(Blogathon ’16) Andrew Mearns: The 2015 All Out-of-Position Team

This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

Joe DiMaggio was petrified.

This was a sensation he had almost never experienced on a baseball field in his life. On July 3, 1950, after 1,550 major league games and a Hall of Fame resume already on the ledger, DiMaggio jogged onto the field at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C, but instead of heading to his customary position in center, he stopped at first base. It was the first time DiMaggio had ever played anywhere other than the outfield in his storied career.

DiMaggio was only there because manager Casey Stengel was desperate. Incumbent first baseman Tommy Henrich’s career ended due to injury in 1950, and Stengel didn’t think replacement Joe Collins hit well enough to man the position. So through owner Dan Topping, Stengel had asked DiMaggio if he would try first base for a game.

It was a press frenzy—the iconic “Yankee Clipper” at first and not in center? Photos had to be taken, and the results weren’t pretty. As recalled in Jerome Charyn’s Joe DiMaggio: The Last Vigil, although DiMaggio did not make any errors, he stumbled a couple times, was nervous the whole game, and drenched his uniform in sweat. The immensely proud Yankee was furious at Stengel for not coming to him directly about the idea and that he made him look bad. It was indeed the only game of DiMaggio’s career spent away from the outfield.

Nonetheless, it probably would have been an amusing sight for modern baseball fans. A player appearing out of position is one of the more entertaining aspects of the game. Perhaps that’s because it seems to humanize these great athletes. For the past two years, I wrote guest posts at Baseball Prospectus that revealed each season’s “All Out-of-Position Team.” It’s always fun putting this together, and I’m happy to do so this year for Baseball Continuum’s 2016 Blogathon for Charity.

As one might guess, this is a lineup of nine players at nine positions where they absolutely do not belong. Yet for one reason or another, each ended up there at one point in 2015. Kneel and tremor before this fierce defense.

Pitcher: Jonny Gomes

The 13-year veteran Gomes had an up-and-down season that led to his second World Series ring even though he didn’t make the Royals’ playoff roster. Unfortunately, most of his intrigue came from off-the-field entertainment, such as accidentally helicoptering his daughter into a child running at him or having his status as a good luck charm turn into an “Effectively Wild” podcast meme.

Before he joined Kansas City though, he was on a dismal Atlanta Braves team that was sinking like an anchor. Through June 21st, they were actually .500 at 35-35. Then they went 32-60 the rest of the way. The absolute nadir was a three-game series against the Yankees from August 28th through the 30th. This was the middle of a 12-game losing streak, and in that sweep, the Yankees outscored them 38-11.

Atlanta’s bullpen was getting destroyed in the first game, and manager Fredi Gonzalez decided to take pity on his relievers by asking Gomes if he could pitch one of the innings. Give credit to Gomes—he was a team player on a club going nowhere. He took the lump. Chris Young was the first hitter to face him, and he quickly gave Gomes a scare:

 

The ball jumps off the bat a lot faster from sixty feet, six inches away rather than in the outfield. That pitch ended up in the seats, the Yankees crushed two more doubles, and another run scored. Mercifully, the inning ended on a strikeout. Yes, pitcher Jonny Gomes got a strikeout. Pay no attention to the fact that it was Yankees reliever Bryan Mitchell taking his first MLB at-bat.

Catcher: Wilin Rosario

Everyone who caught at least a portion of an inning in 2015 was a legitimate catcher at one point. So instead, we will pay our final respects to Rosario’s career behind the plate.

Rosario was once an exciting Rockies prospect, particularly when he hit 28 homers and finished fourth in the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year voting. Defense was always a question for him though, and by BP metrics, he struggled with framing and blocking pitches. The most damage was done on passed balls; he led the NL for three years in a row from 2012-14. In 307 games, he had 42 passed balls. Only one other catcher in all of baseball even had more than 30—Josh Thole, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey’s personal catcher.

Despite his offensive potential, Colorado could no longer bear watching Rosario fumble around. They moved him to first base in 2015; the switch coincided with an offensive malaise that led to a demotion to Triple-A. He eventually returned and spent just two games at catcher, both meaningless September starts. Nothing bad in particular happened in either of them, but it was clear that Rosario was no longer a major league catcher.

Earlier in January, Rosario signed a deal with the Hanwha Eagles of the Korean Baseball Organization. The word is that he will continue to fight the good fight and try to keep catching there. Even with only two games caught in 2015, he remains the MLB leaders in passed balls since 2012.

First base: Alex Rodriguez

Like him or not, A-Rod has to be considered among the greatest infielders in baseball history. He spent 1,272 games at shortstop, where he was not only a tremendous hitter but also among baseball’s defensive elite. When he moved to third base upon the Yankees’ trade for him in 2004, it obviously wasn’t because Derek Jeter was the superior defender. While A-Rod had never played third base in his life beforehand, he worked hard and became an excellent defender there as well until his hips began to fail him.

