Chris Gimenez’s memory of pitching in his first major-league game in 2014 is a painful reminder that catching remains his primary job.
“The next seven days after that, I felt I needed Tommy John and several shoulder surgeries,” Gimenez said. “I decided from that point on I was going to throw it slow, and that’s what I’ve done since then.”
“I was really sore on my left side,” recalled Baker, a former catcher who’s now the Cubs’ mental skills coordinator. “I wasn’t used to throwing a ball downhill.”
The need for managers to use a position player to pitch seemingly has increased, even with expanded bullpens in this era of increased specialization.
Manager Joe Maddon resisted the temptation to use Gimenez during the Cubs’ 14-inning victory over the Mets on June 2 but acknowledged catchers perhaps are the best position players to pitch in an emergency.
“Still, you don’t want to take your chances with anyone doing that,” Maddon said.
Maddon believes the best way to prepare for such a situation is to nurture a position player to the point where he warms up on the sidelines in what he described to as a “mini-Ohtani” role, in reference to the Angels’ pitcher-designated hitter standout.
But Ohtani currently is on the 10-day disabled list with a Grade 2 ligament strain in his right pitching elbow and could face season-ending surgery.
“But if a guy isn’t used to it, I’d be very hesitant,” said Maddon, who has used a position player to pitch on seven occasions during his 3½ seasons with the Cubs.
Still, Gimenez believes it’s becoming more realistic to carry a backup position player who can pitch in an emergency situation and blowout games, especially in this era of specialization.
Gimenez has pitched in nine major-league games, including six last season with the Twins.
And over the course of the last 4½ seasons, Gimenez has learned to take care of his arm and not try to impress anyone as he did throwing 87 mph in his first appearance and experiencing acute pain afterward.
“It’s hard enough to hit in general,” Gimenez said. “It’s hard to hit off a position player because you have that mental aspect of it. You’re dinged if you do, and you’re danged if you don’t. If you get a hit, you’re supposed to. And if you don’t, a position player got you out.
“I try to use that to my advantage and throw slow. I proved it last year just throwing as slow as I could. I gave up some hits, a homer. It’s going to happen. But I don’t care what my ERA is. The reason I was doing it was to eat up some innings for the guys, if someone got hurt, or sent down, or something like that. And they knew I was going to do it responsibly.”
While with the Indians in 2016, Gimenez witnessed the perils of throwing at maximum effort when Blue Jays infielder Ryan Goins threw a scoreless 18th inning in a 2-1 19-inning loss to the Indians only to experience right forearm tightness that sidelined him for a month.
Gimenez pitched two days later and allowed four runs in two innings of a 17-1 loss but had no regrets.
“There’s a double factor in that,” Gimenez said. “You lose a good role player for that team and lose the game, too. It was unfortunate, but I knew I didn’t want to put myself in harm’s way. Not that (Goins) did anything wrong, but you get into the moment and you’re competitive.”
There’s also the humility of getting pounded, as Maddon recalled using infielder John Hotchkiss for only one pitch to complete an inning for Double-A Midland in one game in 1986, only to see him not retire a batter in a 70-pitch outing of a 33-5 loss at El Paso and hurt his arm.
“You have to protect yourself,” Gimenez said. “The slope will do weird things to your arm. It’s weird, but when I throw slow, it’s good to go. I throw like a catcher.”