Saturday, March 28, 2015

Don't Get Too Comfortable There: Cards from ARPSmith

I've talked some in the past about how the Milwaukee Brewers moved Paul Molitor from position to position. Molitor was a good enough athlete to pull off the moves defensively, but it probably contributed to the injury problems that he had in the 1980s.  It got me to thinking about how the Brewers seem to have moved many of their better players around the diamond with incredibly frequency.

Using some cards from a trade package that came in from ARPSmith's Sportscard Obsession, I'm going to highlight a few of those players who stayed around a while in Milwaukee but always seemed to be learning new positions "to help the team."

1.  Paul Molitor
As the cards made clear in yesterday's post and like a lot of the best players in major league history, Paul Molitor began his baseball life as a shortstop.  

The reason for that is simple: teams in little league and high school start by putting their best players generally in one of two positions: shortstop and pitcher.  If the kid can't field well at short but hits a ton, he ends up in the outfield or at a corner infield position.  If the kid has a great arm but can't field at short well enough and isn't a great pitcher, that can mean getting put at catcher.

Molitor came up as a shortstop to fill in for Robin Yount in 1978 when Yount was injured and contemplating a pro golf career.  When Yount returned, Molitor was moved to second base and, later, even got a start a third base that year. Second, though, was his primary position for his first three years in the major leagues.  Then, as Daniel Okrent's excellent book Nine Innings mentioned, the Brewers realized in 1980 during one of Molitor's early stays on the disabled list that Jim Gantner was a better fielding second baseman.  

So, in 1981, Molitor came to spring training and started learning to play centerfield.  That allowed Molitor to get out of the middle infield and to move Gorman Thomas -- never a swift man -- to right field.  The move, though, was a disaster because all it succeeded in doing was taking Molitor's focus away from hitting the ball well and, further, pissing Thomas off. When the strike ended and Molitor recovered from an ankle injury he had suffered early in 1981, he was moved to right field.

Come spring training in 1982, Molitor was told he was going to be the third baseman (thanks in large part to Roy Howell being a horrible free agent signing).  Molitor was tired of being moved around and was assured by owner Bud Selig that the move would be his last.


While a move to DH wasn't a major move, by the time 1990 rolled around, he was learning first base -- both to keep his bat in the lineup with new acquisition Dave Parker in town and because the Brewers had whiffed on another big acquisition (Greg Brock) not being what he was cracked up to be.  After 1990, Molitor only appeared at DH or first, and, after 1992, he made his appearances on the field for teams other than Milwaukee.

2.  Charlie Moore

While his moves were not nearly as dramatic, Charlie Moore also found himself being switched amongst positions to make room for new players coming on board.  Moore came up as a catcher, but his athleticism allowed him to play a corner outfield role as well. His bat was not good enough to be a corner outfielder, though, so he served as a backup catcher even when starting as a outfielder.  

Two of the three years in which he played the most games in his career -- 1982 and 1983 -- featured him as the primary starting rightfielder because Ted Simmons was acquired from St. Louis in 1981 to be the starting catcher.  The Brewers had sufficient pop in those lineups from other positions to carry him.

3.  Jim Gantner

Gantner came to the major leagues as a third baseman in 1976.  That was back in the days when third basemen who were hitters first (or at least third basemen that were expected to be good hitters) were considered something of a novelty.  Gantner got his first real chance to play second in 1978 alongside Paul Molitor during Robin Yount's injury, and he did a very good job.  He was more of a utility infielder at that point, though, filling in wherever he was needed, and he was not considered a starter until 1980 with Molitor's injury.

From 1981 through 1984, Gantner played only at second base.  As he aged and new players came up, Gantner primarily played second but started appearing against at third, in a few innings at short, and, in what can only be seen as desperation or ridiculousness, as the designated hitter in nine games (2 starts).

