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Cooperstown Confidential
by Bruce Markusen
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The Mail Box

The e-mails have been coming in fast and furious of late, so it seems like the right time to address three of the more interesting letters that have made their way to Cooperstown.

E-mail No. 1:

In last week’s column, I wrote about Tony LaRussa’s decision to write Mark McGwire’s name on the starting lineup as a second baseman, as an unusual way of supplying him with at least one at-bat in road games. I made the contention that LaRussa was borrowing from an innovation that was last seen in 1973, when A’s manager Dick Williams used backup first baseman Gonzalo Marquez as a pseudo-starting second baseman. Well, that was one of the last times this strategy was employed, but not the last. An astute reader named Peter S. writes in to provide us with a more recent example. "I remember the Orioles doing this in the mid-seventies to delay Mark Belanger's first plate appearance," Peter writes. "The ‘starting shortstop,’ batting second, was Royle Stillman, a reserve outfielder." Good call, Peter. Orioles manager Earl Weaver used the strategy six times in September of 1975, when Belanger was at the tail-end of a .226 season at the plate. Listed as the starting shortstop, the left-handed throwing (and hitting) Stillman batted leadoff three times and batted second three times, churning out three hits in six at-bats. As it turned out, those six "appearances" at shortstop represented the high point of Stillman’s career. Over the course of a brief major league tenure, Stillman didn’t prove any more dangerous as a hitter than the toothpick-swinging Belanger. In 155 major league at-bats with the Orioles and White Sox, Stillman compiled a not-so-robust batting average of .213 and a slugging percentage of .329.

E-mail No. 2:

Jonathan L. writes in regarding a recent column in which I claimed that Miguel Tejada deserves to be ranked among the three best shortstops in the American League. "Tejada is a fine player," Jonathan writes. "However, I am more curious about your evaluation of Troy Glaus and Tony Batista. I understand both of these men are currently playing third base. Batista played shortstop last year (and should have been left there). Glaus is, by reputation, at least as capable at shortstop as any of the "Trinity." Batista actually improved from fourth best at his position to second by playing at third base. Which leads to the inevitable question: Is Batista a more valuable asset at third or at short in the current era? Are we undervaluing the great third basemen because of our collective memories of a time when great hitters did not play shortstop?" Jonathan poses some interesting questions. First of all, I think highly of both Glaus and Batista. What’s not to like? They are all-around third basemen who can hit, hit with power, field, and run the bases. I’ve heard and read that Glaus is capable of playing shortstop—though maybe not full-time—but have not seen him play enough at that position to determine how good he might be. Right now, he is arguably the best defensive third baseman in the American League (though you might get an argument from supporters of Scott Brosius). We shouldn’t be surprised if he emerges as the All-Star starter at third base for the next seven or eight years. As for Batista, he's valuable anywhere the Blue Jays play him—short, third, perhaps even second. Where is he most valuable? That depends on supply and demand, and which position offers the greatest supply of players. Right now, it seems like shortstop is a stronger position than third base in the American League, so perhaps he is currently more valuable as a third baseman. Still, if the Jays were able to acquire a top-notch third baseman, they would probably be best served by switching Batista back to shortstop and trading Alex Gonzalez for a pitcher. Batista's not a great defensive shortstop, but he plays the position adequately enough given the extra-base power he can generate. I think the Jays can win a pennant with Batista as their shortstop—assuming they upgrade themselves at second base and throughout the pitching staff. Jonathan’s final question is perhaps the most intriguing. Are we undervaluing third basemen because of the abundance of power-hitting shortstops in the current day? We probably are, given all of the media and fan attention that we direct to the game’s current crop of glamour shortstops. Third base has always been a hard position to fill because of the desire to have both a power hitter and an acrobatic defender in one tidy package. That kind of athlete has usually been in relatively short supply, and even in this day and age of larger populations and improved weight training, those athletes are now being considered for even more challenging defensive positions (such as shortstop). Whereas tall and long-framed players like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez might once have been pigeonholed as third basemen, they are now considered athletic enough to play the middle infield. And with such athletes now being moved away from the infield corner positions, they are at least temporarily removed from the pool of candidates to play third base. Right now, third base is not a particularly strong position—especially in the American League. Other than Batista and Glaus, who could be considered a star? Kansas City’s Joe Randa is a very good player, as is Detroit’s Dean Palmer, but they’re not stars. Corey Koskie of Minnesota has the potential to be very good, but he’s not quite there yet. Even some of the best American League teams have struggled at third base. Chicago’s Herbert Perry has surprised this year, but he’s not a star either. New York’s Scott Brosius has Gold Glove ability, but has been an offensive liability for most of the season. Oakland’s Eric Chavez has the potential to be great, especially offensively, but he’s not there yet. Cleveland’s Travis Fryman is solid, while Seattle’s Carlos Guillen is really a second baseman whose lack of power makes him ill-suited for third base. And then there’s Boston, whose revolving door of third baseman has caused so much consternation that the Sox now yearn for the days of a healthy John Valentin—or perhaps even Butch Hobson. So what do we make of all of this? Perhaps teams don’t need all-around star third basemen as much as they used to, especially if they’re receiving high-powered production from shortstops like Rodriguez, Jeter, Tejada, and Nomar Garciaparra. So maybe it’s only natural that we now tend to overlook the position that was once considered the "hot corner."

