Stretching the Defense


Stretching the Defense

I’m a Giants fan. I wasn’t much of a baseball fan until I was eight years old (1972) so I missed the Giants of the ’Sixties, but I’ve always been fascinated by that team. They won more regular season games that decade than any other team—more than the Yankees, more than the Dodgers, more than the Cardinals, more than anyone—but all they had to show for it was one World Series appearance, which ended in defeat. With a little better luck, or a little better managing, or a little better something, the Giants could have won five pennants in the 1960’s.

A team like that lends itself to endless “what-if’s”, and one of the what-if’s that I’ve often speculated about is, What if they had held onto Orlando Cepeda for the entire decade? Cepeda’s best years were with the Giants (1958-1965), but they only won one pennant with him; after he left, he won two pennants and an MVP award with the Cardinals, and a divisional title with the Braves. Could those titles have gone to the Giants if Cepeda hadn’t been dealt?

Cepeda is a Hall of Famer, deservedly so in my opinion, although he had to wait quite awhile to get in due to a marijuana conviction after his playing days were over. That’s a separate issue; the point is the reason the Giants traded him is they had another Hall of Famer, Willie McCovey, who played the same position. McCovey came up just a year after Cepeda and was a unanimous selection as N.L. Rookie of the Year in 1959, as Cepeda had been the year before.

So you have two young, superstar first basemen—what do you do? The first thing they tried was to make the right-handed Cepeda a third baseman. That experiment lasted four games. Following that they put him in the outfield, and for the next three years Cepeda and the left-handed McCovey platooned at first, with Cepeda playing the outfield when McCovey was starting.

Cepeda, unfortunately, wasn’t a good outfielder, but the more pressing issue was that it was obvious by 1962 that Willie McCovey was one of the best hitters in the National League, yet he was getting fewer than 400 at-bats a year because he was a platoon player. This is an ineffective allocation of resources. So starting around mid-1962, they went to Plan C—Cepeda and McCovey would both start every day, but now McCovey would be the one playing the outfield, as Cepeda once again became a full-time first baseman.

They tried this for the next two-plus years. Cepeda had injured his knee in a home-plate collision in 1961, and while he continued to play well afterwards, the knee finally required surgery early in the 1965 season. This allowed McCovey, who wasn’t much of an outfielder either, to take over at first base full-time. When Cepeda returned in the spring of 1966 his job was gone. He was traded that May.

Maybe both Cepeda and McCovey had proven to everyone’s satisfaction by 1966 that neither of them could play the outfield. I’ve always wondered if they gave up on the idea too early. You have to understand—this isn’t just two good hitters, this is two Hall of Famers. You have Willie Mays in center—he’s like one and a half outfielders by himself—and the other outfielder was usually someone good too, usually one of the Alous. How much damage could Cepeda or McCovey do out there, compared to how many runs they could put on the scoreboard? It’s always seemed to me that the best way to go is to start them both everyday, putting one of them—either one, you could alternate—in left field and the other at first, and then as soon as one of them hits a three-run homer to give you the lead you take one of them out of the game and put in Matty or Jesus Alou to finish up in left. That plan might be worth a pennant or two, right?

Well, we’ll never know.

Meanwhile, in the world of fiction, we have our very own Cepeda/McCovey situation here in the American Circuits. In 1946, the Philadelphia Quakers had a pretty good first base prospect named Rip Gibbons (with a name like that, how can he not be a hitter?). Gibbons was only 21, though, so when the opportunity came for the Quakers to sign star Negro League first sacker Fred Crumley, they took it.

Crumley proceeded to tear up the league, hitting 20 home runs the first year, then 35 in each of the next two seasons, driving in 96, 108, and 126 runs. Gibbons played a little bit of first to spell Crumley once in awhile during those three seasons, but mostly he just pinch hit.

Philadelphia has a new manager this year, Jeff Green. Jeff has opted to make Fred Crumley an outfielder in order to get both his and Gibbons’ bats into the lineup every day. How has it been working?

Philly is leading the NBL East; they’re four and a half games ahead of Buffalo as of this writing. It’s hard to argue with any strategy being used by a first-place team.

Crumley is hitting .347 with 20 HR, 67 RBI. He’s leading the league in OBP, slugging, OPS, RC/27, runs scored, and HR. He’s second in the league in hitting, fourth in WAR, third in hits, third in RBI, second in TB.

Gibbons is hitting .336 with 12 HR and 73 RBI. He’s leading the league in hits, doubles, and RBI. He’s fourth in hitting, fourth in slugging, fourth in OPS, second in WAR, third in runs scored, third in TB, third in singles, fourth in HR.

The downside? Crumley is proving to be a brutal outfielder, with a .924 fielding percentage, a minus 8.2 zone rating, and a defensive efficiency of .936. For those of you who aren’t real familiar with fielding statistics, those are some really bad fielding statistics.

On the other hand, Crumley was a crummy first baseman, too, so your choices are for him to be crummy at first, crummy in left field, or crummy sitting on the bench. Since he’s one of the best hitters in the NBL, you pick a position for him to be crummy at and live with it.

As discussed here, I’m a defense-first manager, and I prefer to have legitimate fielders at every position, rather “stretching the defense” to get another bat in the lineup. Occasionally, I think the latter approach is justified. Different challenges, different opportunities, different solutions.

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