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August 17, 2004

Breaking Balls

Taking a Risk

by Derek Zumsteg

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Doug Mientkiewicz took his glove out to second base for Boston yesterday, and while it's only a game, it's also another indication that the Red Sox organization is not only willing to experiment, but willing to take risks and try the unconventional in the midst of a pennant race; going into Monday's game, the Red Sox stood 10.5 games behind the Yankees and in a three-way tie with Texas and Anaheim for the wild card playoff berth.

There are enough barriers to this kind of move to make it tough to pull off even when there isn't that kind of pressure. Some players aren't willing to try another position, for fear of embarrassing themselves, or because they don't want to try something more demanding, or because they're not comfortable enough. Managers don't want to play someone out of position for fear of looking stupid for trying something. But in Boston? Where even the hyper-critical media acknowledges that the atmosphere is too negative? Where fan reaction runs between bitter, expected disappointment and feverish loyalty?

It's an environment that discourages risk-taking. And since fear of fan reaction and a need to feel secure in their positions makes so many managers and executives work from conventional wisdom, it's even more impressive that since the Boston organization's turned over, they've been willing to go out on a limb over and over. Owner John Henry took for his GM a young state-of-the art model instead of one of the safe names constantly in circulation as they're hired and fired for doing modestly bad jobs. The Sox then brought in a ton of then-no-name guys like David Ortiz and Kevin Millar and retreads like Bill Mueller, used the season to sort through them...and now we see how this philosophy takes the field.

As for the Mientkiewicz experiment, they got here when Mark Bellhorn fractured his thumb. Bellhorn had taken on the bulk of the second base duties with Pokey Reese out with a rib injury. Bill Mueller might take second, but Kevin Youkilis just took a ball to the body, leaving Ricky Gutierrez as the only other guy on the active roster who you could think about pushing out there. That would leave nobody on the bench in case of Orlando Cabrera combustion, and Gutierrez can't hit at all anyway. Time for the Sox to get creative, and they did.

The book on Mientkiewicz's defense is that he's got great reflexes and is quick around the base. His vaunted scooping ability's not going to help other fielders avoid errors on throws, but you might be able to cross-apply that to picking grounders. He's only played one game there in the majors, though--he's played more right field than second--making no plays while at the keystone.

Defensively, Clay Davenport's fielding ratings have him at +12, +7, and -1 runs saved over an average first baseman in the last three seasons. Tangotiger did a weighting of UZR for the last four years and Mientkiewicz came out as the second-best first baseman, behind Todd Helton. That seems like a waste anyway. Application of defensive excellence at first is like having William Jennings Bryan explain that there are six exit doors on your aircraft, two to the front, two to the back, and two to the sides.

If Mientkiewicz can apply those quick reflexes and good hands well enough to acquit himself for a game or more now, when the team has been forced into trying it, he'll provide the team with another option for wacky in-game tactics later, in the same way having a guy who won't kill you if he has to catch a couple of innings creates opportunities. While it's tough to take much away from one game, Mientkiewicz looked decent at the keystone Monday night, turning a double play out early and surviving a collision with Carlos Delgado along the way.

My point here isn't that this is a good move, or a bad move. Or that players sometimes play positions outside their usual repertoire. Heck, I saw Pat Borders, a 40-year old catcher, play third base last season. If you pay serious attention to your box scores every morning, you'll see all kinds of strange stuff.

No, what's great about this is that in the same way the people (like Chris Kahrl) who know rosters inside and out throw out ideas about how to divvy up limited playing time and positions among, say, three different players of widely divergent talents, so it appears the Red Sox are willing not only to ask questions like "How do we best arrange our lineup?" but "Could we play our first baseman at second?" and then try it. Rather then be forced into a roster move they didn't want to make, the Red Sox gave this some thought and decided to take a flier. For that, they should be commended.

Related Content:  Doug Mientkiewicz

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