

I don’t actually think they’d be that bad, though. We don’t really give credit for a pitcher’s athleticism, when in reality, they have a ton of it. When they weren’t pitching, in little league, high school, and maybe even college, current MLB pitchers likely fielded another position, especially one in the outfield. If that, combined with outfield lessons for all of your pitchers can get them up to league average corner outfield defense, your team would have gained around three wins from the Pitchers in the Outfield strategy. And a lot of the time, three wins can mean the difference between a playoff team or not.

It certainly is outlandish, and it’s likely everything wouldn’t be league average and it wouldn’t be a very smooth transition. That said, hypothetically, this crazy pitcher in the outfield strategy could work. We’d just need someone crazy enough to try it.

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