Superdupersubs (Part 1: 1901-1940)

The concept of a substitute ballplayer is elementary. And it’s ancient; even back in baseball’s primordial era, when men were men and pitchers finished what they started, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings carried a 10th man on their roster, fulfilling the position of “substitute.” His job was to fill in for whoever might be unable to play due to injury or illness.

Thus the primary characteristics of a typical substitute, then and ever since, have been two: He’s versatile enough to handle more than one defensive position, and he’s not good enough to be a regular starter. As the game has evolved, and ever-greater specialization has taken hold, the generic 1869-vintage jack-of-all-trades has been replaced by a full bench of subs, in guises such as backup catcher, utility infielder, relief pitcher, fourth outfielder, and so on. Yet still, whether as a faded former first-stringer, an apprenticing youngster, or as a just-plain “role player,” the substitute is just that: a stopgap, a temporary fill-in, not as good as the starter he’s replacing.

Our focus today isn’t on such common benchwarmers. Instead we’re going to examine a far rarer species who combines the defensive versatility of the multi-position substitute with the superior skill of the regular starter: the unusual player who’s in the starting lineup most days, but without a regular defensive position.

The definition we’ll use for such a player is this:

- He must appear in at least 100 games in a given season, and come to the plate at least 300 times;
and
- He must appear in at least 20 games at three or more defensive positions (and if it’s just three positions, they can’t all be in the outfield);
and/or
- He must appear in at least 10 games at four or more defensive positions;
and/or
- He must appear in at least five games at five or more defensive positions;
and/or
- He must appear in at least one game at six or more defensive positions.

Such a player doesn’t come along every season. To be deployed in such a manner requires just the right combination of versatility, talent and team circumstances. But it does happen, and such a player has often been called a “supersub.”

Ah! But this isn’t enough for us. We’re going to highlight not just anybody who put together a season as a supersub, impressive as that is. Instead we’re saving our attention for those players who’ve been supersubs in multiple seasons, displaying not just a single instance of this extraordinary mode of deployment, but repeating it.

Such players are the supersubs among supersubs. They are, indeed, the superdupersubs.

Let’s begin our honor roll of every such player in the major leagues since 1901.

Honus Wagner

Whoa. Talk about starting off with a bang.

Yes, indeed, before he became the greatest shortstop in the history of the sport, The Flying Dutchman was a superdupersub. His first season as a regular shortstop wouldn’t occur until 1903, when he was 29 years old, and moreover those 61 games at shortstop we see here in 1901 were the very first at the position in his major league career, which had begun in 1897. Though he was a full-time starter and superstar hitter the whole time, the closest he’d come to being a defensive regular was in 1900, when Wagner played 118 games as a right fielder, but that season he also appeared at third base, second base and first base, and even as an emergency pitcher.

In retrospect, such deployment of Wagner might seem daft: You’ve got the greatest shortstop of all time on your hands, we’re tempted to exclaim, play him at shortstop, already! But that isn’t at all fair to Wagner’s manager, Fred Clarke (who managed Wagner through nearly his entire major league career, in both Louisville and Pittsburgh). For one thing, we have the advantage of knowing what Clarke didn’t know until 1903, that Wagner would be a first-rate defensive shortstop. And second, Clarke saw all too clearly something we’re inclined to forget at this great distance: Wagner wasn’t built anything like a shortstop.

Then as now, shortstops were slender guys, lithe and long-limbed and narrow-waisted, designed to cover defensive ground; anything they hit was a bonus. Wagner wasn’t that kind of guy at all: He was enormously thick and muscular, built like a catcher (or even moreso, like a wrestler). Yes, despite his bulk Wagner always ran extremely well, but there’s no doubt that had Clarke mentioned to anyone that he was thinking of giving Wagner a shot at shortstop, he’d have been greeted with hoots of laughter, if not serious questioning of his managerial aptitude.

Exploiting Wagner’s abundant athletic gifts in the outfield and at third base made plenty of sense, and taking advantage of Wagner’s easygoing versatility, deploying him at a variety of positions in response to shifting team needs, was eminently rational as well. Indeed, the true question isn’t why did it take so long for Clarke to try Wagner at shortstop, or to settle him there, but rather just how exceptional was Clarke’s vision and courage to decide to play Wagner at shortstop at all?

