Maybe I've hit upon a bit of a running series about rethinking the traditional set-up of a Major League roster. On the heels of my post about pitching staffs a few weeks ago, I present an idea I haven't seen anyone really consider for the last spot on a roster. It is inspired by a trio of fringe players I've noticed.
There are at least three former position players trying to reinvent themselves as pitchers this year: Tony Pena with the Giants, Brian Anderson with the Royals, and Sergio Santos with the White Sox. This isn't too new of a phenomenon, either. A couple of Mariners in the past decade, Rafael Soriano and Chris Jakubauskas, switched to the mound to improve their chances at making the majors.
Players who switch from hitting to pitching tend to have similar stories. They can't hack it as a hitter in the pros, but flash a strong arm on defense. Some scout tells the player to take the mound, and then they stick a radar gun on him. If he can get into the upper 80s or low 90s with no coaching, scouts see potential.
The typical story of a pitching crossover also reveals a typical skillset. If a player cannot hit too well, they likely have some defensive abilities that allowed them to progress through the farm system. A strong arm helps (particularly in the outfield), but there is more to defense than that. Pena's career UZR at shortstop, and Anderson's career UZR in the outfield, support this little hunch of mine.
So, converts tend to be players with good defensive ability, often at premium positions, a live arm that might make them a decent pitcher, but hitting ability so lackluster their defense cannot make them a serviceable position player.
Teams, when constructing a roster, often debate the pros and cons of carrying 11 or 12 pitchers, and the value of carrying defensive replacements over pinch-hitters. Role players tend to be role players for a reason: they have holes in their skillsets, but they have something they can do pretty well.
What if we stop looking at the Brian Anderson's and Tony Pena's of the world as position players or pitchers? Instead, what if they are a little bit of both? Could they fill two fringe roles on a roster simultaneously?
In some ways, this is not a radical idea at all. For instance, Giants hot prospect Buster Posey was the catcher and closer at Florida State. Former first baseman John Olerud did a fair amount of pitching too when he was at Washington State. Many professional ballplayers have hitting and pitching experience against fairly high levels of competition.
A player that hits/defends and pitches would be a radical idea by MLB standards though.
I think a good manager could take advantage of a defender/reliever hybrid. There is no rule that a pitcher has to face batters in succession. For example, it is legal for a reliever to come in and face a batter, then go to second base for a few hitters, and go back on the mound. The only rule is that once they are removed from a game they cannot go back in. It's the same rule for any player.
Let's suppose it is the seventh inning in a close game, and a manager wants to make a defensive replacement in left field, and also wants to get lefty-lefty and righty-righty matchups on the mound. If the manager had a player like Brian Anderson around (assuming he can be a decent reliever, a BIG IF at this point), the manager could bring Anderson in to face the righty. Then, when it is time for the specialty lefty, Anderson goes to the outfield, where he is actually an asset! Once it is time for a righty again, Anderson takes the mound again, and someone else takes his place in left field. An entire pitcher is saved, and if a defensive replacement was going to go out in left field anyway, no bench spot has been burned in the process.
Heck, if a team somehow got a lefty and a righty who were both decent relievers and good outfielders, they could play the matchups to perfection for multiple innings without burning through their bullpen, and potentially fielding a stronger defense in the process. It could make a pitching staff play more like it has 13 or 14 options, while also freeing up the bench to include a more "pure" pinch-hitter, without worries of their defensive limitations.
The drawback of the hybrid is obvious. When a hybrid enters the game, the lineup essentially features a pitcher (or two, if playing in the NL, where I think this would be especially helpful). However, the drawback is more or less hidden if the hybrid comes in during the late innings, when they would be lifted for a pinch-hitter anyway (or even better, if/when their spot in the lineup doesn't bat by the end of the game).
Again, I think a skilled manager would find a way to avoid the hybrid's weaknesses while taking advantage of their strengths. A bad manager would...well...make fans wonder what's going on. But bad managers do that without wacky roster ideas.
Unlike the pitching staff idea I threw out there a few weeks ago, a hybrid position requires a player with a pretty unique skillset. It only makes sense with a guy that defends well, pitches at least marginally well, and probably does not hit well. However, there are three guys switching to the mound this year that profile as candidates, and I wonder how many others would also fit the mold if teams looked for it.
I feel like defensive specialists, pinch-hitting specialists, and situational relievers (especially specialty lefties) limit rosters. So, if a player can fill a couple of those roles, it seems like it would make the player more valuable. It would be almost like playing with a 26-man roster, and when combined with creative pitcher usage, could make a team more difficult to match up with in later innings.