As you’re probably aware, there’s been a new development this season of an unusually high amount of position players taking the mound. It’s pretty clear at this point that this isn’t just a gimmick. After all, it’s happening with such great frequency that the novelty is wearing off, so I’m not even sure it could be called a gimmick anymore. Teams are actively using position player arms to wave the white flag and spare the bullpen. The obvious benefit of implementing this strategy on a season-long scale is that a team might be able to carry one fewer reliever, which would allow for an extra bench player. It’s probably not a tremendous advantage, but an extra bat off the bench, another platoon guy, or simply an additional man qualified to serve as a defensive replacement or pinch runner can improve the roster’s flexibility.
Most teams have one or two designated “mop-up” relievers whose primary job is to come into games that are basically already decided and just eat innings. The situations in which they enter the game are so low-leverage that it doesn’t matter much if they pitch poorly; they just have to get outs before throwing a number of pitches that might damage their arm. Given the miniscule importance of quality, why not just stick a position player out there in those situations? It doesn’t make for compelling baseball, but games featuring an eight-run deficit are already not compelling baseball.
History suggests that when baseball teams start doing something new and unconventional, like shifting or platooning, it’s a feature that’s going to stick rather than a one-off anomaly. Maybe it would behoove the White Sox to lean into the trend.
Matt Davidson was one of the worst players in the major leagues in 2017. He couldn’t run, play defense, draw walks, or make much contact. All of the positive value he provided was essentially concentrated in the 26 home runs he hit, and he still posted -0.9 WAR despite those dingers. I was pretty vocal in the offseason about wanting to use Davidson’s potential roster space on someone else this season, given the limited upside of his profile.
Then, once the season began, something remarkable happened. Davidson managed to not only repair his most fixable flaw — his glaring lack of plate discipline — but he turned it into a significant strength. His 2018 walk rate of 13.0% is more than triple what he posted in 2017. Suddenly, Davidson transformed from a bad hitter into someone with a wRC+ a cut above league average.
Yet, here we sit in late July and Davidson’s only provided 0.8 fWAR across 315 plate appearances, due to the aforementioned defense, speed, and contact issues. He proved me both wrong and right in that he showed he could take his game to another level, but not one with enough upside to really care if it happened in another uniform. The bar for good offense is difficult to clear when you’re a man without a position, and Davidson seems like he’s right on the fringe of what constitutes an acceptable full-time DH. They could alternatively utilize him as a part-time player if the White Sox find themselves with a better option, but as we saw from Paul Konerko’s last season, a player with that role limits what you can do with the rest of your bench.
Unless he’s not directly consuming one of your position-player bench spaces, that is.
Matt Davidson was a two-way player in high school, serving as a pitcher and the team’s DH. The White Sox saw earlier this season that Davidson actually has some competent pitching chops. He can throw 92 mph. He has several off-speed pitches that can make a major league hitter swing and miss. In fact, he seems to have all of the qualifications necessary to pitch in the major leagues in situations when notable run-prevention ability isn’t a top concern. The only unknown is whether his arm can hold up to the test of repeated pitching appearances over a full season. For a guy whose long-term claim to a roster space is in doubt, maybe it would make some sense to find out.
There’s several possible benefits of having Davidson as an “extra” bench player. He can spot-start in the lineup against favorable pitching matchups. He’s an extra pinch-hitter when the team ventures to National League parks. He can be a dangerous power threat late in games when it feels like the White Sox need a homer to catch up. It’s clear Davidson can be useful; the question is whether he’s currently useful enough to a championship contender to consume a 25-man roster space. Even if the answer to that question is “yes”, expanding his role to the mound could make room for some other specialist bench player.
This year has seen increased use of position players to pitch, Shohei Ohtani paving the way for two-way players, and the 2018 MLB draft being littered with prospects that can potentially succeed on both the mound and in the batter’s box. The membrane between pitchers and position-players is increasingly looking semi-permeable, and Davidson seems like a plausible candidate to cross it. Given the White Sox’ current position, what would they — or Davidson — have to lose from a little experimentation?