Cooperstown Confidential: The Hands of Stone teamby Bruce Markusen
May 06, 2011
Michael Cuddyer is a decent little player to have on a ballclub. He has power, drives in his share of runs, draws about 60 walks in a full season, and will play anywhere he’s asked to suit up. That last trait became the impetus to this week’s article.
Given the loss of Tsuyoshi Nishioka to a broken leg, the Twins were faced with the chore of plugging a major hole at second base. Ron Gardenhire has decided to give Cuddyer, among others, a look at the position. Cuddyer makes for an interesting sight, with his 6-foot-2, 220-pound body bouncing around the middle infield. Cuddyer will surely give it all he has, but if he plays for any stretch of time at the pivot, he has a chance to string together enough misplays for a full-length blooper reel.
His move from right field to second base has me thinking of the worst defensive players at each position over the history of the game. We’ve set up a few rules. To be considered, a player must be retired. He also must have played at least 100 games at the position. And his career must have started after World War II, so that we could poll staff members about players they had actually seen.
Although these selections are based mostly on observation and anecdotal evidence, we have included TotalZone ratings (the comprehensive system developed by Sean Smith). In every case, the selected players had TotalZone ratings well into the negative numbers.
Finally, my intention with this article is to create a fun and entertaining discussion, and not to be cruel. Almost everyone listed below was a good player who could hit; a number of them were versatile. They were useful players who could help you win, especially if employed properly. They just didn’t have the ability to be good defenders.
With all that in mind, here’s my unofficial “Hands of Stone” team, with lots of help coming from The Hardball Times staff. It is by no means intended to be the final say on the matter; your suggestions for your own stone-hands team are more than welcome.
(First team) Cliff Johnson: TotalZone Rating -17
He was a good backup catcher to have, a strong and patient hitter, with the ability to deliver pinch-hit home runs (he’s third on the all-time list), but his rock-like hands, stiff movements, and popgun arm prevented him from playing the position every day. In 1976, he led all major league catchers in passed balls, despite playing in only 66 games, a rather remarkable achievement. “Heathcliff” also wasn’t particularly adept at calling a game, and didn‘t enjoy warming up pitchers in the bullpen. For the most part, Johnson concentrated his efforts on swinging a bat, making him the ideal catcher-turned-DH.
(Honorable mention) Alan Knicely: TotalZone Rating -7
The poor man’s version of Cliff Johnson, Knicely was not quite as bad defensively, but was significantly weaker with the bat. Knicely actually had a strong arm—he threw out 25 per cent of baserunners—but his hands consisted of some composition of granite and sandstone. In 108 games behind the plate, Knicely made a boggling 11 errors. (Pro-rated over a full 162 games, that comes out to nearly 20 errors in a season.) Knicely’s minor league numbers indicated he would hit in the big leagues, so his teams in Houston and Cincinnati tried to keep him in the lineup at other spots, specifically the outfield and first base. When Knicely didn’t hit as expected, his major league days became numbered to a precious few.
(First team) Dick Stuart: TotalZone Rating -59
If there were to be a captain for the “Hands of Stone” team, it would be tough to find a better choice than Stuart. Nicknamed “Dr. Strangeglove” for his legendary feats of fielding, he achieved the Triple Crown of poor defensive play: bad hands, little range, and a weak throwing arm. At his worst, he managed to make 29 errors in one season, a stunning achievement for someone playing first base. In seven other seasons, he managed to reach double figures in miscues, giving him 10 or more errors in eight out of 10 full seasons. .
(Honorable mention) Jason Giambi: TotalZone Rating -41
I was tempted to give the backup nod to Mo Vaughn, especially for his ineptitude as a Met and an Angel, but I had the “privilege” of watching Giambi so closely for so long that I just couldn’t pass him up. Giambi had the range of a thimble at first base; if the ball was not hit right at him, it was a sure base hit to right field. He also had a terrible throwing arm, which was exacerbated by a fear of throwing. Given the combination, the Yankees rarely turned the 3-6-3 double play in games in which he played. And there were very few 3-2 putouts at the plate. If Giambi had a saving grace as a defender, it was his soft hands, which allowed him to pick errant throws out of the dirt from time to time. But other than that, well, Dick Stuart would have been proud.
