August 17, 2004
You Could Look It Up
Shifting on the Fly
On Monday, Boston's Terry Francona made an unusual midseason position switch, listing first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz as his starting second baseman. While position switches happen all the time at other places on the field--left fielders play right field and vice versa, shortstops move to second base, and so on--the Mientkiewicz move is shocking because it moves a player in the wrong direction along the defensive spectrum. Francona was sliding him from an offense-first, "unskilled" position to a key defensive station, one that requires a skill set far different from that used at first base. An outfielder is an outfielder no matter where he's standing. Putting a first baseman on the keystone sack is like asking a fish to sing Verdi.
This is, of course, not the first time that a team has implemented an unskilled/skilled transition during the season with little advance notice or preparation. Some of these moves worked out quite well. In 1968, Detroit Tigers center fielder Mickey Stanley moved to shortstop so that Ray Oyler's .135/.213/.186 averages could take a well-deserved seat on the bench (baseball rule: all shortstops named "Ray" or "Rey" cannot hit), a move that led directly to a Tigers championship. In 1986, the Chicago White Sox relocated future Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk, 38, to left field for reasons never explicated, probably because they were poorly understood (Ron Karkovice?). There were statues in the Louvre more mobile than Fisk and the experiment was officially abandoned soon after.
The 1986 White Sox were far from the pennant race, but the Yankees of that same season were in the thick of things when they gave Don Mattingly two emergency starts at third base. Mattingly acquitted himself quite well despite being a left-handed thrower; the Yankees went 0-2 but his play at third did not contribute to either loss.
Some in-season unskilled/unskilled transitions have proved to be more than curiosities, but rather calculated risks with real historic impact. Among these are Pittsburgh's Fred Clarke moving Honus Wagner from the outfield to shortstop in 1901, or Ed Barrow hesitantly giving Babe Ruth a chance to play the outfield for the Red Sox in 1918.
Some of these moves qualify as expedients (Mattingly), some as experiments (Fisk) and some as pure desperation (Stanley). Mientkiewicz's shift is an expedient, a move provoked by injuries to Kevin Youkilis and Mark Bellhorn and a desperate need to avoid starting Ricky Gutierrez.
There are some shifts, though, that defy easy categorization, like the return of Hank Aaron to second base in 1964.
At the beginning of Laurence Oliver's motion picture version of Hamlet, a narrator solemnly intones, "This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind." This is the same kind of story.
In "The Late Great Johnny Ace," Paul Simon sang that 1964 was "the year of the Beatles, the year of the Stones, the year after JFK." It was also the year the Philadelphia Phillies took an Icarus lead on the National League and then came crashing back to earth in September. Their protracted fade gave hope to all the also-rans, including the genuinely befuddled Milwaukee Braves.
Manager Bobby Bragan's Braves entered September sitting in sixth place, one game above .500 and 13 1/2 games behind the front-running Phillies. Bragan had spent all season identifying and fixing problems--problems that didn't exist, problems that grew out of solutions--changing the lineup at a dizzying pace.
All year long, the Braves had suffered from a lack of pitching, as Warren Spahn had finally given out at 43, but Bragan's focus was on outfielders. He had too many. The previous winter, the Braves had acquired right fielder Felipe Alou from the San Francisco Giants. Bragan's intention was to have Alou play center field and lead off, a seriously strange idea as Alou walked about as often as you might expect given his later managerial prediliction for players who think that strike zone is a bowling term. Bragan's other pasture-men included Aaron, Lee Maye and rookie Rico Carty, who had hit .408 in spring training to win a reserve job with the team. Bragan also was trying to move veteran third baseman Eddie Mathews to left field so he could play sophomore shortstop Denis Menke at third and keep veteran gloveman Roy McMillan at short. It was a confusing time.
Bragan's first solution to his logjam was to take Maye, a veteran outfielder, and move him to third base, pushing Mathews to first and sending non-hitting first baseman Gene Oliver to the bench. Catcher Joe Torre, who was having a terrific season, would play part time at first to make room for lefty-hitting catcher Ed Bailey, who had been acquired with Alou in the off-season.