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1901 PIT       140  619  160  37   SS 61  RF 53  3B 24  2B 1   LF 1
1902 PIT       136  599  159  35   SS 44  1B 32  RF 30  LF 20  CF 11  2B 1   P 1

Charlie Dexter

As prominent as Wagner was, Dexter (interestingly, Wagner’s Louisville teammate in 1897-99) was obscure. He much more readily fit the notion of the kind of player we might expect as a superdupersub: a little guy (5-foot-7, 155 pounds), a light hitter but not an automatic out (career OPS+ of 85), and quite evidently with a nifty enough glove to be able to hold his own at any position. One strongly suspects a “scrappy,” never-say-no demeanor in a guy such as this as well, the sort of personality who endears himself to a manager.

Dexter was never a true regular anywhere, but he saw significant playing time at all eight non-pitcher positions, and in his eight major league seasons, found himself in over 100 games five times.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1901 CHC       116  488  82    7   1B 54  3B 25  2B 13  RF 11  CF 9    C 3   LF 1
1902 CHC-BSN   117  512  84   10   3B 40  SS 23  1B 22  2B 19  CF 8   RF 8   LF 1

Joe Kelley

A robust hitter over a 17-season major league career, the muscular (5-foot-11, 190) Kelley is in both the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Merit. But for most of that career he was almost exclusively an outfielder, in center field as a very young player and then moved to left.

But as the years passed, Kelley began to be deployed in the infield as well. In these seasons, Kelley was the playing manager in Cincinnati, and it seems apparent that he just used himself as his own personal utility man: If you want a job done right, Kelley might have been thinking, just do it yourself.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1902 BLA-CIN   100  435  137  15   CF 49  LF 19  3B 17  2B 10  1B 5   SS 2
1903 CIN       105  445  124  15   LF 61  SS 12  2B 11  3B 8   CF 6   1B 6

Rabbit Robinson

What we see here comprises everything but just two games of Robinson’s major league career. Thus he’s deserving of some sort of superdupersub purity award.

While the nickname of “Rabbit” implies that Robinson was extremely quick afoot, I’m inclined to think that it might also have had something to do with his size (5-foot-6, 148).

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1903 WSH       103  411  69    6   2B 45  SS 24  RF 16  CF 14  3B 5
1904 DET       101  368  103  11   SS 30  2B 26  2B 19  RF 13  LF 7

Wid Conroy

Not a star, but a solid all-around player, Conroy arrived in the majors as a shortstop, and then was moved to third base. But in 1905-06, New York Highlanders manager Clark Griffith made effective use of Conroy by plugging him into the lineup wherever needed.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1905 NYY       101  424  119  18   3B 48  LF 20  SS 17  1B 10  2B 3   CF 3   RF 2
1906 NYY       148  632  91   19   CF 66  SS 49  LF 37  3B 2

Sammy Strang

An extremely interesting player, and not just for his too-perfect name (if he hadn’t been a ballplayer, this guy would have to have been a guitar-pickin’ cowpoke).

Small but not tiny by the standards of the day (5-foot-8, 160), Strang was always a fine hitter, with extraordinary strike zone judgment. He was a regular third baseman for a few years, but his defense appears to have been problematic: Even within the context of his era, Strang made a lot of errors (63 at third base in 1902 alone). A shift to second base in 1904 didn’t yield any better fielding results, and with a batting slump that year on top of it, Strang lost his starting job.

The Giants purchased Strang, and the ever-brilliant John McGraw found a way to make exquisite use of him. Weaving Strang into the lineup in between lighter-hitting, stronger-fielding regulars at second base and the outfield, McGraw was able to leverage Strang’s outstanding run-production capability while minimizing his defensive exposure. It was just the sort of thing, in a much later era, that Casey Stengel might have done—oh, that’s right, Stengel’s mentor was The Little Napoleon, after all.

McGraw’s insertion of Strang into the lineup was often mid-game, which was highly unusual for the era. Bear in mind that in these years, pitchers were still completing 75-80 percent of their starts, thus there were very few opportunities for pinch hitters. Before joining the Giants, in six major league seasons Strang had never made a pinch-hitting appearance. But in 1905 Strang had 14 pinch-hit at-bats, in which he delivered eight hits, leading the league.

In 1906-07, Strang would compile 28 more at-bats in the pinch role. It’s likely many of these appearances weren’t in place of the Giants’ pitcher, but instead relieving the starting second baseman or other position player.

Just how good a hitter was Strang, you ask? Well, bb-ref.com’s super-fun “Neutralize Stats” feature informs us that had Strang played his entire career in the environment of the 2000 Colorado Rockies, his lifetime batting average would have been .323, with an OPS of .851. And Strang’s 1906 performance expressed in 2000 Rockies terms yields a line of, get this, .401/.511/.544.

