Backstopping and roaming wide (Part 3:  1970-2008)

In this series we identify and profile those rare major league ballplayers who’ve performed both as catchers and as shortstops, second basemen or center fielders. In our first installment, we tracked them from the 1890s to the 1930s, and last time we proceeded to right around 1970. This time we’ll bring ourselves up to the present day.

The qualification for inclusion is to have appeared in at least 15 games at catcher and at least 15 games cumulatively at short and/or second and/or center. As we did before, first we’ll meet those who meet the minimum criteria, and then we’ll feature the few who blow the criteria away.

The 15-15 Club

Jamie Quirk

Years: 1975-1992
Games by position: catcher 525, third base 118, first base 43, left field 25, shortstop 22, right field 9, second base 1
Total games: 984
Total win shares: 44
Fielding win shares: 22
Fielding win shares/game: .022

A toolsy, teen-aged 6-foot-4, 190-pound left-handed-hitting shortstop-third baseman—in other words, an exceptionally rare bird—Quirk rapidly matriculated through the Royals’ system despite not ever posting more than pretty good offensive stats. At the age of 21, he found himself on Kansas City’s big league roster, but with Freddie Patek at shorstop and George Brett at third, the Royals didn’t really have anything for him to do.

But his potential was seen as such that the Brewers acquired him as the centerpiece of a trade in which they surrendered Darrell Porter and Jim Colborn. Milwaukee manager Alex Grammas opened the 1977 season with Quirk deployed as his primary designated hitter—a curious use of a 22-year-old whose principal value would seem to be defensive—and Quirk proceeded to utterly fail to hit. By the second half of that year he was riding the bench; by the following year they’d demoted him to the minors, and a few months after that the Brewers dumped him back to the Royals. All told it would become one of the most one-sided trades ever perpetrated.

Disabused of the notion that Quirk was going to be a star, the Royals went about making use of him as a jack-of-all-trades utilityman, including fill-in time at catcher beginning in 1979. Quirk proved quite handy in the scrubeenie role, and as his career progressed he was deployed more frequently behind the plate, though he always played other positions as well. In 1987 Quirk briefly emerged as Kansas City’s primary catcher, but he never hit well enough to justify regular status. He ended up spending 18 seasons in the majors, while earning just 44 win shares; I don’t know, but that might be some form of record.

Alex Treviño

Years: 1978-1990
Games by position: catcher 742, third base 53, second base 14, left field 4, first base 4, right field 2
Total games: 939
Total win shares: 53
Fielding win shares: 26
Fielding win shares/game: .028

If you’re paying close attention, you realize that this guy played only 14 games at second/short/center, so to be precise he doesn’t meet the minimum qualification to be included here. But he’s just one measly game shy. Besides, if I can come up with the arbitrary criteria for inclusion, then I can arbitrarily violate it, can’t I? And did I mention that he’s just one measly game shy?

At 5-10 and 165 pounds and devoid of power, Treviño was the sort who would seem to have been better suited to middle infield than behind the plate. But, playing in the Mets’ system before his 17th birthday, he was primarily a catcher from the get-go, though he also saw minor league time at third base and shortstop. He didn’t exactly tear the minors apart, but the Mets in that era weren’t exactly bursting with talent, and Treviño was in the majors by the age of 20, and more or less their first-string catcher by the age of 22.

He had no business in such a role, but when the Mets traded him to the Reds (as part of the exchange for George Foster—d’oh!—Cincinnati used Treviño as its starting catcher as well. But after one season the Reds thought better of that, and Treviño settled in to the status of second-string backstop, at which he would perform capably (while also filling in now and again at other positions) for a succession of National League teams through the rest of the 1980s.

Dave Cochrane

Years: 1986-1992
Games by position: third base 53, catcher 43, left field 42, shortstop 39, first base 19, right field 12, second base 5
Total games: 218
Total win shares: 6
Fielding win shares: 2
Fielding win shares/game: .009

In the minors, the switch-hitting Cochrane was a third baseman and occasional shortstop who hit with consistent power but without much average. This skill set was enough to get him a couple of look-sees at the major league level, but not enough to stick, even with the additional capability added of filling in at first, second and corner outfield, and even taking an emergency assignment behind the plate here and there.

