There’s a lot of things I love about baseball. I love how a six-game winning streak makes teams feel invincible. I love how anything is possible on the day a prospect is called up for the first time. But as much as anything else, I love it when position players get the opportunity to pitch.
The Orioles-Red Sox game on May 6, 2012, went seventeen innings before it ended. The Orioles ended up winning, 9-6, and both the winning and losing pitchers were players who identify as position players, not pitchers. This is the first time this happened since 1902. (Which is awesome.) Darnell McDonald, a wily veteran among position-players-turned-pitchers (making his second appearance in his major-league career), wound up taking the loss.
But the hero of the day was Orioles designated hitter Chris Davis. Davis, pitching for the first time in the majors, worked two full innings, despite, y’know, not really being a pitcher. Davis was having a pretty rough day with the lumber, going 0-for-7 as someone who’s only job was to be a hitter. But in the bottom of the 16th inning, when called on to pitch, he thrived.
The sixteenth started auspiciously, as Davis did something that a designated hitter-turned-reliever isn’t meant to do: he struck out the first batter he faced, Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
You’d think that Saltalamacchia might hear it in the dugout for that.
After Will Middlebrooks lined out to center (a much more acceptable at-bat for someone facing a first baseman pretending to be a pitcher), Marlon Byrd reached base on an error by third baseman Wilson Betemit. Davis, who’d spent some time at third base in his years with the Rangers, and wasn’t very good there, probably fully understood the importance of defense on the psyche of a pitcher for the very first time.
With two outs and a runner on first, Chris Davis bore down … and gave up a double to soft-hitting Mike Aviles. However, as luck would have it, Marlon Byrd hustled home on the play, and was promptly thrown out to end the inning. Crisis averted: one hit allowed, one strikeout, no runs. Davis did what all outfielders-turned-pitchers had hoped to do: he acquitted himself without embarrassment. May we all do that when asked to perform outside of our comfort zones.
The Orioles succeeded in plating , Davis was given the ball again for the 17th inning. Things looked bleak. First, Ryan Sweeney knocked a line-drive for a single. Then, Davis walked Dustin Pedroia. With no outs, two runners on, and slugger Adrian Gonzalez up to the plate, Davis did what any non-pitcher-pitcher would do in the situation.
Davis struck Gonzalez out … on three pitches.
That gave Davis the first out he needed, but it wouldn’t be enough to end the game. With opposing pitcher/outfielder Darnell McDonald up at the plate, Davis needed a miracle, and he got one. McDonald grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning, the game, and one of the greatest pitching performances by a first-time non-pitcher in major league history.
Chris Davis earned 0.1 fWAR for this appearance. This is more fWAR than super-prospect Dylan Bundy was worth in almost the exactly same number of innings (Davis had 2 innings, Bundy 1 and 2/3). This is more fWAR than Kevin Gregg, former Orioles closer, was worth in just under 44 innings of relief work (-0.2 fWAR). This is more fWAR than Tommy Hunter was worth in just under 134 innings of pitching (-0.4 fWAR).
Chris Davis had the lowest FIP of any pitcher who appeared for the Orioles in 2012. Anyone. His FIP was 2.59. And of course it is a small sample size, a statistical oddity, a fluke, but it’s a magnificent one.
The story of the position player asked to pitch is almost always a silly one, an awkward one, and a deflating one, especially for the team using an ineffective pitcher. And that’s part of what makes it great. But one that is triumphant as well, like the Chris Davis story, that’s one that gets to live on in the historical record and in our hearts for a long time. It’s a great event.
(Unless you’re Darnell McDonald. Tough break, D-Mac. Maybe next time.)
BryanGrosnick writes about baseball at Beyond the Box Score, The Platoon Advantage, Amazin’ Avenue, and RotoAuthority. He lives in New England with his wife and dog. He’s also thrilled to be able to help this blogathon out in any small way.
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