This guy could hit.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1905 NYG       111  369  118  14   2B 47  RF 27  SS 9   CF 7   LF 4   3B 1   1B 1
1906 NYG       113  376  165  23   2B 57  CF 17  RF 17  LF 5   SS 4   3B 3   1B 1
1907 NYG       123  378  138  16   RF 41  CF 28  2B 13  3B 7   1B 5   SS 1   LF 1

Solly Hofman

Tall and slim (6-foot, 160), Hofman broke in as a utility man with the great Cubs teams of the 1900s. His solid hitting gained him ever-more playing time, and he eventually took over as the regular center fielder when Jimmy Slagle declined.

Then Hofman’s career was winding down, until it was revived with a chance in the Federal League in 1914-15, and he was once again able to display his defensive versatility.

Hofman was the uncle of a 1950s utility man, Bobby Hofman.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1907 CHC       134  536  95   18   SS 42  RF 35  CF 23  1B 18  LF 12  3B 4   2B 3
1914 BTT FL    147  583  119  20  2B 108  1B 22  CF 10  LF 10  SS 1   RF 1
1915 BUF FL    109  386  73    7   LF 46  CF 20  RF 18  1B 11  3B 4   2B 2   SS 1

Bob Unglaub

A line-drive-hitting young infielder, Unglaub was deployed exclusively at first base by the Red Sox in 1907-08. Then in July of ’08 he was sold to Washington, and despite the fact that the Senators had an unimposing journeyman named Jerry Freeman playing first, Unglaub was given almost no time there, instead playing third base and second.

The following season, Freeman was let go, but this time manager Joe Cantillon bounced Unglaub around between first base, right field, and second base, despite the fact that Unglaub was once again one of the best hitters on the ball club. Finally, in 1910, Unglaub would be given the job as the regular Washington first baseman, but alas his hitting went into a tailspin, and he would disappear from the majors.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1908 BOS-WSH   144  574  119  18   1B 76  3B 39  2B 27
1909 WSH       130  518  110  12   1B 57  RF 34  2B 25  LF 8   3B 4

Bill Hinchman

Hinchman had two distinct segments to his major league career, separated by a five-year stretch in the minors. In Part 1, he was primarily an outfielder, but was brought in by manager Nap Lajoie to play shortstop for a good chunk of the 1908 season, filling in for injured regular Terry Turner.

Following his sojourn to the bushes, Hinchman returned in his 30s as a much more robust hitter, presumably having filled his frame out with some added muscle. In this later incarnation he was a strict corner outfielder/first baseman, a sort of player who was rare in the deadball era but would become common in later decades.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1908 CLE       137  530  112  17   SS 51  RF 51  LF 23  1B 4   CF 1
1916 PIT       152  628  146  26  RF 101  1B 31  LF 23

Art Griggs

One of the things about the deadball era that was different from today was that there was really no place to hide a bad fielder. Nowdays they just park ‘em at first base, but at that time, with gloves still rather rudimentary, reliably catching the throws at first base was no snap, and moreover the high frequency of bunting meant that more quickness and agility was required of a first baseman than has become the case since.

Griggs appears to have been a good hitter, but his major league career was rather marginal—these two seasons were the only ones in which he appeared in as many as 100 games—because they just couldn’t find a place where his defense was acceptable. Most superdupersubs are deployed that way because of their strong defensive aptitude, but it looks as though in Griggs’ case it was just that the Browns were trying to find his least-bad position.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1909 SLB       108  401  123  14   1B 49  LF 36  2B 8   RF 3   CF 2   SS 1
1910 SLB       123  449  95    9   RF 43  2B 41  1B 17  LF 6   SS 3   3B 3

Roy Hartzell

A useful little ballplayer: The 155-pound Hartzell wasn’t a great hitter, but he held his own at the plate (career OPS+ of 93), and displayed exceptional defensive versatility, almost always being deployed all over the place, flexibly bending to meet the shifting needs of his teams.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1910 SLB       151  615  80   12   3B 89  SS 38  RF 23
1913 NYY       141  577  91   13   2B 81  3B 21  RF 16  CF 11  SS 4   LF 4

Sherry Magee

Magee, on the other hand, was a stud hitter (and is now a member of the Hall of Merit), and probably the oddest superdupersub case of all time. He spent the bulk of his career playing almost exclusively in left field, hitting up a storm. But suddenly in 1914, Magee’s 11th big league season, manager Red Dooin inserted him at, of all places, shortstop for a significant time, apparently just trying to plug a hole, and Dooin used Magee in eight games at second base for good measure.

