April 10, 2013
The Lineup Card
11 Successful Career Reinventions
1. Ron Mahay Becomes a Pitcher
Despite the fact that he functioned near or often below replacement level for most of his career, at age 37, Mahay, who for his career averaged 7.4 strikeouts and 4.2 walks per nine innings while generally pitching exclusively in a role where he had the platoon advantage most of the time, signed a two-year/$8 million contract in free agency. #Royals.
As of 2012, he was still kicking around the minors, even spending some quality time with the Reds' Triple-A affiliate. But did you know that Mahay actually made his major-league debut in 1995... in center field? Mahay played five games there for the Red Sox, who suggested that Mahay, who had a good left arm, go bac into the minors and try pitching. If there is ever proof needed for the theorem that left-armed equals 10-year MLB career (minimum), it's Ron Mahay. Any despondent southpaw position player trying to re-invent himself in major-league baseball should take note. —Russell A. Carleton
2. Dennis Eckersley Converts to Relief
3. Adam Jones and B.J. Upton Move to Center Field
Adam Jones, too, found life a lot easier out in center field after starting out as a minor-league shortstop who booted balls all over the place. (Both he and Upton had range factors at shortstop that rivaled Omar Vizquel’s. Ah, well…) No surprise that the Reds made the same move with Billy Hamilton, who can now utilize his single greatest tool—one of the greatest in all of sports—unburdened by his former position. How many careers have been made by dint of getting players away from shortstop and its steep demands? And how many never came to be, simply because the men who tried to undertake them were simply stationed at the wrong post, and never reassigned to one they could handle? —Adam Sobsey
4. Tim Wakefield Becomes a Knuckleballer
As a hitter, Wakefield would likely have lasted another season or so before getting released. As a knuckleball pitcher, he shot through the Pirates system, making his major-league debut after just two seasons. He finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1992, and after a bit more time in the minors, he wound up with the Red Sox, winning 200 games over the next 17 seasons for Boston.
For some players adding a new pitch or moving across the rubber can be the difference between success and failure. For Wakefield, the knuckleball was the difference between major-league baseball fame and fortune, and… dentistry? Wakefield kinda looks like a dentist… —Matthew Kory
5. Scott Feldman Modifies His Delivery, Adds a Cutter, Gets Paid
Two years after making the rare switch, Feldman rode his traditional arm slot to 189 innings, 17 wins, and a 4.08 ERA in the Rangers’ rotation. Was that season the “real” Scott Feldman? Absolutely not. Feldman’s cutter was fantastic in 2009, but he hasn’t approached that success since. Did the re-invention get him paid? You bet it did. While it’s safe to say Feldman is a No. 5 starter at best these days, the unorthodox adjustment sent him from short-shelf-life middle reliever to a man who has made nearly $5 million annually since. —Jason Cole
6. Sean Doolittle Moves to the Mound
The left-hander was a two-way player in college, with the scouting notes from MLB.com suggesting that he threw “87-90 mph from the mound,” and the A's opted to reverse course with Doolittle to see if he could make an impact as a major-league pitcher. He entered the 2012 season with an assignment out of the bullpen for Stockton, tasked with surviving the very environment that had fueled his own offensive breakout a few years prior, and with five years having passed since his last extended exposure to the rubber.
An adjustment period was to be expected due to Doolittle's prolonged hiatus combined with the difficulty of transitioning to the mound, yet the southpaw skyrocketed through the minor leagues, jumping through three levels and climbing to the majors within two months. He allowed just three earned runs across 25 innings in the minors, with a K-to-walk ratio of 48-to-7, and the dominance carried over to the majors without Doolittle missing a beat. The southpaw was more vulnerable to left-handed bats during his major-league time, with a reverse platoon split that could be a fluke of small sample size or perhaps a reflection of Doolittle's lack of secondary stuff. He threw 87 percent fastballs last season, averaging 94.4 mph, and the one-pitch wonder managed a 60-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio across 47.3 innings in the majors.
The first week of 2013 was more of the same, and Doolittle's lightning-quick adjustment from the batter's box to the mound was one of the more intriguing subplots of the Oakland A's exhilarating run to the AL West crown last year. —Doug Thorburn
7. Mike Scott Learns the Splitter
His strikeout total declined each season after that, but Scott had five consecutive seasons of 200 innings or more, and from 1985 to 1989, he went 86-49 with a 2.93 ERA and struck out 7.8 batters per nine innings. There were always whispers, nay, screams of Scott doctoring the baseball, most vociferously by the Mets in the 1986 postseason. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Scott confirmed the accusations in an interview with MLB Network in 2011, thus joining a long list of pitchers who eventually came clean: "They can believe whatever they want to believe. Every ball that hits the ground has something on it. … I’ve thrown balls that were scuffed, but I haven’t scuffed every ball that I’ve thrown." —Jason Collette
8. Brian Bogusevic Starts Hitting
One of the guys who has done it is Brian Bogusevic, who is hitting .389/.476/.389 in five games for the Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate as a 29-year-old. This is supposed to be a Lineup Card on big changes that worked, and so it might not seem like Bogusevic qualifies. But he’s got 612 big-league plate appearances and made about a million bucks as a hitter, which is a lot more than you’ve ever done, hot shot.
