I have a question for you that is part historical and part analytical. Lots of baseball teams seem to reserve a roster spot for a player with inconsequential batting skills that nominally has the dual role of defensive replacement and pinch runner. My question is why these players aren’t more extreme on those dimensions? Basically, whereas football, for example, has a history of finding Olympic track athletes and making them kick returners or receivers, I don’t know of that happening at all in baseball. I would have thought that there must be someone like Tim Montgomery or Justin Gatlin who would be so fast that with some training he would steal a base every single time. Granted, that seems like a pretty questionable benefit, but given that certain players are essentially filling that role already, why aren’t teams maximizing the speed dimension? And since I have little faith in my historical perspective, a simpler question is simply whether I am wrong, and that there have been teams that tried out this strategy. If so, then how has that worked out? Thanks in advance, LN

The short answer is that baseball teams do have specialists on their rosters: left-handers. They take up the space that might go to the kind of specialist you envision. The longer answer is that the tactic has been tried and found wanting. Your idea is one that obsessed Oakland A’s owner Charles Finley. Finley, who was his own general manager, made sure that his managers kept–and used–a designated runner from the late 1960s to the late 1970s.

Most of the time, discussion of Finley’s speed demon is limited to Herb Washington, the former track star that Finley pretended was a baseball player for most of two seasons. In fact, Washington was one of five speed-only players that, with the exception of 1971, were part of the A’s roster every year from 1969 through 1977. These players almost never batted because it was understood that they couldn’t hit. Their only job was to run:

NAME                  A's YEARS     G     AB     R      SB    CS
Allen Lewis          1967-1973     156    29     47     44    17
Herb Washington      1974-1975     105     0     33     31    17
Don Hopkins          1975-1976      85    19     25     21    10
Matt Alexander       1975-1977     214    82     56     63    31
Larry Lintz          1976-1977     109    31     32     44    16

Lewis, sometimes referred to as “The Panamanian Express,” Lintz, and Alexander were all actual ballplayers, though outside of one small-sample fluke (see below) none of them could hit. Washington had played baseball through his junior year of high school, but after that he was all about the running, setting indoor records in the 50- and 60- yard dashes. Throughout his year-plus term with the A’s he never batted and he never played the field. His only job was to run. As you can see from his success rate, it turned out there was more to being a good baserunner than speed.

It wasn’t just a question of skill, although that was missing as well. One aspect of basestealing is surprise; in the course of a given ballgame, even Vince Coleman types have to pick their spots. When a player whose only job is to steal bases comes trotting out of the dugout in the bottom of the ninth and takes a lead off of first, everyone in the ballpark knows that the attempt is not a matter of if but when. To some extent this is true of any late-game pinch-runner, but in the case of the A’s specialists the point seemed to be underscored, perhaps because no one wants to experience the humiliation of being shown up by a track star.

Consider that two of the four runners appeared in World Series games for the A’s. In the ninth inning of Game One of the 1972 World Series between the A’s and the Reds, Mike Epstein walked with one out. Lewis pinch-ran and attempted to steal second. Johnny Bench threw him out. In the sixth inning of Game Two, Epstein again walked with one out and Lewis went in to run. Lewis again ran, this time with two strikes on batter Sal Bando. Bando swung and missed, Bench fired to second, inning-ending double play.

Washington’s turn came in the 1974 World Series between the A’s and Dodgers. With the visiting A’s trailing 3-0 in the top of the ninth, Don Sutton hit Bando with a pitch to open the frame. Reggie Jackson moved him to third with a double. The Dodgers brought in bullpen ace Mike Marshall, who promptly yielded a single to Joe Rudi. Both runners scored, making it a 3-2 game. The next batter, Gene Tenace, struck out. Washington ran for Rudi, while the immortal Angel Mangual pinch-hit for pitcher Blue Moon Odom. Ignoring Mangual, Marshall calmly wheeled and picked Washington off of first base. He then struck out Mangual. Ballgame over.

