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January 13, 2015

Prospectus Feature

The 2014 All Out-of-Position Team

by Andrew Mearns

Baseball certainly had its share of wacky storylines in 2014. From the mystery woman in the Giants’ dugout during the wild card game to the Great Wall of Dodgers to, well, the Royals’ entire playoff run, baseball maintained its heritage of bizarre occurrences. (Ben Revere even homered! Twice!) Most importantly, the longstanding tradition of Weirdball with people playing out of position continued. Last year, I wrote about the 2013 All Out-of-Position Team, a collection of players who spent time on defense in places where they were about as appropriate as Jose Canseco on The 700 Club.

Raul Ibanez never did get to center field as I had hoped, but there was definitely an impressive showing of major-league players who simply should not be associated with the positions they played. However, every appearance they made there was a treasure, truly demonstrating the strange depths baseball can occasionally reach.

Pitcher: Adam Dunn
After 462 homers in just 14 seasons, the big lefty surprisingly decided to call it a career early, just a month before his 35th birthday. While it is a bit disappointing that fans won’t get to see Dunn moonshots anymore, he at least gave them one thrill they likely never expected to see: one inning on the mound.

The 95-loss Rangers blew out the 89-loss White Sox on August 5th in a matchup that would have been almost entirely uneventful had it not been for Dunn’s pitching exploits. Chicago manager Robin Ventura only burned through four pitchers prior to turning to Dunn, and his bullpen was otherwise rested after Hector Noesi threw a rain-shortened complete game the night before. Nonetheless, there was little point in using another pitcher in what was then a 15-0 pounding, so in came Dunn to the mound, much to his satisfaction and the delight of the few White Sox fans remaining at U.S. Cellular Field.

Position-player-pitching fanatic Dan Rozenson regrettably did not do an analysis of Dunn’s pitching mechanics, as he’s done in the past for similarly entertaining trips to the mound from the likes of Lyle Overbay and knucklin’ Mike Carp. But August Fagerstrom at FanGraphs filled this gap quite capably with his own review. Fagerstrom hit the highlights of Dunn’s inning, most notably when Dunn gave umpire Chris Conroy a long look after a close pitch and when he brushed back Elvis Andrus:

In the end, he gave up a run, but still ended his career with a better ERA than Bobby Bonilla and the other Jeff D’Amico. Adam Dunn: Third on the all-time strikeout list and unwilling to take sass from umpires when going for his own punchouts. What a legacy.

Catcher: Victor Martinez
Not so long ago, it wouldn’t have been weird to see Martinez behind the plate at all, as he was a four-time All-Star catcher up until 2010. Then, the Tigers signed him to be their DH, and he torn his ACL before the 2012 season, so that when he does occasionally hold a glove it's usually at first base. The depth chart on the Tigers’ official site doesn’t even list him as an option at catcher anymore. He did make two starts at catcher this year in interleague play, though, and in a season that didn’t see too many oddities behind the plate, that’s good enough for this former catcher to appear on the All Out-of-Position Team.

Martinez’s start at catcher at Dodger Stadium on April 9th highlighted just how unusual an experience it is to see him there these days. He was in the mask because the Tigers faced a conundrum; they couldn’t use Martinez at first base without moving Miguel Cabrera back over to third base (always a scary proposition), so the only way they could keep their DH’s bat in the lineup was by using him at catcher. It all started so well, too. Martinez hit a sacrifice fly to bring home the Tigers’ first run in the top half of the first, and then stunned everyone by throwing out the eventual MLB stolen base leader, Dee Gordon, after he led off with a single:

Then, just before any fans could think, “Hey, maybe V-Mart’s still got it,” it all unraveled. Carl Crawford smacked a ground-rule double. Anibal Sanchez threw a pitch in the dirt, and Martinez was lost:

After the Honorary Miguel Olivo Dance of Confusion, Hanley Ramirez walked and tried his own hand at running on Martinez. This turn of events would be even worse for Martinez, who probably should have just held onto the ball with Crawford at third:

Any positives Martinez might have gained from throwing Gordon out that inning were unspun by his defense leading to a pair of Dodgers runs. Gordon even stole a base off him later just to make up for his previous failing. Nonetheless, it would be Martinez who got the last laugh; the Tigers went on to win the game in extras thanks to a 10th inning solo homer by Martinez against Kenley Jansen.

