On Stars Playing Way Out of Position

So the big story last night was Adrian Gonzalez, career first baseman and MVP candidate, stepping out to right field for the first time in seven years in order to make room for David Ortiz to play first base and get his bat in the lineup in a National League park. You’d hear that it was the first time he played out there since 2005, which is true, but it suggests that his experience in 2005 is in some way meaningful; in reality, though, he played one game there, starting the third-to-last game of the Rangers’ season out there, and he caught three fly balls, but also committed an error. His outfield adventure last night was less eventful, with no fielding chances (though he did take a no-chance leap at Chase Utley’s triple, as pictured above). And Albert Pujols has now moved across the diamond to third base seven times this season (four starts), the only seven times he’s done that since 2002.

It’s hard to remember a time when a high-profile slugger like Gonzalez or Pujols has been switched to a more challenging and/or higher-injury-risk position, but it’s certainly not unprecedented. Here’s a top ten list of superstars playing really out of their comfort zones; the rankings are mostly arbitrary, but sort of based on the severity of the position switch and whether or not the player started the game at the position or was moved there mid-game in a kind of emergency situation (starting being better).

10. Willie Mays, shortstop, May 31, 1964
You can see this fascinating Giants-Mets game very thoroughly recapped here. In short: Willie started in center, as always, but then Matty Alou pinch hit for Jim Ray Hart in the top of the tenth, and Giants manager Alvin Dark moved Alou out to center to keep his bat in the game. The shortstop at the time, Jim Davenport, was moved to third base, and Mays came in to play short. He’d stay there for three innings, the 10th through the 12th, until another pinch hitter for the pitcher sent Mays back out to center. The game ultimately went twenty-three innings, the Giants beating the Mets 8-6.

My question: why is this so complicated? If Willie has to play the infield, you move him to third base, right, and leave the experienced infielder Davenport at the harder position? Why on earth does Mays play short and move Davenport over? Made no sense.

9. Hank Aaron, second base, May 9, 1966
A lot of people don’t realize that Hank Aaron was a second baseman or shortstop for most of his pre-MLB career, and played second in a pinch many times in his big-league career (43 times, to be exact). This was the last of them, though, at age 33, and happens to also involve an Alou in a complicated many-part switch; Rico Carty pinch-hit for the pitcher, then Carty was moved to left field, Felipe Alou was moved from left to right, and Aaron came in to play second, with the pitcher taking the old 2B’s slot in the lineup. He handled a pop fly, but no grounders.

8. Don Mattingly, center field, April 30, 1984
This is cheating a little bit, because Mattingly was hardly a star in April ’84, having one pretty good 91-game season under his belt (one in which he showed very little power and played both corner outfield positions in addition to first, and even got in a third of an inning at second base). He had started out hot in ’84, though, hitting .344/.417/.531 while playing first, left and right about equally. Here, though, he started in center (for the first and only time) and batted leadoff (for the first time in ’84 and one of 13 times in his career). He went 0-for-4 and handled a pair of successful chances in the field.

7. Lou Boudreau, catcher, May 30, 1948
We don’t have play-by-play for this game, but what appears to have happened is that Cleveland player/manager Boudreau started himself at short, as usual, and Jim Hegan at catcher, in the second game of a double header against the White Sox. Jim Tipton (who had caught game one and reached base all four times) was used as a pinch hitter earlier in the game, so when Hegan was pinch hit for by Allie Clark, Boudreau bit the bullet and penciled himself in at catcher for the remainder of the game. Boudreau caught a few more times earlier in his career, each time calling his own number as player/manager. This was also the year he won the AL MVP, hitting .355/.453/.534 (10.5 WAR) to lead his team to the championship.

6. Carl Yastrzemski, third base, September 26, 1964
Yaz played mostly center field in ’64 (the one season in his first 18 where his primary position wasn’t either left or first), but for no reason I can figure started two games toward the end of the season at third base, with Tony Conigliaro starting in center and Tony Horton in left. He got himself five assists without an error, and even started a double play. Nine years later, brave manager Eddie Kassko would try him at third again, and he’d commit 12 errors in 31 games there.

5. Jeff Bagwell, right field, July 2, 1994
So your first baseman, who played third in the minors and has never played outfield as a professional, is having an MVP year at the plate (.352/.426/.704 with 25 homers through July 1) and has been stellar at first. So naturally, you move him to right field in the gigantic artificial-turf-blanketed Astrodome. And why? Well, to get Sid Bream in the game, of course!

No, seriously. If you’re then-Astros and current-Mets manager Terry Collins, that’s actually how you think. You can read about it for yourself right here. “‘I just had to get Sid a game,’ Collins said.”

Bagwell caught a fly ball and threw a runner out at home from second on a single. He was back at 1B forever by the 8th inning, though, thank goodness.

4. Ivan Rodriguez, second base, August 15, 2006
From 1991 through 2005, I-Rod had never played any position other than catcher and DH. Jim Leyland put him in seven games at first base for the Tigers in ’06, though, and this one time, when Placido Polanco suffered an injury, stuck the well-worn 34 year old catcher at second base for two innings. Rodriguez handled one pop-up.

3. Jose Canseco, pitcher, May 29, 1993
Typically, if you’re going to send a position player in to pitch in a blowout, it’s going to be a player who is (a) expendable, (b) professional, responsible and intelligent, or preferably (c) both. Canseco, by contrast, was the team’s highest-paid player and a total asshat — this was the same year that he let a deep fly ball bounce off his head and over the fence for a home run. But Rangers manager Kevin Kennedy rolled with Canseco in the 15-1 blowout, and Canseco destroyed his arm and was done for the season shortly thereafter.

2. Richie Ashburn, second base, September 30, 1962
Ashburn, the Hall of Fame center fielder who made his name with the Phillies (and to a much lesser degree with the Cubs) was with the expansion Mets by 1962, serving mostly as an outfielder and pinch hitter (and hitting very well, though he couldn’t do much else anymore). It would be the final season of Ashburn’s career. Ashburn appeared in the field as something other than an outfielder exactly twice in his fifteen seasons, including the game linked above, which ended up being the Mets’ last game and 120th loss, and the final game of Ashburn’s brilliant career; he started and finished the game at second base, with four assists and four putouts (but also an error), and went 1-for-4. His only previous experience at second base consisted of one inning as a replacement just over a week earlier.

I haven’t been able to find any evidence of why Ashburn was being used at second base. I’d love to. But whatever it is, I just love that a career outfielder’s one start in the infield came in what was also his last game ever.

1. Johnny Bench, center field, May 26, 1970
And finally, my favorite. The NL-champ-to-be Reds played ten double-headers in 1970, and new manager Sparky Anderson just couldn’t bear to be without his star catcher (on the way to 45 homers and the first of his two MVP awards) for one of those two games. Now, for the most part, he was reasonable, stowing Johnny away in left, right, or at first base for one of the two games. But on May 17 and again on May 26, though, Sparky saw fit to start his star catcher in center field, replacing Bobby Tolan (who was in the midst of a great season in his own right).

Now, no doubt Bench was a phenomenal athlete, especially in those early days, and was a fantastic defensive catcher. But there’s just no way he had the range to play center, and having played nothing but catcher in the majors prior to 1970, he couldn’t have had the training, practice or instincts, either. He made three plays successfully in those two games, and I don’t see any hint of any real adventures, but it had to be kind of funny to watch.

You can usually read Bill’s stuff here or follow him on Twitter over here. He’ll be back on Saturday with more simile nonsense.