The Tampa Bay Rays were down by five on Monday, 8-3, in the top of the ninth when they sent rookie infielder Mike Brosseau from second base to the mound. He was able to get some heaters over the plate at a nice arching 57-75 mph. He threw 19 pitches, faced six batters, gave up one run, and eventually got three outs.
Some fans and sportswriters balked, saying such a surrender from a team fighting for a spot in the playoffs was an insult to the integrity of the game.
But were the Rays really giving up or just playing the percentages?
The Tampa Bay bullpen was understandably exhausted. The Rays had thrown seven pitchers both Friday and Saturday plus another four on Sunday, when they played a doubleheader. They just had no arms left to call on. The pitching staff was spent.
Brosseau, as explained in his post-game interview with Fox Sports, had pitched twice in single-A, and he was ready to step in.
“Coach Cash asked me there in the eighth inning if I had pitched before,” Brosseau said. “I told him I had. He just asked me to throw strikes and get some outs.”
So in such a situation, does this move really call for a Major League Baseball investigation? Although it’s not totally unusual for a position player to toss a few to the plate, it does seem to be happening a little more frequently. Last year, in a full season, a record 41 non-pitchers took the mound.
Baseball is a game soaked in analytics. Manager Kevin Cash found himself with no rested arms available. The numbers say that the Rays had a less than 1 percent chance of pulling out a win when down by five going into the ninth.
Some might wonder why more teams don’t throw a position player into these situations to save their bullpen for more statistically winnable games.
Baseball pundits and purists, however, are calling this substitution quitting on the fans. Really? The Tampa Bay Rays are 57-46 and fighting for a wild card spot in the playoffs. What some call quitting others might call sound long-term strategy. Plus they now have some semi-fresh arms for today’s game.
“It was still a tough call,” manager Kevin Cash said after the game. “If we had been a run closer, I would have gone to the bullpen.”
Unfair for Bettors?
Perhaps surprisingly, the opposing Red Sox didn’t quite have their timing down with pitches coming in at a pony league pace. Boston managed only one run off “reliever” Brosseau — but that was a better performance than most tired Tampa Bay bullpen arms have delivered in recent games. To be fair, the Rays added a run in their half of the game’s final inning. So while going from a 1 percent chance of winning to only a .5 percent chance, they did bounce back to end the game only 5 runs behind.
As far as line on the game and the over/under there was nothing at stake. 8-3 or 9-4 (the actual final score) were both well over the 9.5 run opening odds. And the Bosox were favorites going into the game +110.
For his part, Brosseau now has one relief appearance on the books, and a 9.00 ERA.
Tim Lavalli holds a Ph.D. in psychology and has focused his work on the mental aspects of competitive games. He co-authored Check-Raising the Devil, the autobiography of poker pro Mike Matusow. You can follow him on Twitter @timlavalli.