E-mail No. 3:

Last week I wrote that I hadn’t been able to find an example of a team that has enjoyed any kind of prolonged or repeated championship success with a good-hit, no-field shortstop like Derek Jeter is reputed to be. Voros M. penned the following response to that contention: "Well that's nice," writes Voros, "but depending on how you define those terms, finding teams that meet the above conditions under any terms would be difficult. Now if it's simply long term obvious success, you'd have to go back all the way to three years ago, the last year Jeff Blauser played shortstop for the Braves. Now if the team MUST be a repeat championship team, and the player MUST be a good hit no field shortstop, well then you probably have to look long and hard. But that's only because both are so very rare that the combination of the two is that much rarer. It would be the same as concluding that since you can't remember a left-handed hitting third baseman who struck out near as much as Russ Branyan becoming a good player, that Branyan won't become one. This ignores the fact that left-handed hitting third basemen are relatively rare. Left-handers that strike out as much as Branyan are very rare. And the combination of the two is EXTREMELY rare." Voros makes some valid points here, specifically regarding the mistake that analysts can make in making their focus of observation too narrow. Given that, I should have amended my contention to include not only good-hit, no-field shortstops (because those are indeed rare commodities), but to include all shortstops who are poor or below-average fielders, regardless of their hitting ability. If we expand the pool in that way, then we will find an ample supply of players who fit the description of "no-field." As for teams that have enjoyed repeated championship success, let me clarify: I am including teams that have been either repeat champions or have had prolonged or sustained success in winning the World Series. For example, I’m referring to teams that have won two world titles in three years, or two world championships in a four-year span, or similar scenarios that don’t involve actual repeat championships. There have been a number of teams over the course of baseball history that fit those qualifications: the Cardinals of 1964 and ’67; the Dodgers of 1963 and ’65; the Yankees of ’56 and ’58; the Cardinals of 1942, ’44, and ’46; and the Yankees of ’41 and ’43. When we consider these teams along with all of the usual dynasties that are discussed (the Philadelphia A’s of 1910-13, the Red Sox of 1915-18, the Yankees of 1926-28, the Philadelphia A’s of 1929-31, the Yankees of 1936-39, the Yankees of 1949-53, the Oakland A’s of 1972-74, and perhaps the Reds of 1975-76), then we have assembled a fairly good sampling of championship teams. And none of those sets of teams won their multiple championships with what could reasonably be defined as a poor defensive shortstop.

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