Peter Gammons: An abundance of options can make all the difference

The pitching trend-line is obvious. Those who start retire fewer batters per outing virtually every season, down to less than 5 2/3 innings a start. With that, the offense has fueled the relievers’ earned run average to rise to the reach of the last three seasons-3.71 to 3.93 to 4.06—while the MLB save percentage has fallen from 69.15 in 2010 to 63.35 this season.

“Optionable” has become part of the bullpen vocabulary, as fungible arms get shuttled from Baltimore to Norfolk, Boston to Pawtucket and Los Angeles East on Route 66 to Oklahoma City every day. Earl Weaver used to like to play the first four to six weeks with eight man pitching staffs, which allowed for Weaver to get close to 130 RBIs out of a Gary Roenicke/John Lowenstein platoon; now, manager after manager likes to go into each game with eight man bullpens.

Long before Terry Francona was able to take and utilize post-season days off and turn Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, et al into a legion of doom, Ben Zobrist—thanks to the vision of Joe Maddon, Andrew Friedman and Gerry Hunsicker—made this all possible. Back in 2009, the Rays’ second winning season, I wrote a column in September explaining why I thought Zobrist should be no worse than third in the AL MVP balloting. Like many writers ahead of their time who questioned why wins were a deciding factor in Cy Young voting, these eyes believed Zobrist to be invaluable when it came to a winning team.

He played every defensive position except catcher and pitcher. He was third in the league in OPS. He led the league with an 8.6 Wins Above Replacement. He allowed Maddon to mix and match, offensively and defensively, led the Royals to a world championship in 2015, then was MVP of the 2016 World Series, and when he reported to spring training this February, his every work session was shadowed by Ian Happ, who was told if he wanted to make it to the big leagues quickly, since he could play second, third, first and all three outfield positions the best way to utilize his time was to follow Zobrist and learn how to get the most out of his work time at every place he might play. “When the MVP (Kris Bryant) and the World Series MVP are willing to play anywhere, there is a message you cannot overlook,” said Happ. Indeed, and Javy Baez is an elite defender and close to a half-dozen positions.

How important has Hernan Perez been to the Brewers, starting at six different positions. Or Marwin Gonzalez to the Astros, starting at five. Ho much has Adam Frazier meant to the Pirates playing five spots with Pittsburgh’s myriad of personnel losses?

“Roster configuration and construction are very important parts of every team in a pennant race,” says Friedman. Justin Turner gets hurt, Logan Forsythe moved to third, Chris Taylor can play second or most .anywhere, like Enrique Hernandez,  and if Dave Roberts want to sit Yasmani Grandal against a lefty he can catch Austin Barnes, who, incidentally, also can play second, short, third and the outfield.

And now the Dodgers are sending outfielder Bret Eibner to triple-A to try pitching. “All the versatility allows us to carry eight relievers,” says Roberts. “But if Eibner can throw an inning and hold the opposition in a 3-1, 4-1 deficit, he may allow one of the regular relievers to get a day off from pitching or getting up and throwing. He’s got a very good arm. He pitched some at Arkansas (hitting 95-96). The Tigers have Anthony Gose in Lakeland trying to pitch, and he’s already touched 99.

If a guy’s arm can take it (Boston’s 3B power prospect Bobby Dalbec was outstanding in the College World Series for Arizona last June, while Louisville’s Brandan McKay has been comped to John Olerud and Mark Langston as he heads to the draft).

“I don’t know if it could be done longterm with high profile kids like McKay,” says Brewers GM David Stearns. But having someone who could play in the field, pinch hit or come in for a batter or an inning is an interesting idea.” Boston’s Ben Cherington reached out to Rick Ankiel as an elite four position defender, a huge clubhouse presence and possible lefthanded reliever, but Ankiel had retired. If this thinking had existed in 1994, Andy Tomberlin might have extended his career. He was signed as a pitcher, moved to the outfield, and when he was with the Red Sox in 1994, he was inserted into a blowout in Minnesota, threw two scoreless innings and at 91 MPH. Lefthanded relievers who sit 91 are virtually guaranteed employment.

Several general managers accepted the Eibner experiment and said they’d look to see if someone fit the profile. Brian Bogusevic was drafted in the first round as pitcher-outfielder. Madison Bumgarner and Zack Greinke certainly are useful hitters off the bench. “These days, you have to explore every idea,” says a GM. Give the Padres credit for at least trying with Bethancourt.