4.  B.J. Surhoff
Surhoff famously was the first overall pick in the 1985 June Draft -- ahead of Will Clark, Barry Larkin, Barry Bonds, and Rafael Palmeiro (in just the first round) and Randy Johnson (round 2).  Surhoff was drafted as a shortstop out of the University of North Carolina, though he was destined to play just three innings at that position in the major leagues. 

The Brewers put him at catcher, and that's where he spent much of his Milwaukee career (playing 704 total games there).  Like Molitor before him, Surhoff was a good enough athlete such that he found himself being moved around the diamond to make room for other players coming in.  So, in 1993 and for an absolutely dire Milwaukee team (69-93 record), the Brewers brought up Dave Nilsson to be their starting catcher and installed Surhoff as the starting third baseman.

Unsurprisingly, Surhoff spent much of 1994 on the disabled list with shoulder and abdomen injuries. In the meantime, the Brewers signed Kevin Seitzer as a free agent and, in addition, brought up prospect Jeff Cirillo.  

So, in 1995 and in Surhoff's last year as a Brewer, he played 55 games at first, 54 games in left field, 18 games at catcher, 9 games in right field, and 3 games in center (along with 3 games at DH, 5 games as a pinch hitter, and 2 games as a pinch runner). Given the opportunity to get out of town as a free agent after the 1995 season, Surhoff did just that -- joining the Baltimore Orioles where, in 1999, he enjoyed his only all-star season as a major leaguer while serving as the Orioles starting left fielder.

5.  Dave Nilsson
Nilsson's moves around the diamond weren't nearly as rapid or as dramatic as Molitor's or Surhoff's moves, but he too went through a number of positions.  In his 8 seasons as a Brewer, he made 309 appearances at catcher, 166 appearances at first, 163 appearances as the designated hitter, 105 appearances in right field, and 80 appearances in left.  

I'm only surprised that he wasn't tried at third base.

6.  Ryan Braun

Braun's positional changes are based more around the fact that Braun was an outright dumpster fire as a third baseman. His fielding at third made Charlie Dorn in the beginning of Major League look like Brooks Robinson.  It was that bad.  Even using the "old-fashioned" fielding percentage metric, he was horrible -- an .895 fielding percentage means he made errors on more than 10% of all balls hit his direction in 2007.  Fangraphs put him as being 42.8 runs below average over 150 defensive games at third that year.

No wonder he was put in left field.  There, he was competent -- just 3.7 runs below average per 150 games over 7071-1/3 innings in left.  He was okay in right field last year as well.

There is talk -- as well there should be -- about moving him to first base. The Brewers have a number of decent outfield prospects but have literally no one of any merit at first base. Frankly, the Brewers never replaced Prince Fielder, and they should have thought about moving Braun to first shortly after Prince left in 2011 and, then, keeping Norichika Aoki for another year or two instead of employing a dead rat and a ham sandwich in the form of Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds at first.

These guys didn't change positions, but these cards need to be shared
Speaking of Prince Fielder...people frequently claimed that Fielder was a better athlete than people would otherwise believe when looking at his physique. That's all well and good, but he isn't such a good athlete that any team has been willing to put him anywhere but his natural positions of first base and designated hitter.

The Brewers hoped that Mat Gamel would replace Fielder at first base in 2012 after Fielder left.  Gamel was moving around the diamond in the minor leagues trying to find a position he could field. He tried third base and put up fielding numbers that made Ryan Braun look like a Gold Glove candidate -- for example, an .826 fielding percentage in the Florida State League at Brevard County in 2007 (53 errors in 305 chances) means that he did not make the play on almost 18% of the balls hit his direction.  Gamel tore up his knee, and by 2013, the Brewers started former shortstop Alex Gonzalez at first base on Opening Day.

Adam, thank you for the great cards that you sent to me. They are greatly appreciated, and I'll have another package for you soon!

1 comment:

  1. Glad you like them, it was fun going though some of my 80s and early 90s cards trying to knock off some cards from your want list.