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April 7, 2011

Spitballing

Trading Places

by Jeremy Greenhouse

In an offseason packed with turmoil and turnover but bereft of big-money acquisitions, the Mets made one high-profile on-field move by swapping Carlos Beltran and Angel Pagan in the outfield. Even though Beltran still feels that he could play center, he offered to move to right field to save his knees and supplement his offense at the risk of losing defensive value:

To me, catching the ball, throwing the ball, that’s easy for me. I have no problem with that. It will have to be an adjustment of whether the ball comes off the bat different than center field. Right fielders have to go to the line. Lefties go the other way.

Two players on the same team trading positions is an interesting phenomenon, requiring a lack of stubbornness and a willingness to learn on the parts of both player and management. How have positional swaps worked throughout history?

I searched for all instances where two players exchanged positions and were in the field for at least 50 balls in play at each position, and then I totaled both the team’s and the players’ individual defensive efficiency ratios in specific cases to determine whether the swap “worked.” Since the beginning of the Retrosheet era, the right-field-to-center-field switch has occurred most frequently. Here are the number of occurrences by positional pair:

Beltran is hardly the first marquee player to move down the defensive spectrum in the twilight of his career. Most greats eventually have to make the sacrifice. The interesting aspect of this particular shift is that Beltran is being replaced by a teammate whose position he is also taking. The Mets’ last high-profile position swap involved Kaz Matsui and Jose Reyes. Reyes had originally moved to second in his sophomore season to appease the Mets’ Japanese import, but he didn’t take to the position. Matsui made more plays than Reyes at shortstop and continued to make more plays than Reyes at second base, but with Reyes at short, the team elevated its collective Defensive Efficiency Ratio from .678 to .706.

A more comparable case of an All-Star-caliber player bowing to a quality outfielder in his own right would be the Twins’ transition from Kirby Puckett to Shane Mack 20 years ago. With Mack in right and Puckett in center, the Twins had played over 100 games with a .714 DER. Puckett switched positions with Mack, and in the 95 subsequent games the pair played together, the Twins’ DER fell to .685.

A more recent pairing of established players switching positions came just one decade ago. In 1998 and 1999, Garret Anderson played center field for the Angels, while Darin Erstad manned left. They both converted just over 9 percent of total balls in play into outs. When the two switched, Erstad became something of a ball-hog in center field, pulling in 11 percent of balls in play for outs, while Anderson tracked down only 8 percent. The impact of the move on the Angels was negligible. Just two years ago across town from Beltran and the Mets, the Yankees successfully transitioned from Johnny Damon and Melky Cabrera to Melky Cabrera and Johnny Damon. The swap added 1 percent to the Yankees’ team DER.

Beltran isn’t the only great New York center fielder to pass off his position to his neighbor: Mickey Mantle gave way to Tom Tresh in 1964. Other greats who have shifted positions with their teammates include Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Al Kaline, Paul Molitor, Pete Rose, and Stan Musial. Musial was an exceptional case, as he, Wally Moone, Bill White, and Joe Cunningham shared left field, right field, and first base somewhat interchangeably. The two greatest players ever to swap positions with each other were Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey. Cepeda debuted as a first baseman for the Giants in 1958 but moved to left field in 1959 to make way for McCovey. In 1962, the two perfectly adequate fielders switched back to their original positions, where they remained unexceptional.

Most positional swaps are little more than historical curiosities, but some have made an impact on pennant races. The Twins’ 1991 experiment of Mack in center and Puckett in right ended after ten games, as the team posted a .696 DER with that alignment. The two switched back, and over the rest of the season the Twins boasted a DER over .720. Minnesota went on to win the World Series, though from what I’ve heard, Jack Morris called his outfield in a la Satchel Paige in Game Seven, making Puckett and Mack irrelevant.

The 1972 World Champion A’s started the season with Reggie Jackson in right field and an open tryout in center. Reggie moved to center in July, and Angel Mangual, who had previously failed in his dozen-game stint alongside Jackson, earned the full-time gig in right. The A’s proceeded to turn 75 percent of balls in play into outs, although Mangual's positioning became moot when the A’s acquired Matty Alou. Still, the decision to put Reggie in center turned out to be a good one.

In 1961, Mantle and Roger Maris led the greatest offensive onslaught since Gehrig and Ruth. There wasn’t as much made over their play in the outfield, but that storyline gained traction the following season, when on May 18, 1962, Mantle, seeking to avoid becoming the game’s goat, hustled down the line on a grounder to short. Before he reached the base, he pulled up lame with a pulled groin and a torn hamstring to go along with his perpetually aching knees. Mantle missed a month and Maris took over in center. Upon his return, Mantle was eased back into the lineup in right field for a few weeks, during which time the Yankees managed a .696 DER. Soon enough, Mantle reclaimed center field, pushing Maris back to right, and the team improved to a .715 DER with Mantle and Maris in their natural positions. Mantle, with only 377 at-bats to his credit, won his first gold Glove, his third MVP, and his seventh World Series ring.

In some cases, a team can make on-field improvements by reshuffling the assets it already has, rather than looking outside the organization for assistance. The Mets likely won't be playoff-bound no matter how many pieces they shuffle, but they were dealt a hand with two above-average players in Beltran and Pagan, and it was vital that they find a way to get them both on the field, ideally in the alignment that would put them in the best position to succeed. As we’ve seen, their positional swap isn’t unprecedented, but it does show that manager Terry Collins is capable of lateral thinking, which should pay off on both sides of the ball in New York this season.

Jeremy Greenhouse is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeremy's other articles. You can contact Jeremy by clicking here

Related Content:  AL Center Fielders,  Right Field

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