The Oakland A's have a good bullpen this season, arguably in the top 10 in MLB. But their starting rotation has been such a trainwreck that the relievers have been tasked with an impossible workload, forcing them to outsource some of the less important innings to subcontractors. On May 8, catcher Josh Phegley became the 10th position player in Oakland history to pitch in a game, and not even a month later utilityman Tyler Ladendorf has become the 11th.
The A's got blasted by the Astros on Friday. Jesse Hahn went supernova in the 1st inning, recording only two outs before departing. The game felt pretty well over by that point, and by the time it was 12-0 in the 5th it was clear we had passed the event horizon as we moved inevitably toward a Houston blowout. All that was left was to eat up the rest of the meaningless innings without burning up the whole bullpen. Fortunately, the A's had called up an extra reliever, J.B. Wendelken, before the game just in case! Oh, never mind, he was stuck at the airport, because of course he was. As Donnie Murphy's Law states, anything that can go wrong for the A's, will go wrong.
Enter Tyler Ladendorf. The 28-year-old is in the big leagues for exactly one reason: He can play lots of positions. He doesn't hit enough to play every day, but his ability to fill in just about anywhere on the diamond gives him value off the bench. Coming into Friday he'd only appeared in 29 MLB games in his career, but he'd already played six different positions -- everything except pitcher, catcher, and first base. He knocked one of those off the list in his 30th game, and not the one we probably would have guessed that morning. The experience allowed him to level up in the Utilityman guild, adding +3 versatility.
Ladendorf said he hadn't pitched since about 2004 in high school. Graveman had advice -- stretch out well, watch the comebackers.— Joe Stiglich (@JoeStiglichCSN) June 4, 2016
As a reminder that life isn't fair, the first batter Ladendorf had to face was Evan Gattis, who was already 3-for-4 with a homer against Oakland's actual professional pitchers. Here is an apt description of Gattis from Tim Eckert-Fong in his recap of the game:
Evan Gattis looks like he was 10, maybe 15% through a strange science experience to turn into a wolf before the machine was unplugged and he was stuck as a mostly man, some animal creature.
Ladendorf went after the were-batter with 78 mph of pure moxie right in the strike zone, which is honestly one of the most baller things imaginable. What else was he supposed to do? No reason to hurt yourself trying to crank it in there in this ridiculous situation. And no reason to beat around the bush, either; you're here to finish this game, not extend it with a bunch of walks. May as well make 'em swing and hope that when they smash the ball it goes right at a defender.
Gattis took that first pitch, perhaps just to see what kind of stuff this small woodland creature would bring. When the answer turned out to be "batting practice," he happily obliged by smoking a single to left field. Ladendorf flinched a little bit at the hard contact, giving us a small reminder of how terrifying it would be to stand on an MLB mound. The three pitches in this at-bat were clocked at 78, 77, 77, all labeled as changeups.
Several of Ladendorf's pitches registered as changeups. They were all fastballs.— Jane Lee (@JaneMLB) June 4, 2016
Dang, that's cold.
Ladendorf started to loosen up a bit against the next batter, Luis Valbuena. His velocity went from 77 up to 81, and then finally to 85, fast enough to be deemed an actual fastball by whatever icy-hearted scorekeeper or robot or whoever determines these things. He was having trouble keeping the ball down, probably because he's an infielder and not a pitcher. You know the old saying, "learn to be a pitcher rather than a thrower"? Ladendorf was up there throwing, which is completely understandable. It's one of the things that makes it so fun to watch a position player pitch. Valbuena eventually skied out to left.
And so things continued. Tyler White popped out, Tony Kemp drew a five-pitch walk, and then Jake Marisnick popped out to end the inning. Ladendorf hit 85 mph a couple more times and even threw what was identified as a cutter as well as an alleged curveball, though I like to think that his mediumspeedball just traveled so slowly that there was time for the wind to blow it off course a bit and fool the pitch recognition system into thinking it had extra movement. Here's a video showing all three outs -- see if you think the last pitch looks like a breaking ball, compared with the first two:
Difficult to say. It did break ever so slightly, and it's possible that happened on purpose. Either way, Ladendorf made it through the inning unscathed, and he only needed 16 pitches to do it. If he'd been just slightly worse then he could have faced the opposing pitcher, who was in the on-deck circle after the Astros gave up their DH earlier in the evening, but let's not get greedy here. We got to see Ladendorf pitch and he did an admirable job.
Tyler Ladendorf recorded more outs than Jesse Hahn tonight.— Jane Lee (@JaneMLB) June 4, 2016
It sucks to see your team get beat by double-digits, but sometimes if you're really good and patient and you eat all your vegetables, the baseball gods reward you at the end with a little treat like this. A's position players have now faced seven batters this season, retiring five of them and posting a 0.00 ERA. That's pretty cool, as long as you ignore the reasons it happened and just enjoy the little things in life.