(First tam) Jorge Orta: TotalZone Rating -76
An outfielder in a middle infielder’s body, Orta possessed hard hands and a slow turn on the double play, a lethal combination. Eventually, the White Sox wised up and moved Orta to left field, where he could do less damage. In 1977, Orta was one of the featured players in arguably the worst defensive double play combination of the expansion era. Orta served as the pivot man for shortstop Alan Bannister, who committed 40 errors that season. Playing as part of the colorful “South Side Hit Men,” Orta and Bannister created some interesting defensive adventures for the ‘77 White Sox, who finished dead last in the American League in double plays.
(Honorable mention) Gregg Jefferies: TotalZone Rating -39
Try as they might, the Mets desperately wanted Jefferies to succeed as a second baseman. They hoped that Jefferies’ natural athleticism would eventually make him an acceptable pivot man, but their wishful thinking never materialized into reality. Jefferies had speed, quickness and a good arm, but he also had hands of rock, looked statuesque trying to turn the double play, and simply lacked the basic instincts required of a middle infielder. He played second base so badly that it’s an absolute wonder that he came up as a shortstop, playing the game’s most demanding defensive position at most of his minor league stops. Yowzer.
(First team) Jose Offerman: TotalZone Rating -69
He looked like a shortstop, long and lean and athletic, with the accompanying speed and quickness. But in reality, Offerman’s defensive displays were nightmarish. Perhaps “incompetent” would be the best way to describe Offerman’s work as a shortstop. He had bad hands, poor footwork, and a scattershot arm. He could handle pop-ups, but that was about it in terms of any favorable defensive attributes. In retrospect, it’s rather remarkable that the Dodgers used him exclusively at shortstop for six seasons, including three years as a regular at the position. Later in his career, the Royals converted him to first base, but then decided to push their luck by trying him at second base. The Royals soon realized that he could not turn the double play, a prerequisite for the position. In spite of his continuing problems, the Red Sox signed him to an expensive free agent contract and anointed him their starting second baseman. By the end of his Red Sox stint, he was bobbling balls in the outfield and handling some of the DH duties.
(Honorable mention) Roy Smalley, Sr.: TotalZone Rating -13
This is the shortstop who played for the Cubs in the early 1950s, not to be confused with his son of the same name, who played for the Twins and Yankees in the '70s and '80s. “He made 51 errors in 1950, and maintained a like ratio in less-complete years,” says Joe Distelheim, a writer and editor for The Hardball Times. “In the city that produced Tinker to Evers to Chance, he and his double play partner, Eddie Miksis, were known as ‘Smalley to Miksis to the dugout.’ And Smalley is comfortably in negative numbers for the advanced-stats years.” On all counts, the elder Smalley fits quite nicely onto the second team.
(First team) Jim Ray Hart: TotalZone Rating -38
Hardball Times writer and longtime San Francisco Giants observer Steve Treder offers a succinct profile of Hart’s play at the hot corner. “He had only two problems defensively: fielding and throwing,” says Treder. “Other than that, he was fine.”
Far better suited to playing left field, Hart actually played more games at third base than at any other position, much to the chagrin of Giants pitchers who threw sinkerballs. Hart lacked the hands, mobility, and range to play third, and by his own admission, did not take a lot of interest in his fielding. Like many of the players on the “Hands of Stone” team, he finished his career as a DH, performing in that role for the 1973 Yankees.
(Honorable mention) Ray Jablonski: TotalZone Rating -36
He was nicknamed “Jabbo” as a play on his last name, but the nickname could well have described the way he jabbed and stabbed his glove at ground balls. (Given the comical nature of his play at third and the sound of his nickname, Jabbo would have made an appropriate recruit for the Marx Brothers.) Jablonski was a terrific hitter, but his defensive hijinks ultimately cost him his job as a regular with the Cardinals, where he was known as one of the “Polish Falcons,” along with Steve Bilko and Rip Repulski. In 1954, Jablonski reached his nadir defensively when he committed 34 errors at the hot corner, sinking his fielding percentage to .926. The Cardinals reacted by trading him to the Cubs, clearing the way for Ken Boyer to move in at third. Simply put, Jabbo was a DH 20 years before its time.
(First team) Greg "The Bull" Luzinski: TotalZone Rating -93
Bull, meet “The Donkey.” Luzinski was the Adam Dunn of his day. He combined incredibly slow feet with a weak arm and a general awkwardness that would have made him a better fit as a first baseman, his original position in the Phillies system. Having to play on the artificial turf of the old Veterans Stadium only underscored Luzinski’s lack of speed and coordination. It remains a mystery why the Phillies ever moved him from first base, the only position he played during his minor league career. With a body that made him look like a professional wrestler, The Bull was never a good fit for the outfield.