But in the early weeks of the 1991 season, the Mariners appear to have decided to more fully develop Cochrane’s ability to play catcher; they deployed him primarily in that role for their Triple-A affiliate. They recalled him in June of ’91, and for the balance of that season and most of the next, Seattle deployed Cochrane in about as extreme a “jack-of-all-trades” manner as one ever sees. Whatever the wisdom of this one-man-bench approach, while Cochrane wasn’t especially good, but he wasn’t bad either.

Scott Hemond

Years: 1989-1995
Games by position: catcher 169, second base 40, third base 24, first base 8, left field 8, shortstop 4, right field 3, center field 1
Total games: 298
Total win shares: 15
Fielding win shares: 9
Fielding win shares/game: .030

An odd case in a couple of ways: Hemond was big and muscular, yet in the minors he didn’t hit for much power, while stealing bases like mad, indeed as many as 45 in one season. The A’s organization converted him from catcher to third base at the Double-A level, and then to second base in Triple-A. Thus, by the time he reached the majors, Hemond was well-suited to the whatever-it-takes role he was assigned.

Brandon Inge

Years: 2001-
Games by position (through 2008): third base 593, catcher 376, center field 33, left field 10, right field 2
Total games (through 2008): 992
Total win shares (through 2008): 81
Fielding win shares (through 2008): 30
Fielding win shares/game (through 2008): .030

While the phenomenon could hardly be considered common, catcher-to-third-base conversions at the big league level aren’t terribly rare. We’ve seen them before in various forms, whether early-career (Todd Zeile), mid-career (Joe Torre and B.J. Surhoff), or late-career (Johnny Bench), and we’ve seen them work out well and not so well.

What’s made Inge’s case stand out are two elements: first, the degree to which the shift away from catcher exactly coincided with a dramatic change in his offensive output (as a catcher he was a completely woeful hitter,

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and upon becoming a third baseman he suddenly emerged as a league-average run producer), and second, the fact that his third-most-frequent position has been, of all places, center field.

Given that Inge was generating such feeble offense when catching, Detroit manager Alan Trammell’s decision to start playing him at third base in 2004 was highly questionable, but obviously it worked out as well as could possibly have been hoped. And the peculiar pattern has persisted: In 2008 Inge returned to the catching position for 60 games, and his offensive output was his worst in several years. In 2009 he’s back at third, and at the age of 32 he’s so far having the best season of his career with the bat. Through this past Sunday, Inge’s career batting line while playing catcher has been .199/.260/.330, and while at third base it’s been .257/.329/.433.

The 50-50 Club

Dave Roberts

Years: 1972-1982
Games by position: third base 386, catcher 152, second base 61, shortstop 40, first base 28, right field 10, center field 6, left field 3
Total games: 709
Total win shares: 45
Fielding win shares: 15
Fielding win shares/game: .021

The first pick in the first round of the June 1972 amateur draft, Roberts was a third baseman off the University of Oregon campus who so impressed the Padres that they decided to dispense with that minor league jazz. San Diego signed Roberts on June 7, 1972, and that very day he made his big league debut.

He would play the rest of the season as the Padres’ first-string third baseman. While he didn’t hit well, neither did he do terribly, and the following season he stepped forward with an outstanding year, hitting for both average and power. It appeared as though a first-tier star third baseman’s career was unfolding.

But even quicker than it had come together, it all fell apart: in 1974 Roberts encountered one of the all-time flops, a sudden and total inability to remember how to hit. By the end of the following season it was clear that the Padres were convinced he was never going to regain that memory, as they swung a trade for veteran third baseman Doug Rader.

But San Diego wasn’t ready to give up on Roberts: The Padres sent him to Triple-A for 1976 with the instruction to learn how to play catcher, the logic apparently being that if he was going to hit like a catcher, he might as well be one. Roberts never really mastered catching, but he got the hang of it, and returned to the majors to spend several seasons as a catcher-utility infielder, never again hitting well, but hitting competently enough to make a positive contribution in the extreme-handyman role. His career wasn’t the one we expected, but perhaps it turned out to be more interesting.