Washington had literally no idea how to run the bases. In his autobiography, 1974 A’s manager Alvin Dark recalled a game when Reggie Jackson hit a single to left field with Washington on first base. Rather than going to third, or at least taking a turn around the second base bag, Washington slid into second. He had no idea where the ball was. The A’s had hired Maury Wills to school Washington in the art of baserunning, but he could no more impart a lifetime of experience in a week than A’s coach Joe DiMaggio could teach Reggie Jackson how to hit like Joe DiMaggio. A player has to possess that skill, and then he has to have spent some time refining it. As Babe Ruth wisely said, baseball isn’t a game you can just pick up; you have to start young and dedicate yourself to it.

Alexander arrived too late to go to a World Series with the A’s, but he did make it there with the “We Are Family” Pirates of 1979. Bill Robinson led off the ninth inning of Game Two with a single. Alexander ran for him. One Rick Dempsey throw to second base later, he was running back to the dugout.

The bigger issue was not that the designated runners were without their uses, or that you couldn’t sign a trained player like Chuck Carr, never, ever, let him bat, and get better results than the A’s did with Herb Washington, but that baseball rosters are simply too small to allow for too many specialized position players. Pro football teams carry 45 men. With brief exceptions, baseball rosters have been limited to 25 men since about 1910 (exceptions included a fight-the-Federal-League reduction to 21, a Great Depression austerity reduction to 23, and a post-free agency squeeze-the-players reduction to 24). With 10-12 pitchers and at least one reserve catcher guaranteed spots, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for players who can’t pitch in at the plate or on the field when needed. The real problem that the A’s ran into when using their runners, repeatedly, was, what if it didn’t work? What if you send your runner into the bottom of the ninth of a tie game and he fails to score the winning run? If he’s Herb Washington, you have to bring in another player for the tenth, because he can’t even play defense in the top of the inning. If it’s one of the other three, you’re going to have to pinch-hit for him as soon as his spot comes up. Either way, you’ve burned three players on one transaction.

Again, this is true of almost any pinch-runner you might use, but most of those players are good enough ballplayers that they can hit or field if forced to. They have a non-zero chance of getting a hit or making a catch. This could barely be said of any of Finley’s runners, and in Washington’s case he could not contribute at all. Thus was the roster badly constricted. Strategic options were limited rather than enlarged.

This was especially true of the 1975 A’s, who at one point carried three run-only players, Washington, Alexander, and rookie Don Hopkins. The A’s had zero maneuverability on their bench, and by May even Charlie Finley realized that Washington had to be released. Said Bando, “I’d feel sorry for him if he were a player.”

Bando raised another problem with specialists, which is that in football (as far as we know) the wide receivers and linebackers don’t look at the kick returners as leeches. A’s players felt that Finley’s runners were keeping legitimate major league players in the minor leagues. Perhaps this was true in football when that game first split its teams into offensive and defensive squads rather than having the same men play the entire game, but by now they’ve grown used to the idea.

After 1977, Finley seems to have lost interest in the designated runner idea, perhaps because free agency had wrecked the A’s, making tinkering at the margins beside the point, perhaps because the 341 bases the A’s stole in 1976 had satiated him, perhaps because Rickey Henderson soon came along. Next to Henderson, any designated runner was going to look inept.

Finley may have given up, but his runners ran on. Let go by the A’s, Alexander went to the Pirates, where he was reunited with Chuck Tanner, his 1976 A’s manager. Though his role was exactly the same as it had been in Oakland, Alexander was really extraordinary in a Buccos uniform, quite the opposite of what he had been with the A’s, for whom he had hit .146/.195/.159 in his rare plate appearances. In 103 games as a Pirate, Alexander batted just 27 times, but had 12 hits, including a double and a triple. He never took a walk, but even so his rates were .444/.444/.556. He stole 30 bases and was caught seven times.

Despite his World Series appearance, Alexander’s biggest moment with the Pirates came the year before, on September 21, 1978. In the 14th inning of a 2-2 game at Chicago, Rennie Stennett led off against Bruce Sutter and drew a walk (Stennett walked infrequently and Sutter had great control, so this was in itself an unlikely development). A leg injury had robbed Stennett of his speed, so Tanner sent Alexander in to pinch-run. When Alexander broke for second, catcher Doug Rader‘s throw went into center field. Alexander got up and raced for third. Center fielder Bobby Murcer retrieved the ball and fired it at the third baseman, but his throw hit Alexander in the back and rolled away. Alexander ran home with what proved to be the winning run.

It was Charlie Finley’s dream come true.