A Different Kind of Pitcher

Deadline deals dominated baseball news this past week, as the likes of David Price, Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Jarred Cosart were shipped off to competitive teams that hoped to boost their playoff chances by improving their starting rotations.

Elsewhere in baseball, two decidedly noncompetitive teams saw their pitchers make news for different reasons. The injury-plagued and loss-plagued San Diego Padres trotted out 37-year-old former outfielder Jason Lane, after scheduled starter Ian Kennedy was scratched due to an oblique injury. Lane was the starting right fielder on the Houston Astros’ NL-winning 2005 team, and became a full-time pitcher in 2012 after years of paltry offensive output left him floundering in the minors. Lane made two scoreless relief appearances earlier in the season, and exceeded all reasonable expectations on Monday, allowing one run, six hits, and no walks through six-plus innings. The left-handed finesse pitcher threw 68 of 92 pitches for strikes, and did not reach a three-ball count until his final batter.

The next night, the Chicago Cubs, carrying a win-loss record even more pitiful than that of the Padres, won the longest game in franchise history, exhausting all of their pitchers in the process. Catcher John Baker took the mound in the top of the 16th inning, walking one batter but emerging unscathed after forcing a double play. After Starlin Castro’s game-winning RBI, Baker’s first MLB pitching appearance was also his first win.

Although conventional pitchers claimed the headlines this week, there’s something inherently exciting about position players showing their skills on the mound, whether it’s a result of a late-career conversion or late-inning necessity. The same is true for pitchers who can hit. As a middle-schooler with too much time on my hands (which describes all middle-schoolers, probably), my perusal through baseball stats left me amazed that journeyman starter Allen Watson hit .417 in 36 at-bats for the Cardinals in 1995 (I had yet to grasp the concept of sample size). Why was this guy hitting? The next Ted Williams was stuck with just a few stray cracks at the ball every five games. He undoubtedly spoke several languages, too, and had a portfolio of Louvre-ready oil paintings in his basement.

We enjoy stories like those of John Baker and Jason Lane because we have a general affinity for the multitalented, especially when their talents aren’t expected to coexist, or aren’t seen together in very many people. There’s a reason why Harvard admissions officers nearly choke on their crimson-and-gold pens when they learn that that kid who has a 1550 SAT is also the captain of the football team and the lead stagehand in the drama club. We like to believe that people who are among the best in the world at something aren’t just laser-focused automatons. When an athlete shows an aptitude for something other than what he gets paid to do, we get excited, just as I did back in March.

The trouble is, though, that pitchers who can hit and position players who can pitch aren’t really that special. Plenty of players are converted between pitching and hitting at some point in their minor-league careers, and two-way players are commonplace on high school and even college teams. Still, in a league where Bartolo Colon stands in for pseudo-at-bats that involve flailing and waddling, we can be forgiven for being impressed by displays of unremarkable versatility. Plus, given how rarely players actually get to showcase the full extent of their two-way skill sets, Jason Lane’s pitching renaissance and John Baker’s winning relief appearance don’t seem that much different than Cam Newton taking some reps at left guard, or D’Brickashaw Ferguson moonlighting as a coffin-corner punter. Which, now that I mention it, are both things I’d love to see. Too bad NFL teams only have four meaningless games in which they can try them out.