Dale Murphy

Years: 1976-1993
Games by position: center field 1,041, right field 749, first base 209, left field 103, catcher 85
Total games: 2,180
Total win shares: 294
Fielding win shares: 49
Fielding win shares/game: .022

The curious thing about the very young Dale Murphy was that, wonderfully impressive and exciting a prospect as he was, he sure didn’t look like a catcher. Oh, his technique was sound enough and everything; indeed he wasn’t a bad defensive catcher. But he was just so gangly: 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds soaking wet, he was all long, long limbs, hunching down there behind the plate like a giraffe getting into a taxicab. Far more than a typical catcher, Murphy looked like what he’d been in high school in the wintertime: a basketball player.

Of course, he didn’t not look like a baseball player, just not like a catcher. With his longitudinal frame and his easy, loping running stride, Murphy looked every bit the outfielder. Which was why it was so puzzling that, outside of a single game at Triple-A in 1976, Murphy never appeared in the outfield in his first six seasons in professional ball. In the minors he was almost exclusively a catcher, and on the rare occasions when he wasn’t behind the plate, the Atlanta organization deployed the young Murphy at first base.

The Braves’ primary faith in Murphy was, of course, centered on his bat. They were patient with the youthful prospect, not panicking when he didn’t hit too much as a teenager in the low minors. Murphy’s offensive results began to materialize in Double-A, and by the time he was 21 in Triple-A he was a big-time run producer, hitting .305 with 22 homers and leading the league in doubles and RBIs, and everyone was expecting great things from the peculiarly tall and skinny catcher.

When Murphy struggled with the bat for much of his first full big league season, the Braves patiently stuck with him because they were confident he’d eventually hit, and of course he eventually did. But that season and the next, despite his long apprenticeship behind the plate, Atlanta didn’t stick with Murphy as a catcher. Even though their roster wasn’t exactly overloaded with catching talent, the Braves used Murphy back there a little bit, but mostly they had him in the lineup at first base. The explanation wasn’t any problem with Murphy’s defensive work, rather it was his health: The youngster was dealing with a chronically sore knee that was aggravated by the squatting-and-kneeling demands of catching.

Finally, when Murphy underwent knee surgery in mid-1979 and missed nearly two months of action, the Braves decided that his bat was too valuable to risk courting further injury as a catcher, and he played exclusively at first base for the rest of that season. Thus it appeared his career would play out as a 6-foot-4 power-hitting gimpy-kneed first baseman.

But that would just be far too straightforward. Deciding to make things more complicated, in December 1979 Atlanta GM John Mullen executed a big trade to acquire first baseman Chris Chambliss … thus blocking Murphy out of first base. So if Murphy wasn’t going to catch, then where exactly was he going to play?

Well, the outfield, of course! He’d looked like an outfielder all along, hadn’t he? Well, yes, but there were two issues here: First, Murphy had been suffering from knee problems, yet here the Braves were proposing to expose his knees, for the first time in his career, to the stress of covering vast expanses (and remember, a lot of those expanses in the NL in those days were paved with artificial turf); and second, the Braves already had highly paid power-hitting stars occupying left field (Jeff Burroughs) and right (Gary Matthews).

Nevertheless, the Braves went ahead with the plan to convert the 24-year-old Murphy into an outfielder. At the outset of the 1980 season, manager Bobby Cox’s challenge was somewhat simplified,

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as first Burroughs and then Matthews were out of action with minor injuries, so Murphy opened the season in left field, and then shifted over to right. But in mid-May, both Burroughs and Matthews were ready to play at the same time. Now what?

Well, Cox reasoned, the Braves had a weakness in center field. Why not see if Murphy could handle that? So it was that on May 13, 1980, less than a year removed from knee surgery, and with just 26 professional outfield appearances under his belt, the erstwhile catcher was given the start in center field. He took to it as though he’d been out there for years, showing no sign of the knee trouble, indeed demonstrating remarkable range to go along with his strong and accurate arm. Murphy quickly assumed the status of captain of the Atlanta outfield, and by 1982 he was winning the first of five Gold Gloves he would be awarded as a center fielder.