First base: Carlos Beltran
The 2013 Yankees did yeoman’s work by putting three players on that year’s All Out-of-Position Team; they had a decent case for four members. Their 2014 campaign did not feature quite as much excitement, as only one player made it this time. Still, it's not every day a Hall-of-Fame-caliber outfielder is thrown into the fire with a totally different glove.

The Yankees were in a tight situation on April 13th, as they were trying to get by without a real first baseman while Mark Teixeira was on the disabled list. Joe Girardi’s bench was even shorter than usual, with both Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts nursing short-term injuries. So his starting infield that day had Kelly Johnson at third, Dean Anna at shortstop, Yangervis Solarte at second, and backup catcher Francisco Cervelli at first base. Pride. Power. Pinstripes.

Girardi really couldn’t afford another injury, but sure enough, that’s what happened. Cervelli pulled his hamstring beating out a potential double play in the fourth inning and he had to leave the game. So in went Ichiro Suzuki to pinch-run and eventually move to the outfield, and in came… Beltran to play first base. As the photo above suggests, it was a somewhat terrifying experience for Beltran, who later dropped this gem to the press: “In the outfield, I want them to hit it to me. But today, I was like, please, God, hit it somewhere else.”

Although Beltran survived the game without embarrassing himself, he did do a fun tango at one point trying to find the base after a groundball:

Second base: Daniel Robertson*
*Not the A’s prospect recently traded to the Rays

It was a long, long season for the always-injured Rangers, who deployed a league-high 64 different players. One of the many previously anonymous players who suited up for Texas was Robertson, a 28-year-old rookie and 33rd round draft pick who couldn’t even crack the sub-.500 Padres in 2012 and 2013 despite decent numbers in Triple-A. Desperate for some form of help, the Rangers purchased him in mid-April, and just about a week later he was in the big leagues for his long-awaited major-league debut.

In that first game, he was a pinch-runner and finished the day as the Rangers’ DH. However, his debut in the field had to wait until the next night, April 30th. The red-hot Athletics pounded starter Robbie Ross, and it was an 11-0 blowout by the fifth inning. Ron Washington saw little purpose in risking further injuries to his players, so he began making defensive replacements. Out went Elvis Andrus from shortstop, shifting over from second to short was Josh Wilson, and in came Robertson to play second base.

So what made this seemingly innocuous substitution worthy of the All Out-of-Position Team? Sure, Robertson played a few different positions beforehand in the minors, but there was one tiny problem:

Robertson was pretty clearly an outfielder, and he played there exclusively in college, too. Imagine the excitement of stepping onto a major-league field for the first time combined with the uneasiness of heading to a position almost entirely foreign to you.

Not bad! Diving stop, quick recovery, strong throw from a difficult position. Throw wasn't accurate enough, and maybe a better internal clock would have helped if he'd known he had an extra quarter second to make a better throw, but all in all a pretty good case that he's less out of place at second base than, say, Dan Uggla. Only four second basemen made more errors than Uggla did last year. He started only 37 games.

Third base: Albert Pujols
There’s something elegant about Pujols playing third base in 2014. Like Martinez, don’t forget that Pujols was once a regular at the listed position; that’s where he played during his one year in the minors and his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2001. The gap between when he regularly appeared there and now is even more extreme than Martinez’s distance from catching. Since the end of the 2002 campaign, he had played a grand total of 10 games there.

