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Baseball 2000
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Cooperstown Confidential
by Bruce Markusen
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History Repeats Itself

In baseball, there should always be room for innovation, but sometimes the innovations of today are merely ideas that have been tried before—some with success and some without. Last week, Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa did something unusual when he started placing Mark McGwire on his lineup card as a second baseman. While this development might please those fantasy league players who "own" McGwire, don’t expect "Big Mac" to be turning an actual 6-4-3 double play any time soon. Obviously, LaRussa has no intention of playing McGwire in the middle infield. Instead, the injured McGwire—who is still battling the pain caused by tendinitis in his knee—is simply taking one at-bat in the top of the first inning, then leaving the game in favor of a real second baseman when the Cardinals take the field in the bottom half of the inning. By giving McGwire one at-bat in each game the Cardinals play on the road, LaRussa is hoping that Big Mac can keep his rythymn and timing in synch so that he might be useful as a pinch-hitter during the post-season. Although the motivation for the strategy is different, LaRussa is borrowing an innovation that was last seen in the major leagues nearly 30 years ago. During the 1973 season, Oakland manager Dick Williams decided to remedy the team’s lack of production from its second base position by unveiling a starting lineup card that featured Gonzalo Marquez, a left-handed throwing first baseman, at second base. Like LaRussa’s handling of McGwire, Willliams had no intention of actually playing Marquez at the position. Williams simply wanted Marquez, one of his World Series hitting heroes in 1972, batting out of the No. 2 slot in the order, after leadoff man Campy Campaneris. Marquez took his at-bat in the top half of the first inning, and when the A’s took the field in the bottom half, gave way to Dick Green at second base. Williams then planned to pinch-hit for Green, and all subsequent second basemen, according to game situations. "Of course," Williams said, in explaining the strategy to Ron Bergman of The Sporting News, "you can only do this on the road." In a home game, Marquez would have had to take the field in the top of the first inning, leaving the A’s with a major defensive liability in the middle infield. Williams had first learned of such strategy by observing his minor league manager, Bobby Bragan, in the Texas League during the late 1940’s. Williams himself had first used the stratgy as a minor league manager in 1966. The absence of offensive prowess from second base—a carryover problem from the previous season—had motivated owner Charlie Finley to come up with a similarly unusual rotation of second baseman during the 1972 season. At the behest of Finley, Williams had devised an intriguing, but strange plan to use all of the second basemen on Oakland’s 25-man roster. "It was always a circus atmosphere with that ballclub," explains former A’s infielder Don Mincher, now the president of the Southern League. "Charlie had decided that the second baseman on our ballclub should never hit. Therefore, we had four pinch-hitters ready. Every time the second base position come up, we’d pinch-hit." Williams installed veteran Dal Maxvill (newly acquired from the Cardinals) as his starting second baseman, but pinch-hit for him during his first or second at-bat of each game. Williams then installed Ted Kubiak at second base, before pinch-hitting for him. Williams followed with Tim Cullen, before replacing him with another pinch-batter. Once Maxvill, Kubiak, and Cullen had been exhausted, Williams resorted to using catcher Gene Tenace at second base, despite the fact that he had never played the position during his professional career. The revolving door at second base reached unprecedented heights during a 15-inning game against the White Sox in 1972. Six players—Maxvill, Kubiak, Cullen, Dick Green, and catchers Tenace and Larry Haney—all made appearances in the middle infield, setting a record for most second sackers used in one game. Only Tenace and Haney came to bat, as the others saw themselves lifted for pinch-hitters under Finley’s revolving door plan. Finley’s plan seemed relatively harmless—until the playoffs, that is. In the fourth game of the American League Championship Series, the A’s took a 3-1 lead in the top of the 10th inning. In the bottom of the 10th, the Tigers loaded the bases with no one out, bringing the dangerous Bill Freehan to the plate. Freehan hit a ground ball to Sal Bando at third base. Conceding the Tigers’ second run of the game, the A’s opted for what seemed like a sure third-to-second-to-first double play. The A’s, however, were playing with a second-string infield. With Campy Campaneris suspended, Dal Maxvill had started the game at shortstop, before giving way to a pinch-hitter. Starting second baseman Dick Green had also been lifted for a pinch-hitter. So with Maxvill and Ted Kubiak committed to playing shortstop, Dick Williams inserted his starting catcher, Gene Tenace, at second base. On Bando’s ground ball, Tenace ran to cover second base, readying himself to receive the throw that would give the A’s a forceout—and perhaps the start of a double play. Nearing the bag with all the dexterity of a mule, an uncertain Tenace bobbled the toss from Bando, allowing Gates Brown to reach second base safely. "I think he heard my footsteps," the 230-pound Brown told sportswriter Dave Nightengale, "because he got out of there before he had the ball." Dick McAuliffe scored from third, to make it a 3-2 game, while the bases remained loaded. Instead of recording at least one, and possibly two outs, the makeshift Oakland infield had come up empty. Relief pitcher Dave Hamilton, perhaps rattled by Tenace’s error, walked Cash to tie the game. Hamilton then watched helplessly as Jim Northrup lashed a game-ending single to right field. For one of the few times all season, the A’s strange second base shuffle had cost the team a game—and a critical one at that. Williams, who had never really liked the constant lifting of second baseman for pinch-hitters, vowed to himself never to use the second base rotation again. Thankfully, LaRussa won’t have to worry about a similar situation arising in St. Louis. He doesn’t have a domineering owner who will demand to see the 250-pound McGwire play second base. The only second-base action that McGwire will be seeing will be on the lineup card—and perhaps in your favorite fantasy league.