Craig Biggio

Years: 1988-2007
Games by position: second base 1,989, catcher 428, center field 255, left field 109, right field 2
Total games: 2,850
Total win shares: 431
Fielding win shares: 101
Fielding win shares/game: .035

Biggio wasn’t as unusually short for a catcher as Murphy was tall, but at 5-11, 180 the youthful Houston backstop was definitely on the small side of the spectrum among modern catchers. Yet much more than his fairly slight stature, what stood out about the young Biggio was his tremendous speed: He wasn’t just fast for a catcher, he was flat-out fast, period. Blazing through the minor leagues in 141 games, Biggio stole 50 bases while hitting .344.

That asset was largely wasted behind the plate, of course, and moreover the Astros rightly worried that after a few thousand innings of squatting, that asset would deteriorate. So while Biggio wasn’t a bad defensive catcher (though he wasn’t particularly good, either), almost from the outset of his major league career the Houston organization began tinkering with him at a position that would leverage his mobility: in 1989, his first full year in the majors, Biggio played four games in center field, and the next season he played there 34 times. And then, most interestingly, at the tail end of 1991 the Astros gave Biggio a whirl at second base: in the third inning of his debut game, Biggio turned the pivot on a double play.

So it was that for the 1992 season, manager Art Howe shifted Biggio to second base on a full-time basis. To say that Biggio blossomed at the new position is to put it mildly: not only did he rapidly develop into a highly regarded

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defensive second baseman (he would capture four Gold Glove awards), but freed from the rigors of catching, Biggio’s offensive game took off in every positive direction. His ability to hit for both average and power improved, he developed into a tremendous base stealer, and he even learned how to reach base via the hit-by-pitch route to an extent shared by only a handful of players in history.

As we’ve discovered in this series, the conversion at the major league level from first-string catcher to first-string second baseman was unprecedented in modern history. A couple of prominent big league middle infielders come to mind who’d been converted from catcher—Ray Boone in the 1940s and Ted Sizemore in the 1960s—but in both of those cases the shift was undertaken in the minors, so the situations aren’t very comparable to Biggio’s.

While in retrospect the Biggio-to-second-base move worked out so spectacularly well that one might be tempted to say it was obviously going to be successful, and indeed ask, “What were they waiting for?,” that isn’t fair. This was, truly, unexplored territory being ventured into by the Astros, and the risk was large: While he wasn’t a great catcher, overall Biggio was a very good one, a proven big league star, and if the conversion to second base went haywire, Houston might have found itself with a bad second baseman, and a guy whose confidence was so damaged that he couldn’t return to his established performance as a catcher, either.

Give Howe and the Astros organization major kudos for having the vision and fortitude to take the big gamble, and obviously credit Biggio for the exceptional athleticism, damn hard work, and intrepidity to pull off the singular achievement.

Eli Marrero

Years: 1997-2006
Games by position: catcher 346, left field 125, right field 117, first base 58, center field 56, third base 1
Total games: 724
Total win shares: 56
Fielding win shares: 21
Fielding win shares/game: .029

Marrero worked his way through the Cardinals’ system as a good-but-not-great hitter and an outstanding defensive catcher. He never played anywhere other than behind the plate in the minors, and given that the

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value he was presenting once he reached the big leagues was predominantly defensive, it was certainly questionable for manager Tony LaRussa to almost immediately begin giving Marrero non-trivial playing time at positions other than catcher: initially first base, and then the outfield.

LaRussa had something of a record as a manager who invested particular interest in catchers with defensive versatility; he was, after all, Scott Hemond’s manager in Oakland, and in Chicago in 1986 he’d given Carlton Fisk extensive work in left field. Still, even though Marrero gradually developed into a decent hitter, he was inconsistent with the bat, never really more than a pretty good hitter for a catcher, and definitely not exhibiting the sort of bat one looks for in an outfielder.

All told Marrero turned out to be a useful player who delivered a nice big league career, but one can’t help but wonder whether he wouldn’t have been better had be been deployed strictly as a catcher, and been allowed to thoroughly develop and leverage his defensive skill behind the plate.

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