Then the Braves acquired Magee, and manager George Stallings deployed the 30-year-old primarily as a center fielder for the first time in his career. Following this out-of-the-blue two-year defensive odyssey, Magee would return to being a left fielder for the remainder of his career.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1914 PHI       146  616  157  29   LF 67  SS 39  1B 32  2B 8
1915 BSN       156  655  126  26  CF 102  LF 34  1B 21

Rollie Zeider

“Bunions” Zeider was an unusual superdupersub in that he spent his entire career handling multiple positions, but was almost never in the outfield. He compiled 918 major league defensive appearances, only eight of which were as an outfielder; all the rest were at first, second, third or short.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1915 CHI FL    129  558  74   11   2B 83  3B 30  SS 21
1917 CHC       108  393  77    8   SS 48  3B 26  2B 24  CF 1   1B 1

Howie Shanks

This fellow spent the first several years of his major league career as a weak-hitting regular left fielder—then as now, a very odd duck. Senators owner-manager Clark Griffith was clearly enamored with him, and eventually started to use Shanks in the infield as well, thus getting some reasonable leverage out of him. Shanks would be a regular in the Washington lineup for a decade despite consistently mediocre hitting.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1916 WSH       140  540  92   13   LF 72  3B 31  RF 13  SS 8   1B 7   CF 3
1920 WSH       128  489  82    9   3B 63  LF 32  1B 14  2B 5   RF 3   SS 1

Jimmy Johnston

The first player to achieve four separate seasons meeting these criteria: a superdupersub among superdupersubs, for sure. Johnston was a solid hitter, too, an extremely handy guy to have on your roster. Wilbert Robinson clearly loved him, and for good reason.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1917 BRO       103  369  96    9   LF 37  CF 24  1B 14  RF 5   SS 4   2B 3   3B 3
1918 BRO       123  528  106  14   RF 75  1B 21  LF 20  CF 5   3B 4   2B 1
1919 BRO       117  453  100  13   2B 87  CF 8   RF 6   1B 2   SS 1   LF 1
1922 BRO       138  617  97   20   2B 62  SS 50  3B 26

The major difference between the baseball of the 1920s and that of the decades that preceded it is obvious: The fully “live” ball and the elimination of the spitball and other defaced/scuffed/stained baseballs in play fundamentally changed the nature of hitting, pitching and scoring. But something else that happened at pretty much the same time was a pronounced reduction in the degree to which players were deployed at multiple defensive positions.

I don’t know how or even if these two changes were related; maybe it was just coincidence, and the reduction in position-rotating by managers was just a manifestation of the sport’s maturity, its improving skill specialization and competitive quality, and would have happened regardless of the live ball. But at any rate it happened, and from about 1920 forward we see fewer superdupersubs—suggesting perhaps that the superdupersubs we see in the 1920s and beyond tend to be guys with even more impressive defensive aptitude.

Bernie Friberg

Friberg put together a very strong season at the age of 23 as the Cubs’ full-time third baseman, and it looked like stardom would be his. But he was never able to repeat that sort of hitting, and it soon became clear that Friberg was just another journeyman. But as he struggled with his hitting, Friberg revealed defensive versatility, first reinventing himself as a second baseman (in mid-1925, upon being picked up by the Phillies), and then as a superdupersub.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1925 CHC-PHI   135  519  76   10   2B 77  3B 40  LF 12  1B 6   SS 2    C 1   P 1
1929 PHI       128  518  95    9   SS 73  CF 19  LF 18  2B 8   RF 4   1B 2

Jack Rothrock

These were Rothrock’s first two full years in the majors. Following this he became pretty close to a full-time outfielder, which was odd, because his hitting, though it would get better than it was here, was never really what you want from a full-time outfielder. It would seem that Rothrock would always have been most effectively deployed in some manner of utility role.