See if you can follow this. Alou, who through 1963 was a career .286/.328/.466 hitter in 719 games and had been acquired to add power to the Braves' lineup, got off to a slow start and Bragan began to platoon him with Maye, a left-hander. This sprung Carty from the bench and into the starting lineup. The self-styled "Beeg Boy" would hit .330/.388/.554 the rest of the way. Maye and his .294 batting average were benched pending a transfer to first base, which never happened. Mathews went back to third.
The Braves, who had opened the season 12-6, went 11-15 to finish the month of May.
On June 21, Bragan benched Mathews, who was hitting under .200, and moved Alou, whose defense in center had been weak, to first base. He made reserve Ty Cline his center fielder and moved Menke off of shortstop, where he had finally displaced McMillan (all the way to the Mets), and back to third. On June 24, Alou tore cartilage in his knee while warming up and required surgery and an extended rehabilitation. That required another reshuffling. Back went Maye to the outfield.
On June 22, the day after the Braves had dropped both ends of a doubleheader to the Colt 45s, management extended Bragan's contract for another year. The team was 30-35, in seventh place, 10 games out. Ownership, which was more focused on moving the club to Atlanta than in its performance on the field, felt he had done a good job. Certainly there was the appearance of activity.
When Alou finally came back in August, Bragan had to fit every Brave this side of Shanty Hogan into the lineup. He still had too many outfielders, all of whom were hitting very well. His real problem was how to get second baseman Frank Bolling out of the lineup. After a torrid start to the season, Bolling was hitting .199/.278/.245 in a league that was swinging to the tune of .254/.309/.374. As Casey Stengel had done in moving Mickey Mantle back to shortstop in 1954, Bragan gambled on returning Aaron, a veteran of more than 1,600 games, to the position he had played briefly as a sophomore in 1955.
Mantle had played shortstop in the minor leagues, but left the position due to a combination of factors including a scattershot arm, the presence of defensive standout Phil Rizzuto on the big-league club, and the decline of Joe DiMaggio. Stengel, desperately trying to catch a runaway Cleveland Indians team, had expressed this rationale for moving Mantle and his wholly hypothetical knees to the dangerous shortstop position:
"I believe that Mantle, which he is a shortstop when I get him, would be the greatest all-around shortstop since Honus Wagner. That is quite a statement, and there more I think about it, the more I like itů If you ask me, would I risk Mantle against them take-outs around second, the answer is yes. He is fast and nimble enough to get away from the eager beavers and the rough boys. This Mantle kid is no Little Ned out of the Fourth Reader."Bragan's thinking about switching Aaron back to the infield was almost identical, though no doubt couched in slightly better English. The results of the many switches made themselves felt in August with lineups and defensive shifts that looked like this:
Eddie Mathews, 3B Rico Carty, LF Hank Aaron, 2B Lee Maye, CF-LF Joe Torre, 1B-C Ed Bailey, C (two at bats) Gene Oliver, 1B (two at bats) Dennis Menke, SS Felipe Alou, RF Fresh Catch of the Day P
Aaron had made his first appearance at second base on August 14, replacing Bolling, for whom the returning Alou had pinch-hit. Aaron made just one error in his 11 games, but showed very little range and turned just two double plays. During this period the Braves went 8-10.
In the end, Alou essentially got benched, returning to his center field platoon with Maye. Second base rotated among several players including Bolling and future Seattle Mariners GM Woody Woodward. With the most logical lineup reasserted, the Braves had their best month of the season, finishing the year 22-10 and closing to within five games of first place.
In both the Aaron and the Mantle cases, the switches were temporary and did little to alter the outcome of races long since conceded. The day of such switches is probably gone; a manager would risk his career and multimedia ridicule if a modern-day Aaron--a Barry Bonds or Albert Pujols--met with injury while playing out of position. Fortunately for Terry Francona, we're not talking about a star, just Doug Mientkiewicz, and he has a very handy rationale for the move: if a player hits like a second baseman, and he fields like a second baseman, then by Jove he must be a second baseman.