A player on the left side moving down the defensive spectrum to first base is far from unprecedented. Ernie Banks spent over half his career at first, and George Brett made just 14 starts at third in his final seven seasons. So when the Yankees suggested in spring training that A-Rod would get some reps at first base, it wasn’t stunning. He looked shaky in camp, but they gave him a shot anyway on April 11th against the Red Sox.

Boy, was it awkward.

Um, Alex…

That’s not how you…

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Well… okay then. Unsurprisingly, A-Rod made just one emergency appearance at first for the remainder of the season. “DH-Rod” worked out pretty well, but first base was just bizarre.

Second base: Carlos Gomez

Few centerfielders in baseball cover the position like Gomez, who has both the defensive skill and flair of Willie Mays out there. In 12 years of professional baseball though, he had never played the infield. Why should he?

Well, the early 2015 Brewers made it happen. Skipper Ron Roenicke was not long for the campaign, dismissed after a 7-18 start that included a game when his superstar had to play second base. They were about to lose their fourth straight to begin the season. Roenicke had already used infielders Luis Jimenez and Hector Gomez to pinch-hit for pitchers when second baseman Scooter Gennett lost his temper on a called strike three to end the eighth and was ejected by home plate umpire Mike Estabrook.

With no infielders left, Roenicke was forced to choose between Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun to cover second (Braun would have also been a good pick for the All Out-of-Position Team had he been selected). Roenicke let Gomez do it since he occasionally took ground balls in the infield during practice for fun. He never got a chance to field anything during his one inning, but it was quite a sight to see a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder stuck in the infield.

Third base: Albert Pujols

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For the second consecutive year, an aged Pujols somehow made an appearance at third base, and accordingly, he must appear on the All Out-of-Position team again. As noted last year, Pujols won his 2001 NL Rookie of the Year award playing most of his games at third; Mark McGwire was still active for the Cardinals. He spent a little time there again in 2002, but in the past 13 years, it’s pretty much been only in an emergency.

The Angels/Royals game on August 13th was weird enough anyway. Iron man catcher Sal Perez actually got a day off. The steady Garrett Richards was outpitched by Jeremy Guthrie, who carried an unsightly 5.84 ERA into action. The overpowering Wade Davis shockingly gave up two runs in the eighth, allowing the Angels to get back into the game with a 5-3 deficit. They went on to score four in the ninth against ailing closer Greg Holland. It was the first time in 114 games that Davis had allowed a multi-run inning.

Then, of course, there was Pujols at third. During the rally off Holland, Angels manager Mike Scioscia gambled by pinch-hitting the powerful C.J. Cron for shortstop Taylor Featherston. It paid off, as Cron launched the game-tying two-run double. Scioscia took another risk by pinch-running Shane Victorino for Cron, and he scored the go-ahead run on Kole Calhoun’s two-run double. Armed with a 7-5 lead but a short bench thanks to both the moves and normal shortstop Erick Aybar’s tight lower back, Scioscia went full ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Victorino went to right field. Calhoun shifted from right to first base. Third baseman Conor Gillaspie moved to second for the first time in his eight-year professional career, forcing Johnny Giavotella to play shortstop for the first time in his eight-year professional career. Pujols took over at third. It worked out for Scioscia, as closer Huston Street kept the ball from going to any of the numerous inexperienced players, and the Angels won, 7-6.

That makes two straight years of Scioscia ending up victorious in a game with Pujols at third. What a time to be alive.

Shortstop: Brandon Phillips

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Whenever Phillips chooses to retire from this game, his legacy will be intrinsically tied to defensive excellence at second base. There are nigh-countless highlight reels of his amazing work there, and he’s been doing it for a decade now, no easy feat.

That’s what makes it so jarring to see Phillips at shortstop, much like it was when Robinson Cano appeared there in 2013. All but six of his 1,582 career games have been spent at second, and he had not appeared there even in an emergency role since July 25, 2007. It was almost eight years to the day on July 19th of this year when Phillips reemerged at the position he called home when he was a mere Montreal Expos prospect.

Like Scioscia, Reds manager Bryan Price did not have much of a bench at that point in the game. It was the 11th inning, and Price had already used 19 players. In a failed 10th inning rally where Aroldis Chapman was due up, Price pinch-hit the last position player on his roster, Tucker Barnhart. Clearly unwilling to make the 2015 All Out-of-Position team even more entertaining with a pitcher in the field (shortstop Raisel Iglesias, anyone?), Price replaced Chapman on the mound with Pedro Villareal, put Barnhart in right, and made a series of moves that ended up with Phillips at shortstop. The Indians assembled a game-winning rally, but Phillips’ defense played no role in it.

