The usage of a position player as a pitcher rarely is celebrated and never done under ideal circumstances. The plan isn’t implemented to gain an advantage. Quite the opposite. And it isn’t popular with the guy standing on the mound or the batter exposed to the possibility of crippling embarrassment.
Ever strike out swinging against a utility infielder? The hitter who grounds weakly to short has bragging rights.
There are random players who actually volunteer for the assignment. Who use their high school and small college mound experience as a sales pitch. Like they’re living out their professional dream.
He provided one of the many humorous backstories Saturday night, which manager Brandon Hyde shared yesterday in his Zoom call. How Valaika didn’t exhibit much enthusiasm while agreeing to it, until major league coach Fredi González tried again in the eighth inning with the Red Sox ahead 11-4.
“He was excited to Fredi,” Hyde recalled, “so I said, ‘Boom, he’s in.’ “
Valaika was being modest. His 65 mph stuff, whatever it was, perplexed the hot-hitting Red Sox. He could have done the job in three pitches except for Ramón Urías’ fielding error. Ground ball for a force out, a weak fly ball and another grounder got Valaika into the dugout without a trace of humiliation.
Future closer, perhaps, if César Valdez loses his touch.
Where does Valaika’s outing rank among emergency appearances in club history?
Stevie Wilkerson is going to win the popular vote for becoming the first position player to earn a save on July 25, 2019 in Anaheim. Davis tossed two scoreless innings, the 16th and 17th, back on May 6, 2012 in Boston and is credited by many with launching the Orioles toward their first winning season and playoff berth since 1997. That game is viewed as the turning point.
Davis struck out five times and grounded into a double play, and became the first player to go hitless in eight at-bats and earn a win since Hall of Famer Rube Waddell with the Philadelphia A’s on July 4, 1905.
“I’m like, sweet,” Davis said, “I get to try something different today because hitting ain’t working.”
STATS research shows that Valaika became the 14th Orioles position player used in relief. It’s been done 18 times, with Wilkerson holding the record with four appearances in 2019. Davis has done it twice.
“I mean, does anything top the Stevie Wilkerson in Anaheim story,” Hyde said. “I mean, that’s No. 1 of all time, isn’t it? I don’t know.”
Wilkerson illustrated the increased willingness of managers to go to their bench for pitching assistance. It’s become a more common move, though Major League Baseball is trying to implement post-pandemic rules dictating when it’s permissible.
Only if a game goes to extra innings or a team is winning or losing by more than six runs. And a player must be designated as “two-way.”
In 2019, more than 50 different position players pitched in at least one game. The Orioles trotted out Wilkerson, Davis, catcher Jesús Sucre - who retired the three White Sox batters he faced on April 22- and infielder Hanser Alberto. Catcher Bryan Holaday was used once in 2020’s truncated season and has done it in five games. It’s kind of his thing.
In Buck Showalter’s final year as manager in 2018, infielder/outfielders Danny Valencia and Jace Peterson each pitched in one game.
Valencia struck out the Rangers’ Joey Gallo, the only batter he faced after replacing Tanner Scott in the eighth inning of a 17-8 loss on Aug. 2, and strutted back to the dugout. Peterson was given the eighth inning in a 19-3 loss to the Red Sox on Sept. 26 at Fenway Park and allowed four runs and six hits in one inning. Rafael Devers homered, of course.
Maybe not the worst performance in club history.
Infielder Manny Alexander, who was supposed to pose a threat to Cal Ripken Jr. at shortstop, worked two-thirds of an inning in an April 19, 1996 game against the Rangers in Arlington, Texas, and produced a weird line. He allowed only one hit, but also five runs with four walks.
This wasn’t a bad Orioles team. They made the playoffs as a wild card. But they surrendered 16 runs in the eighth inning and lost 26-7.
Kevin Elster hit a grand slam off Alexander, who was the final “pitcher.” He followed Jesse Orosco, who was charged with eight runs and six hits in one-third of an inning. Armando Benítez allowed three runs and didn’t retire a batter.
Alexander replaced Orosco with the bases loaded, because you definitely want an infielder in that spot, and walked the next three batters to force in runs.
(I’m just as fascinated by how many Rangers also played for the Orioles: Will Clark, Mickey Tettleton, Damon Buford, Craig Worthington and Mark McLemore. Johnny Oates was the manager.)
Alexander was one-and-done as a pitcher and retired with a 67.50 ERA.
No position player with the Orioles pitched again until Davis in 2012.
Outfielder Larry Harlow can feel Alexander’s pain, because he shares the same ERA. He appeared on the mound in a June 26, 1978 game in Toronto, a 24-10 abomination, and allowed five runs and two hits in two-thirds of an inning. He also walked four batters and surrendered a home run.
His own fault for purchasing Alexander’s pitching video.
This is actually a famous game in Orioles history because losing by a football score seemed outrageous. And because Harlow was the first Orioles position player to pitch, according to STATS. And because catcher Elrod Hendricks followed him and was much better at it.
Mike Flanagan started for the Orioles, tossed a scoreless first inning, didn’t retire a batter in the second and was charged with six runs. The Rangers scored nine in the second, four in the third, six in the fourth and five in the fifth. Joe Kerrigan was charged with seven runs and nine hits in 1 1/3 innings, and Tippy Martinez with six runs and five hits in 1 2/3.
Here’s where it gets weird.
Hendricks replaced Harlow and tossed 2 1/3 scoreless innings with one hit and one walk. Not a bad nominee for best performance by a position player.
He also was one-and-done to leave his ERA untarnished.
Makes even more sense now that Hendricks had such a long career as a bullpen coach. The guy knew a thing or two about relieving.
Infielder Ryan Flaherty pitched in an Aug. 20, 2016 game against the Astros at Camden Yards and allowed two runs and three hits in one inning. Jason Castro homered.
We must also acknowledge catcher Jeff Tackett, who worked a scoreless inning in a 15-5 loss to the Tigers on Aug. 11, 1993 in Detroit. He gave up a hit and walked a batter, but there were no Tackett tack-on runs.
Third baseman Todd Cruz was the third position player to pitch for the Orioles after Harlow and Hendricks. He did more than register a scoreless inning against the Yankees on Sept. 18, 1984 in the Bronx. He retired the side in order in a 10-2 loss.
Also his lone pitching performance. Leaving on a high note.
Davis has a win. Wilkerson has a save. Everyone has a story.