Thus teams are moving young players around at different positions in the minor leagues. One of the many things the Brewers love about getting Mauricio Dubon in the Travis ShawTyler Thornburg deal with Boston is not only Dubon’s hand-eye skills and makeup, but his willingness to play every infield and outfield position while concentrating on shortstop. The Yankees already have a premium double play combination, but they can still eventually bring Gleyber Torres to the majors and let him play second, short, and third.

“I don’t think we could have constructed our team or the bullpen without Jose Ramirez giving us so much flexibility,” says Indians Pres. Chris Antonetti. Ramirez has started between 30 and 130 games at second, short, third, and left field. “Honestly, we have only two players who are everyday players at one position—Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis,” says Antonetti. “And Kipnis could play right field.”

On the other hand, Boston has been set back by injuries to Brock Holt and Marco Hernandez, who would have them far more flexibility.

“Moving players around not only is a necessity in this era when teams have seven and eight man bullpens, but the days when you always have a slick infielder on the bench who might not be able to hit are passed. Your bench should have guys who can fill. I know people said Zobrist was a utilityman. He’s not, he’s a vital everyday player who can play anywhere, anytime.

Thus far this season, 73 players have started games at three of more positions. Some 14 have started at four or more (see accompanying list).

Player GS #P C 1B 2B 3B SS IF CF RF
Amarista, Alexi, Col. 9 4 0 0 1 0 6 1 1 0
Flaherty, Ryan, Bal. 7 4 0 0 2 1 3 1 0 0
Frazier, Adam, Pit. 18 5 0 0 3 1 1 12 0 1
Gennett, Scooter, Cin. 13 4 0 0 7 3 0 2 0 1
Gonzalez, Marwin, Hou. 27 5 0 7 4 7 1 8 0 0
Hernandez, Enrique, LA-N 22 5 0 0 0 3 4 3 9 3
Motter, Taylor, Sea. 30 5 0 4 9 2 12 3 0 0
Nunez, Eduardo, S.F. 43 4 0 0 0 19 9 14 0 1
Parra, Gerardo, Col. 28 4 0 1 0 0 0 21 1 5
Perez, Hernan, Mil. 30 6 0 0 1 5 5 9 4 6
Peterson, Jace, Atl. 24 5 0 3 7 4 2 8 0 0
Romine, Andrew, Det. 25 5 0 1 4 0 5 3 12 0
Sogard, Eric, Mil. 6 4 0 0 2 1 2 1 0 0
Valaika, Pat, Col. 11 4 0 0 1 1 8 1 0 0

Now we’re at least experimenting with position players becoming pitchers; it’s been done in college (Arizona State won it in ’77 with Jamie Allen moving over from third to close, but hurt his arm in the process, while Brandon Inge and Joe Kelly were middle-of-the-diamond players who closed games).

Go back to the trend-lines: Chris Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Ivan Nova, Ervin Santana and Mike Leake are the only starters to average as many as 20 outs an outing. The result is the need for a lot of outs from a lot of relievers with a lot of options, which welcomes any original thoughts that may get thrown out there.

Earl Weaver could go with eight or nine pitchers. There are a lot of current managers who’d like to go from seven to eight to nine relievers.

Comments

  1. Sucks for the Redsox losing both Holt and Hernandez with no timetable for Holt. Holt was irteplaceable the last few seasons for the Sox.

  2. There should be little doubt that a professional baseball player should have the athleticism to play more than one defensive position (including pitcher if they have that skill set). This is what frustrates me about Hanley Ramirez. He came up as a shortstop and played very well there, and at third base, before returnign to the Red Sox. He played the worst left field in the history of the Red Sox, and was barely adequate last year at first base. He could have stepped up to fill in at third base when Sandoval went down, but he is not a team player. I don;t believe is is physically injured, he is mentally weak. The fact is he doesn’t WANT TO PLAY DEFENSE, he wants to believe he is Big Papi, Jr. I hope they move him this year and keep Travis and Moreland at first base for the next two or three years until Travis settles in. Hanley needs to go away. And bring Sandoval with him The Sox will not win another World Series with Hanley Ramiriez on the team. .

    • Ghost of Fenway says:

      I would say HanRam was “barley good” at first, he was certainly adequate, and wouldn’t you like to see him out there at 1st this year if he is healthy? Don’t let his play in left affect how you feel about him at first. The Red Sox will win a World Series with Hanley on the team, and it could be in as early 4 months. Some people will always hate on guys like Hanley, because they don’t fit their definition of a baseball player, well sorry but Hanley is one of the best hitters on this team, and removing him from the lineup or the team for the sake of character is just strait nonsense.

  3. Great post.