The Problem With Zone Rating A recent column defending the defensive merits of Derek Jeter has drawn the ire of some readers who believe in the value of a statistic known as Zone Rating. So why do I feel that Zone Rating, which attempts to measure a player’s defensive range within the context of the tendencies of his team’s pitchers, is flawed? Well, there are a couple of problems. In measuring infielders, only ground balls are taken into account. Pop-ups, short fly balls to the outfield, and line drives are not included. While ground balls constitute the majority of a shortstop's responsibility on batted balls, the exclusion of a shortstop’s ability to handle balls in the air makes it a flawed statistic, at least in my opinion. (One of Jeter’s strengths, by the way, is his ability to range far into left field and center field and handle tough pop-ups that might fall too short for the outfielder to reach. In Jeter’s case, Zone Rating thus becomes even more damning, and unfairly so.) Another, even more inherent problem with Zone Rating is the notion that a defensive player is responsible only for a specific zone--or slice--of the field. That may be applicable when a batter puts the ball in play, but does not take into account a fielder's responsibility to cover other parts of the field after the ball has been put in play: backing up other fielders or bases, heading out to the outfield to handle relays and cut-offs, and (in the case of a shortstop) moving to the bag to handle the throw from the second baseman on the start of an attempted double play. All of these duties should fall into the category of a player's "zone" of responsibility, but none of these are measured by Zone Rating. Contrary to those Sabermetricians who don’t believe that we can trust our own eyes, all of these duties are better evaluated by personal observation, rather than by a specific statistical measure. If this weren’t the case, then why do we have scouts? In regards to New York’s ability to win with Jeter at shortstop, the suggestion has been made that the Yankees have been winning because of his bat—and perhaps in spite of his glove. There's no doubt that Jeter is a very good offensive player, which certainly contributes to the Yankees' success. Yet, teams with similarly good (or better) hitting shortstops—great players like Arky Vaughan and Vern Stephens, who were generally regarded as subpar fielders—won very little during their careers. For example, Vaughan's teams advanced to the World Series only once in his 14-year career (a 1947 loss to the Yankees). Similarly, Stephens' teams advanced to the Series only once (1944) during a 15-year career, and that was during World War II. I haven’t been able to find a case where a team has enjoyed any kind of prolonged or repeated championship success with a good-hit, no-field shortstop like Jeter is reputed to be. Perhaps Jeter is the first, and therefore the exception to the rule, or perhaps he's better defensively than the statistics indicate. Either way, it's an intriguing argument—and one that will likely continue for a long while.

And One Other Thing

Funny how Mike Lupica didn’t include even a brief mention of Roger Clemens’ Friday-night masterpiece against the Red Sox in his Sunday New York Daily News tidbits column. Funny, but not surprising. Perhaps someone needs to inform Lupica that Clemens has only been the second-best starting pitcher in the American League since June… I have trouble buying the logic of Indians general manager John Hart, who claims that the David Justice trade has actually benefited the Indians in their pursuit of the wild cart spot. Although David Segui has played well for the Indians, he hasn’t matched the production that Justice has provided all season long, first with Cleveland and now with New York. Yes, the disposal of Justice did free up some payroll, but if payroll was such a large issue to begin with, why did Hart trade for Wil Cordero’s three-year, $9 million contract? Isn’t that exactly the kind of contract the Indians will be desperate to dump in the next year or two, just like they did with Justice?… If anyone was looking for a clear-cut example of the thinning of talent in the major leagues, just consider the Red Sox’ recent signing of journeyman pitcher Steve Ontiveros. Not to be confused with the third baseman who played for the Giants and Cubs from 1973 to 1980, this Steve Ontiveros hadn’t appeared in a major league game since donning the green and gold of the A’s in 1995. As if that isn’t startling enough, Ontiveros isn’t even the first player who has made a comeback in 2000 after a four-year absence from the big leagues. Earlier this year, vagabond outfielder Felix Jose managed to crack the roster of the defending champion Yankees despite not having played in the majors since a cup of coffee with the Royals in 1995. Hey, that’s what happens when you have to fill out rosters for 30 clubs at a time when the supply of talent is better suited to fill about 24 teams.

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