(Honorable mention) Kevin Reimer: TotalZone Rating -25
Remarkably, Reimer averaged an error for every 10 games he played in the outfield. He was particularly bad on those rare occasions when his teams dared to put him in right field, where he posted an .875 fielding percentage. This former Rangers and Brewers outfielder tried very hard, but he had no instincts, couldn’t run, couldn’t catch, and couldn’t throw. And that about covers it.
(First team) Willie Montanez: TotalZone Rating -14
Another former Phillie, Montanez lasted only two seasons in center field before management mercifully moved him to first base. Montanez would become a capable defensive first baseman, but he lacked the foot speed and the tracking ability needed to play in the middle of the outfield. Watching Montanez and Luzinski play together in the Phillies’ 1972 outfield must have been akin to viewing an uncut version of The Last House on the Left.
(Honorable mention) Gene Richards: TotalZone Rating -5
He had terrific lateral speed, but it rarely brought him to the ball without misadventure. Richards ran bad routes and possessed pitchfork hands, a deadly combination for a center fielder. The Padres wisely played him in left field, but he struggled almost as badly there as he did in center field. For good measure, Richards couldn’t throw either.
(First team) Dave Kingman: TotalZone Rating -7
One of the memories of my childhood is watching Dave Kingman stagger under fly balls at Shea Stadium. Kong was actually a good athlete (in addition to having gargantuan power), but his athletic ability didn’t translate into fielding prowess. As Steve Treder points out about Kingman‘s early career with the Giants, “he ran extremely well for a guy of his size, and he had a tremendous arm and he liked to show it off. But with every succeeding year he seemed to regress defensively, and it wasn’t long before he’d simply given up any sincere effort to do anything except maximize the distance, and not even so much the frequency, of his home runs.”
By the time Kong joined the Mets, his fielding had fully regressed. Kingman failed to get good jumps, ran awkwardly, and lacked soft hands. Unfortunately, he wasn’t much better at first base and was actually worse at third base (where he could have given onetime teammate Jim Ray Hart a run for his money) so most of his teams struggled to find a spot to hide him.
(Honorable mention) Jose Canseco TotalZone Rating -21
The muscleman wasn’t as bad as indicated by the way he once played Carlos Martinez’ fly ball off his head and over the right field wall at the old Municipal Stadium, but he wasn’t good either. Canseco had all the tools to be more than competent as a defender: speed, deceptive quickness, and a strong arm. Unfortunately, tools do not make one a defensive stalwart. Canseco did not run good routes toward fly balls, he ran clumsily, and he owned hands of granite. At times, Canseco played the outfield with all the coordination of Raquel Welch trying to tap dance without swinging her arms.
Curt Blefary: TotalZone Rating -19 (for all positions combined)
Even a team of poor defensive players needs a good utilityman, one who can provide the right blend of versatility and fielding ineptitude. The man known as “Clank” fits the bill. He played the outfield, first base, a little bit behind the plate, and even some cameos at third base—all with subpar results. Blefary deserves credit for trying hard and having a good attitude about his versatility. At one point in his career, he willingly carried eight gloves around with him, so that he could cover just about every position on the field, if called upon. The type of glove or mitt didn’t matter; each glove provided the resounding sound of iron hitting baseball.
Tommy John: TotalZone Rating: not applicable
Pitchers are difficult to evaluate defensively since they don’t play every day and don’t often become directly involved in fielding plays, other than bunts and come-backers. But let’s give it a try anyway. A borderline Hall of Famer in terms of his pitching, John lacked mobility and coordination when it came to handling batted balls. If John was on his game, the best way to beat him was to bunt—again and again and again. As a left-handed pitcher, he was particularly vulnerable to bunts down the first base line. Not even “Tommy John surgery” could fix that.
Billy Loes: TotalZone Rating: not aplicable
A flaky right-hander with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Loes was notorious for his on-the-field mental lapses, which is exactly the kind of characteristic that can make a pitcher a fielding liability. After all, Loes once claimed that he lost a ground ball in the sun!
The best of the rest: Earl Williams (catcher), Mo Vaughn (first base), Juan Samuel (second base), Alan Bannister (shortstop), Butch Hobson (third base), Gary Matthews (left field), Ralph Garr (center field), and Pedro Guerrero (right field).
References and Resources
I'd like to give special thanks to the members of The Hardball Times staff, particularly Joe Distelheim, Dave Studeman, and Steve Treder, for their input into this article. Also, acknowledgment should go to Sean Smith, for developing his detailed defensive ranking system, known as TotalZone.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.