That’s after spending nearly four years as a pitcher exclusively in the Astros’ system. But the former first-rounder was stalled and going nowhere; in 113 Double-A innings, he’d struck out just 51 while walking 46. Ironically, his bat got him onto a big-league mound, in a way. As an outfielder on the Astros, he came into a game as a mop-up reliever in a blowout. He allowed two runs in an inning.
There’s a pretty good chance Bogusevic will get a few more ABs in the majors, but even if he doesn’t, he has played more big-league games as a hitter than six actual position players drafted in the first round of his class. —Sam Miller
9. Babe Ruth Becomes a Slugger
But to keep Ruth as a starter or a hitter? Between 1914 and 1919, the southpaw compiled an 89-46 record over 158 games, tossing 1190 1/3 innings and collecting 3.7 strikeouts per nine for Boston, though his stats tailed off as he received more hitting opportunities. The enviable decision became the Yankees' responsibility when the Red Sox sold Ruth to New York during the offseason. The Bombers quickly moved their new slugger into the heart of their lineup, with nary a glance at putting Ruth back on the mound.
It seems that the Yankees got pretty good value out of the Sultan of Swat: Ruth went on to hit .349/.484/.711 between 1920 and 1934, famously procalimed he had a better year than sitting president Herbert Hoover, (arguably) called his shot during the World Series, single-handedly outslugged entire teams, held the career home-run record until 1974, played a huge role in reviving baseball in the '20s. That kind of success is worthy of a gold star or four. —Stephani Bee
10. Esteban Loaiza Adds a Cutter and Becomes an Ace
And then, for one season, Loaiza pitched like an ace. He threw 226 1/3 innings with a 2.90 ERA, won 21 games, and led the American League with 207 strikeouts. He finished second in AL Cy Young voting, and second in PWARP. All of his peripherals passed the smell test. The only fluky thing about his performance was that he’d never pitched so well before.
The secret: Loiaza started throwing an effective cutter, with which he was able to change speeds. The recipe for success is almost never that simple—take fringe arm, add new pitch, mix until top-of-the-rotation starter. And it probably wasn’t quite that simple in Loaiza’s case, either: he’d recently resolved some off-the-field distractions, so he may have been more focused on the field, and contemporary analysis by ex-players indicates that he also improved his command. But Loaiza’s story is still tantalizing, since it suggests that any struggling starter could be one pitch away from a near-Cy Young season.
Loaiza couldn’t sustain his success, even to the extent that, say, Mike Scott did after he added his splitter/emery board. As quickly as he’d risen to prominence, age took its toll and sent him back into obscurity. Loaiza lost some velocity, suffered some injuries, and no longer looked like the same guy. His ERA after 2003 was 4.81, which was worse, relative to the rest of the league, than his ERA prior to 2003. But even though he didn’t last long at the top, Loaiza remains one of the purest examples of a pitcher transforming himself by adopting a new offering at an advanced age. —Ben Lindbergh
11. Willie Mays Hayes Hits for Power
Hayes’ combination of contact and on-base skills, ability on the basepaths, and superb defense in center made him a valuable player, but he wasn’t satisfied with the status quo. Following the Indians’ sweep by the White Sox, Hayes tore down his game and built it back up again. By the time he returned to camp the next spring, he’d become a completely different player.
Hayes’ stances in his first and second springs looked more or less the same:
But the new swing was explosive, with superior weight transfer and hip rotation. Watch his back foot stay still in the first clip and swivel in the second:
Suddenly, Hayes was not only swinging for the fences, but hitting balls over them. And the power boost was perfectly timed, since he'd also lost a step, at least early in the season.
And it wasn’t just about the way Hayes played. It was also the way he looked and acted. He drove a new car, wore more jewelry, and turned his cap around so that the brim faced backwards. He was more difficult to coach, and less of a positive clubhouse presence. Sometimes he seemed like a different person:
The only explanation Hayes offered for his remarkable transformation was that he’d “bulked up” over the winter, which seems a little suspicious in light of what we’ve learned about baseball’s PED problems at the time. I’m not saying he used. But you have to at least ask the question. —Ben Lindbergh