Left field: Hanley Ramirez

There was a lot to write about with the circumstances that led to the other people on this team ending up at their positions. This was ludicrous though—the Red Sox tried to use the defensively inept Ramirez in left field at Fenway Park all season long. This was their plan. It should surprise no one that he is preparing for 2017 at first base.

So since Shakespeare once said “Brevity is the soul of wit,” this entry simply needs the outstanding tweet video by Joon Lee:

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Center field: Joey Gallo

Most of the players on the All Out-of-Position team are old veterans who wind up at odd places in the field. That’s the nature of the beast—the hypothetical of David Ortiz in center field is just far more amusing than, say, Francisco Lindor out there. Sure, Lindor would be out of position, but he’s young and athletic enough that it makes some sense in a pinch.

The idea of rookie masher Joey Gallo playing center field, however, seemed completely absurd. In fact, when Baseball America writer Josh Norris heard that Gallo played a 2014 instructional league game in center field, he thought it was “more as a goof than anything.” After all, Gallo was a third baseman and occasional left fielder, and he still needed considerable defensive work.

When Rangers manager Jeff Banister said that he was going to start Gallo in center field on June 27th in Toronto, Adam J. Morris of Lone Star Ball succinctly summed up baseball Twitter’s reaction:

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Although Gallo had never played center in a professional game, Banister had mentioned a week prior that he was shagging fly balls there “just in case.” Baseball Twitter was bemused then, but casual talk became reality.

Look at the big guy go. Gallo only played five innings in center before Banister subbed Leonys Martin for Ryan Rua in the sixth, putting Martin in center and bumping Gallo to left. If Gallo goes on to become one of the great power hitters of his generation as some suspect, then this detour to center will be something to remember.

Right field: John Jaso

jaso

A catcher his entire career, the 32-year-old Jaso is still primarily associated with that position. Unfortunately, his exile from catching was the result of too many concussions behind the plate. So when the Rays brought him back to Tampa this year, he was to be a DH only.

There were eight games though when Jaso had to appear in the outfield, and since he was originally a catcher, it was a strange sight. He actually started seven games in left, but his appearance in right field was a unique occasion. Jaso pinch-hit for Brandon Guyer in a game on August 17th and came up with a single that jumped the Rays’ lead to 6-2.

Rays skipper Kevin Cash didn’t want to lose Jaso’s bat since it was only the sixth inning at the time, so during the home half, Jaso moved to Guyer’s spot in right field. Since being drafted by Tampa Bay in 2003, he had never played there. It was a strange situation, and the look on Jaso’s face says it all. He received no chances and departed for a defensive replacement in the eighth.

So behold this team:

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Remarkable. Yet still probably a better defense than the 2013 Astros.

Andrew Mearns has been a writer and editor for the SB Nation Yankees blog Pinstripe Alley since 2012. He hosts the site’s podcast and has also had work published by Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, and BP Bronx. He aspires to keep his writer value higher than Andy Stankiewicz’s player value. You’ll most often find him tweeting nonsense @pinstripealley or @MearnsPSA.

This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer were not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

 

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(Blogathon ’16) The Author of @OldHossRadbourn: Three Catches

This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

I would have enjoyed seeing Game 6 of the 1947 World Series.  It was yet another Dodgers/Yankees affair, when both the event and the outcome seemed inevitable.  It had been a hell of a Series, including a stunner in Game 4: the Yanks’ Bill Bevens pitched a ten-walk no-hitter into the ninth when, with two outs and two runners on in a 2-1 game, Cookie Lavagetto smacked a game-winning double to right — the last hit of his career! — that Tommy Henrich could not reach. Game to the Dodgers.

By Game 6 the Yanks were up 3 games to 2 with Allie Reynolds, in his first year in the Bronx, on the mound. He had nothing, and was done in the third.  Relief ace Joe Page also got lit, though the Yankees slowly crept back. Down 8-5 in the 6th, Joe DiMaggio came up to bat with 2 on and 2 out. He crushed Joe Hatten’s pitch to left center. Left fielder Al Gionfriddo raced toward the visitors’ bullpen, over 400 feet from home plate, and managed to jjuusstt make the catch. DiMaggio, sure he’d just lost at least a double, did something extremely rare: he showed emotion, and kicked a patch of dirt between first and second. Inning over.  The Yankees would go on to lose 8-6.

This catch has been on my mind after a recent bit of baseball reading.  What stands out after looking at three works — Roger Kahn’s The Era 1947-1957; David Halberstam’s Summer of ‘49; and Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, — is how differently they portray this one catch, DiMaggio’s reaction, and the man himself.