Yes, that’s right, that’s at least one appearance at all nine positions we see there in 1928.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1927 BOS       117  463  72    8   SS 40  2B 36  3B 20  1B 13
1928 BOS       117  384  81    6   LF 26  RF 19  3B 17  1B 16  SS 13  CF 12  2B 2  C 1   P 1

Jimmie Dykes

Prior to his long career as a good-but-not-great manager, Dykes had a long career as a good-but-not-great player. He was quite stocky for a middle infielder (5-foot-9, 185), a consistently productive line-drive hitter, and capable with the glove anywhere in the infield. And, like Zeider above, it was almost exclusively in the infield: In his 22-year career, only seven of Dykes’ 2,276 defensive appearances were in the outfield.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1927 PHA       121  480  114  16   1B 82  3B 25  SS 5   CF 4   2B 3    P 2   RF 1
1934 CHW       127  536  87   11   3B 74  2B 27  1B 27

Red Kress

Kress arrived in the majors in his early 20s as a full-time shortstop with an above-average bat, and it appeared that he was going to be something very special. But it’s evident that the Browns became disenchanted with Kress’ shortstop defense, as at his age of 23 they began playing him at third base and then pretty much everyplace else. Then they traded him at the age of 25.

Following that, things quickly unraveled for Kress. Within the space of a few years, he went from young star shortstop to superdupersub to struggling scrubeenie, bouncing from team to team. He would return to the Browns in 1938, and at the age of 31 have a strong comeback season as their full-time shortstop. But then he’d immediately fall apart again, and all in all it would be one of those what-might-have-been careers.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1931 SLB       150  655  120  17   3B 84  RF 40  SS 38  1B 10
1932 SLB-CHW   149  626  100  16   SS 53  RF 49  3B 33  LF 16  1B 1

Jim Bucher

He wasn’t an especially good player, but then again the Dodgers in this period weren’t an especially good team. What’s interesting about Bucher is that his manager was none other than Casey Stengel, in his first two seasons as a big league skipper, making creative use of the left-handed-hitting Bucher’s modest talents in a superdupersub deployment. Stengel would always be an ardent lineup-tinkerer, as we’ll see in our next installment.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1935 BRO       123  487  92   12   2B 41  3B 39  LF 21  RF 16
1936 BRO       110  403  74    6   3B 39  2B 32  RF 23  LF 7

Jimmy Brown

Brown was unique among superdupersubs in that he not only never played an inning in the outfield, he never made an appearance at first base either. In his entire major league career Brown played strictly at second base, shortstop and third, as a more-or-less regular utility infielder.

In his original Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James offered some interesting observations on Brown, noting that he got quite a bit of MVP vote action, despite presenting a record that sure didn’t look like that of a star:

A similar case is Jimmy Brown, an infielder with the Cardinals from 1937 through 1943. Brown hit .279 lifetime with only nine home runs. He never really had a regular position, even for one year; he moved around every year between second base (392 games), third base (273) and shortstop (235). He wasn’t a base stealer, he certainly wasn’t an RBI man, and he never scored 90 runs in a season.

In 1939, hitting .298 with 3 homers and 51 RBI, Brown finished sixth in the MVP voting for the National League, just ahead of Joe Medwick (.332, 14, 117). In 1941, with about the same numbers, he finished fourth, ahead of all of his teammates, including Johnny Mize, Marty Marion, Enos Slaughter and Terry Moore. In 1942, hitting just .256 with one home run, Brown still finished thirteenth in the league’s MVP balloting, ahead of the likes of Medwick, Moore, Bill Nicholson and Stan Hack, with far better statistics.

Whatever the reason for it, the people who saw Jimmy Brown play thought that he was something special. Maybe they thought that he hit well in the clutch. Maybe they thought he was a leader on the field or in the clubhouse. Maybe they thought he was a great fielder or a great baserunner, or both. You can look at his numbers and make some pretty good guesses, but it’s not easy to know at this distance what it was about him that they liked. Maybe they were right, and maybe they were hallucinating. But there was sure something there that impressed people.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1938 STL       108  413  92   10   2B 49  SS 30  3B 24
1940 STL       107  484  76    9   2B 48  3B 41  SS 28
Next installment

We’ll cover the superdupersubs of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

References & Resources
Bill James, The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, New York: Villard, 1986, p. 307.

Edit: D’oh! Alert reader Mike Cade politely points out that I’ve overlooked a superdupersub: Roger Bresnahan, who qualifies on the basis of his 1902 and 1904 seasons. A particularly glaring omission! Bresnahan was exceptional among superdupersubs as being primarily a catcher who was nimble enough to be put to use literally anywhere else on the field, as well as being a tremendous on-base hitter. Mea culpa!

Print Friendly
 Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Google+0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone
« Previous: Anatomy of a player: Brian Bannister
Next: How will ball tracking analysis change the game? »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current ye@r *