July 25, 2005
You Could Look It Up
Any Infielder Will Do
1: THERE ARE ONLY TWO EXAMPLES AT THE END OF THIS DISCUSSION
We're taking a break from the Prospectus Infinity format because the novel-length Don Padgett story needs to breathe for awhile. Still, there is always a lot to discuss here on the Wayback Page. With the trading season almost upon us, to the long list of maxims we have coined here at Baseball Prospectus ("There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect," "Dusty Baker is an Honorable Man," "Meat is Murder") another possibility must be added, a question that every general manager should ask himself before making a knee jerk trade of prospect for glove: "Do I really need that utility infielder?"
Reserve shortstops, second basemen, third basemen, go by the wrong name. We call them "utility infielders." They should be known as "Lucifer's Infernal General Manager Trap," because it is very difficult to acquire a player who is both a utility infielder and is capable of contributing for more than a few days at a time. Infielders who can both hit and field are a rarity to begin with. Most players who can do even one well and half of the other are going to be someone's highly paid starter. This is why, if you're the Cardinals, you end up with Abraham Nunez and Scott Seabol backing up Scott Rolen: Scott Rolen is not available to back up Scott Rolen. Half of Scott Rolen is not available to backup Scott Rolen, nor is Scott Rolen's wife or Scott Rolen's wife's friends.
There are three exceptions to this rule. The first are in-house prospects. Since the Red Sox control Kevin Youkilis, they can keep him on the bench even he's probably overqualified to be there. The second involves flukes, where a team has a generic reserve who somehow channels Rogers Hornsby for a few months or a year. The Braves have two. Pete Orr is batting .309/.345/.409 in over 100 plate appearances, while Wilson Betemit salved the pain of Chipper Jones' long absence by batting over .300 with power in both May and June. Perhaps the most famous of these hot streaks belonged to Dick Schofield (the elder), who batted .375/.459/.469 down the stretch for the Pirates in 1960, helping to drive the team to a pennant after starting shortstop and eventual MVP Dick Groat broke his wrist. Ducky Schofield's career averages in over 1300 games: .227/.317/ .297. The final way out is to do what the Philadelphia Phillies somehow did this year, which was to pay a qualified regular, Placido Polanco, to sit on the bench. That doesn't happen very often unless you're the Yankees and you collect expensive things because you can afford to.
Most of these situations do not commonly occur, so the typical tactic is to sign Donald Duck over the winter, followed by daily prayer that you never have to play him. Faith is its own reward--it has to be, because faster than you can say "Wayne Tolleson," Derek Jeter dislocates his shoulder, Nomar Garciaparra's groin is bombed by terrorists, Miguel Tejada tumbles through a wormhole into a universe populated by sentient gladiator teddy bears, and Donald Duck is now starting, and, for some reason, batting second. Some managers are overly attracted to waterfowl.
The team's chances are now going to take a big hit, because Donald Duck is Replacement Level Poultry. This is where the stupid trades come in. If you look at the universe of trades as a whole, the vast, vast majority of them come to nothing. The list contains dozens upon dozens of deals like Mike Ferraro from the Twins to the Brewers for Ken Reynolds, March 27, 1973. George Binksfrom the A's to the Senators for Lou Knerr, February 14, 1947. The really damaging ones occur when a team overpays for replacement level talent in an effort to ensure that the team never needs to use replacement-level players. It's a logical fallacy that gets overlooked in the heat of the moment.
I have only two examples, both from the Yankees. The Yankees dealt Damaso Marte to the Pirates for Enrique Wilson on June 13, 2001. The year before they dealt pitcher Chris Spurling to the Pirates for Luis Sojo. Both are still pitching in the majors, the former quite effectively. The Yankees made the Wilson deal just eight days before dealing D'Angelo Jimenez to the Padres for Jay Witasick. Whatever Jimenez's faults, he could have been counted on to do a decent Wilson imitation for half a season, which is more than could be said of Wilson.
2: SACRIFICIAL PIRATES
Pittsburgh called up Brad Eldred, making him the team's 71st first baseman of the season. Some franchises have a tough time finding players to man a certain position--the White Sox and the Mets, for example, struggled for decades to place a useful man at third base. The Yankees spent the years between Tony Kubek's rookie year and Derek Jeter's rookie year without a two-way shortstop. The Pirates have spent 100 years trying to find a first baseman.
Pittsburgh's career leader in games played at the first sack is Gus Suhr, who played 1339 games during the decade of the 1930s. Suhr had a career .283 EqA, which is to say that he was pretty good but not a strong hitter for first base. He had only one truly strong season, batting .312/.410/.467 with 33 doubles, 12 triples, and 11 home runs in 1936. The remaining top ten: Kevin Young (1022), Jake Beckley (924), Donn Clendenon (910), Elbie Fletcher (894), Willie Stargell (848), Charlie Grimm (768), Jason Thompson (650), Sid Bream (615), and Bob Robertson (575).
The best of these was Willie Stargell, a transplanted left fielder who was stationed at first for most of the last decade of his career because the National League didn't adopt the designated hitter rule. Between age, injuries, and assignments in the outfield, Stargell never played more than 122 games at first in a season, but he hit at his usual high level throughout.
An unjustly forgotten Pirates first baseman is Elbie Fletcher. Fletcher didn't have much in the way of power but he knew how to get on base. Pittsburgh's starting first sacker for six seasons starting in 1939, Fletcher drew over 100 walks four times. From 1939 to 1943 he posted EqAs of .304, .320, .323, .319, and .299.
Since then it's been pretty much all Kevin Young. Even when the first baseman of the day wasn't named Kevin Young, he was Kevin Young. From 1972 to present, Pittsburgh has had only 21 first basemen post 10-plus VORP in a season of 350 or more plate appearances (best: Jason Thompson, 57.5, 1982; worst: Kevin Young, -8.1, 1993). This places the Pirates last among teams that predate the 1993 expansion (there are some examples of double-counting due to teams splitting the position between two players). Parenthetically, note how certain players recur on the list below:
Houston Astros: 34
Los Angeles Dodgers: 25
Montreal Expos: 23
New York Yankees: 28
Philadelphia Phillies: 25
San Francisco Giants: 25
Seattle Mariners: 26
Texas Rangers: 32 Best: Rafael Palmeiro, 78.3, 1991; Worst: Larry Biittner, 2.7, 1972.