“Oh, what a big break. Matt Holliday had the game over, and somehow missed the ball with his glove. It hit him right in the groin, hopefully he’s was wearing a cup, and it landed right in front of him. You talk about a painful error for Matt Holliday.”
—Vin Scully’s call, Oct. 8
One major league uses the designated hitter and the other doesn’t. That makes them different because the pitcher bats in the National League, meaning one (usually) automatic out in the lineup at least a couple of times through the order, until pinch-hitter time.
That’s so obvious we don’t discuss it anymore. But here’s another fact, less obvious, we also don’t discuss: The sneaky National League really does use the DH. Difference is, in the NL he plays left field.
When we were kids (i.e., when I was a boy, before adults decreed that every child had to have a chance to play every position—league rule), kids without the slightest notion of the value of self-esteem decided who played where. The worst player went to right field. There being a dearth of left-handed-hitting adolescents in my Chicago neighborhood, the 12-year-old sabermetricians-in-charge figured right field offered the fewest chances to mess up.
In the big leagues, left field tends to be a bit less challenging than right. Shorter throws, for starters, after the misjudged fly ball lands safely. And so that’s where National League managers put the guy with the major league bat and the Babe Ruth League glove.
But it’s gotten silly. This past spring, I started to count the number of game stories I saw that began “Daniel Murphy’s error … (or fill in another left fielder’s name).” I ran out of fingers by Memorial Day.
Holliday’s bobble, coming as it did among the jumble of first-round playoff games, may not get the lasting notoriety of season-changers like the Ralph Branca pitch to Bobby Thomson or the Bill Buckner wicket shot or the Mickey Owen dropped third strike. And one hopes it doesn’t define his career, because, limited though he may be as a left fielder, he’s far from the worst in the league.
The National League of 2009, after all, also featured among its regular left fielders Raul Ibañez and Manny Ramirez, guys who call to mind the line about Dick Stuart and Michael Jackson: “They both wore one glove for no apparent purpose.” And Ibañez and Ramirez played left on teams good enough to make the postseason.
A team that won 86 games last year, Houston, stationed—and it’s not by happenstance that I use the verb that’s cousin to the word “stationary”—Carlos Lee on the third base side. Converted infielder Chase Headley logged the most innings in left for San Diego, converted catcher Josh Willingham for Washington, converted second baseman Chris Coghlan for Florida. The Mets mercifully moved Murphy to first base before he got killed out in the pasture.
Heck, before they got Holliday, the Cardinals’ most frequent left fielder was unrecovered fieldaholic Chris Duncan.
The Hardball Times statistics section shows each player’s RZR—Revised Zone Rating—for each position. That’s an advanced statistic that, to simplify, tells you how well a player can catch balls hit to him. (OOZ—Out Of Zone—indicates how effectively the player moves from his spot in pursuit of a batted baseball.)
To give you the clearest picture of the state of NL left fielding, the league’s position leader in RZR among those who played enough to qualify was Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, a widely scorned third baseman who became a slightly less scorned left fielder. But he can hit!
At this point, I will tell you that I’m a Cubs fan, and you’ll guess where I’m going with this. My man, Alfonso Soriano! He’s Chicago’s natural-born DH masquerading as a left fielder as he chases, circuitously, the balls of ivy.
Stats? We got stats. His RZR—remember it as the Matt Holliday Game Two stat—was .820, one shy of 100 points worse than Braun, better by three points than Carlos Lee. Being a better left fielder than Lee is like being a better dancer than Tom DeLay.
We also have stats that are no longer fashionable, but do tell you something. Am I allowed to say “fielding percentage” on the THT site? Soriano’s this past season was .950, .027 worse than the next-worst guy. He made 11 errors, more than twice as many as any other left fielder in the league. Either league, for that matter. Think what he could have accomplished if he hadn’t missed a quarter of the season with injuries.
I have seen Hank Sauer play left field for the Cubs. I have seen Dave Kingman there, for badness sakes. But you really have to watch Fonzie every day to appreciate his appropriateness for DH. You have to see him going after fly balls using the great circle route method (good in long-distance navigation, not good in left field). You have to see him waving at bouncing baseballs like a man shooing a mosquito away. And avoiding the Wrigley ivy as if it were the poison kind. And doing eenie-meenie before throwing back to the infield—pick a base, any base.
It’s tough for us baseball traditionalists and National League partisans to accept the DH. It isn’t how they played baseball in the good old days. Pitchers aren’t good hitters, they never were, but their presence at the bat adds lots to game strategy.
It’s hard to make the case, though, that the designated left fielder adds anything to the quality of the game when his team’s in the field. Maybe it’s time to let Lee, Ibañez, Murphy, Ramirez, Soriano and their progeny do the only thing they can do in major league fashion.