I have mixed feelings about Kahn.  I’m the father of a special needs son, and reading his description in The Boys of Summer of Carl Erskine raising a “Mongoloid” is a nice reminder that, despite Kahn’s desire, the glory days of the past have no place in my present.  But, goddammit, the man can tell a story.  He describes the catch over several pages, focusing on Gionfriddo’s reaction, including (according to Gionfriddo) comments made by DiMaggio about the man who stole his hit: “…[he] never gave up and he made the greatest catch that anybody ever made in the whole history of baseball.”

It’s not hard to imagine DiMaggio, even then aware of his aura, describe the catch this way.  Only the greatest catch of all time denies the Yankee Clipper his glory.  DiMaggio would return to this topic years later: asked to evaluate Willie Mays’ catch off Vic Wertz in the ‘54 Series (a catch, one scribe noted, that would “have left any other park than the Polo Grounds, including Yellowstone”), DiMaggio invoked his past, telling Kahn “…Mays had plenty of room. Running back, all he had to worry about was the ball. On my drive, Gionfriddo had to worry about the ball and those iron gates. He had to worry about running out of room, about getting hurt. With all that, I say he made the greater catch.”

DiMaggio, as Kahn portrays him, is aware of his image, proud of it, and ceaselessly builds on it. Not so in Cramer, who describes the catch as follows:

As DiMaggio rounded first, he could see the outfielder Al Gionfriddo dancing a spirited tarantella — unsure where to run, which way to turn, how to get under the ball. Joe was digging for second base when Gionfriddo, in an act of God, stumbled under the ball, stuck his glove over the wire fence and — Cazzo! Figlio di putana! — stole the home run away from DiMaggio.

This . . . well, this is different.  It’s not a good catch.  It’s a lucky grab by a fool who stumbled to just the right place to become a part of history.  The tone here is also different.  Cramer’s DiMaggio is a miserable figure, aloof and alone, proud only of his legacy, and a prisoner of it.  After the game, in the locker room, came the following:

“The Catch” might not have burned Joe up, if Gionfriddo hadn’t been out of position, clueless in that outfield, and a busher in the first place . . . after the game, he didn’t answer questions, and told the photographers: no pictures. The next day, when one cameraman asked Joe to autograph a picture of that home run theft, DiMaggio snarled him away: “Whyn’cha get the other guy? He made the catch.”

Two takes, two tones.  There’s overlap, sure, but Cramer’s DiMaggio comes across again and again as just a colossal son of a bitch.  This version of DiMaggio will not compliment the bush-league Gionfriddo on his catch. It’s unlikely he saw it as superior to Mays’.

And then there’s Halberstam, who has a pretty significant deviation:

During the 1947 World Series, in a rare burst of emotion, he kicked the ground near second base after a Brooklyn player named Al Gionfriddo made a spectacular catch, robbing him of a three-run home run. The net day while he was dressing, a photographer who had taken a picture of him kicking the ground asked him to sign a blowup of it. At first DiMaggio demurred and suggested that the photographer get Gionfriddo’s signature. “He’s the guy who made the play,” DiMaggio said. But the photographer persisted, and so reluctantly DiMaggio signed it. Then he turned to a small group of reporters sitting by him. “Don’t write this in the paper,” he said. “but the truth is, if he had been playing me right, he would have made it look easy.”

Again a different take.  This is a bad catch once again – DiMaggio would have effortlessly made it – but this time, you’ll note, he signs the photo.  This DiMaggio is graceful.  Halberstam is writing about a man in his early thirties, but it’s hard not to see the silver-haired, immaculately dressed gentleman of DiMaggio’s later years leaning over to reporters with a conspiratorial wink and telling them how he really felt about that catch.  The legend is strong here.

Does any of this matter?  I don’t know.  We have one catch, three stories, and three somewhat different men featured in each.  I am reminded, however, of what is so fascinating and frustrating about history: at the end of the day, I have no idea what DiMaggio thought about that catch.  I know what our authors thought of it, and of the man himself.  Cramer gives us a DiMaggio fierce in his misanthropy, alone with nothing except the memory of his greatness.  I’m not sure Kahn or Halberstam get us closer to the truth.  Kahn, like all old men, wants us to remember an era better than our own, when giants walked the land.  So, too does Halberstam, though he understands baseball – as Bill James reminds us – perhaps the least of these three authors.   In the end we’re left with three sources describing a catch made under an October sky, a man so shrouded by a legacy that his thoughts are lost, the mentalités of three historians imposed upon the past, and the recession of an event from history to myth.

The Author of @OldHossRadbourn is the individual behind the @OldHossRadbourn Twitter account.

This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.