Fortunately for the Angels, Pujols can still fill in there in a pinch, despite his limited maneuverability these days. On August 9th, they played a six and a half hour marathon with the Red Sox, and both of their third basemen (David Freese and John McDonald) had been lost in all the stratgizing by the 14th inning. While trying to win the game with a runner in scoring position in the 13th, Mike Scioscia had pinch-hit C.J. Cron for McDonald, but it went for naught. So Cron went to first while Pujols went throwback and covered third base:

Keeping Pujols in the game undoubtedly paid off, as only one ball was hit in his direction (while he was practically playing second base in an extreme defensive shift), and like Martinez he turned out to be the offensive hero. Moral of the story, MLB managers?

  1. Play your stars out of position.
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

Shortstop: Chone Figgins
While the Yankees fan in me wants to put the now-Twin Eduardo Nunez here because he should never be associated with the position again, I'm forced to acknowledge Figgins, whose return after sitting out the entire 2013 season was one fo the least talked-about stories of 2014. It wasn’t talked about much because, to the surprise of few except maybe Figgins, he wasn’t much better than he was two years ago on the Mariners.

Figgins had a small role on the Dodgers, serving as their utilityman until he was released in August. Two of his 38 games featured appearances at shortstop. If you think of Figgins mostly as the Angels' superutility player in the mid-to-late '00s this might not seem notable, but despite all that previous infield experience had appeared only 27 times times at shortstop in his career--and never since 2006. Alas, neither of his games produced any interesting plays involving him, though at one point he was playing shortstop with catcher Drew Butera firing missiles from the mound. Butera looked more natural in his role than Figgins did.

Left field: Andrew Cashner
Similar to Roy Oswalt playing left field for the Phillies a few years ago, the Padres’ ace taking the field in left warrants a captain's patch on this team. As noted by Aaron Gleeman at Hardball Talk, San Diego was forced into a jam on April 24th when Seth Smith departed an extra-inning game with a hamstring injury. Manager Bud Black wanted to make a double-switch to get Tim Stauffer out of the game, but only after stretching Stauffer for one more batter. So, with Cashner scheduled to start two days later, so Black decided that he could fill in at left for one batter. Cashner did not have a chance to field anything, but it was still awesome:

And he was so excited, too! You blew it, Jayson Werth. Much to the disappointment of Weirdball enthusiasts, Black immediately replaced Cashner with Tommy Medica in left after swapping Stauffer for Alex Torres. As Cashner said when the game was over, it was “Nothing… crickets.” Oh well.

Center field: Ryan Braun
Right field: Mark Reynolds

Yes, this was the same game. Individually, these two players’ stints at their respective positions might not have been amusing enough to make the team, but as a tandem, it’s glorious. In another case of “stranger than you’d think,” Braun’s sojourn in center was necessitated by unusual circumstances. On June 28th, the then-division-leading Brewers took on the Rockies, and they carried a 7-2 lead into the seventh thanks in part to a three-run homer by star center fielder Carlos Gomez and a two-run triple by Braun. Suddenly, near-disaster struck with none out and a runner on when Ryan Wheeler popped a ball up into no-man’s land in right-center. Gomez and Braun collided:

It was a scary scene, but thankfully, Gomez ended up with only a neck strain. He did have to exit the game, so for the first time in his professional career, Braun shifted to center field, and for just the third time in the past seven years, Reynolds entered to play right field. (The Brewers were wacky enough to actually start him in a game earlier in 2014, and he subbed for an inning there on another occasion.) Nothing eventful happened to Braun or Reynolds for the duration of the game, as the Brewers’ pitching staff did a nice job playing keepaway by striking out half of the remaining hitters.

It was Braun’s first game in center, but Reynolds, of course, was no stranger to the “playing out of position” game. He became the first repeat member of the All Out-of-Position Team after his more entertaining appearance at second base last year for the Yankees. Bravo to you, Mr. Reynolds, appearing in all sorts of crazy places on the field. May you find an appearance behind the plate in 2015. We must learn how a blind man can frame a pitch. The world needs you.

Andrew Mearns is an editor and writer at SB Nation's Yankees blog, Pinstripe Alley, where he also co-hosts a podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @MearnsPSA and @pinstripealley.

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