He’s a player who meets the following criteria:
– He must appear in at least 100 games in a given season, and come to the plate at least 300 times;
– 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);
– He must appear in at least 10 games at four or more defensive positions;
– He must appear in at least five games at five or more defensive positions;
– He must appear in at least one game at six or more defensive positions.
And he has to do this in at least two seasons.
Let’s meet the superdupersubs of the 1970s and 1980s.
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1965 CHW 133 306 92 6 1B 72 LF 37 CF 31 RF 3 1970 CHW 129 371 63 3 1B 59 RF 28 CF 12 LF 11 1972 CLE 129 442 106 11 LF 41 1B 38 RF 25 CF 22
His career overlapped the 1960s and ’70s, but since two of the three seasons that qualify him as a superdupersub came in the Me Decade, we’re including him in this installment.
Aside from the pitching mound, a left-handed thrower can reasonably be deployed at only four positions in high-level baseball: first base or the outfield. Given this, the left-handed-throwing superdupersub is exceedingly rare. The only one prior to McCraw was Jimmy Wasdell.
McCraw was doubly unusual in that most first base-outfield supersubs swing the bat well, and McCraw’s hitting was mediocre—he was generally a bit below league-average across the board in BA, OBP and SLG. But McCraw was a splendid baserunner, had a slick glove at first base or corner outfield, and possessed the range to handle center. This, in combination with his won’t-embarrass-you bat, gave teams reasons to deploy McCraw as a pinch runner/defensive replacement when they were ahead and as a pinch hitter when they were behind, and also give him quite a few fill-in starts.
McCraw spent more than a dozen years in the majors as a player, but his career as a hitting coach for several big league teams lasted far longer than that. He’s spent five decades in the majors, perennially a second banana, always the solid unsung pro.
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1971 ATL 145 550 123 19 C 72 3B 42 1B 31 1972 ATL 151 637 116 18 C 116 3B 21 1B 20
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1971 KCR 120 423 83 9 C 59 LF 30 RF 18 CF 16 1973 KCR 126 485 93 11 RF 72 LF 27 C 14 CF 11
A superdupersub who tackles the role with catcher as his primary position, indeed as anything more than an emergency position, is exceptionally rare. These two were the first, in fact, since Roger Bresnahan in the very early years of the 1900s.
It was thus more than a little weird that Williams and Kirkpatrick came along nearly simultaneously to peform as superdupersubs with extensive deployment behind the plate. But their juxtaposition is interesting for more than that.
These were Williams’ first two full seasons in the majors. He’d torn the minors apart, winning the Western Carolinas League MVP in 1969 (leading the league with a .340 average and 33 home runs in 382 at-bats), and leaping to the big leagues after just 22 games in Triple-A. In the 1971 season we see above, he was NL Rookie of the Year, and he followed it up with a sophomore performance almost exactly as good. Through his age-23 season he’d blasted 61 big league home runs, compiled 38 Win Shares and seemed certain to be a major star for a long time. Yet Williams would immediately decline, remaining in the majors for just five more years, and finish with a career total of 85 Win Shares.
Kirkpatrick also had been a ballyhooed prospect, who also made the minors look easy. However, after signing at age 17 with a fledgling Angels franchise that provided ample room to show what he could do, in chance after chance the youngster failed to get his bat going at the major league level. Kirkpatrick made big league appearances in each of his first seven pro seasons, but through the age of 23 he’d struggled to a .215 average in 856 at-bats, totaling just 21 Win Shares. Yet Kirkpatrick would finally break through as a solid major leaguer, and garner 97 Win Shares.
Just two more cases on the very long list of reasons not to draw firm conclusions about a career in its early stages. Or, as the philosopher Joaquin Andujar once wisely put it: “In America, one word says it all: You never know.”
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1971 PHI 121 482 79 8 3B 68 LF 40 2B 20 1978 MIL 137 588 125 19 1B 61 2B 36 3B 25 SS 2
Originally a shortstop, and such a prized prospect that before he ever reached Triple-A the Phillies surrendered Hall-of-Fame-bound ace Jim Bunning to get him in a trade. But Money didn’t pan out at that position.
He was then shifted to third base, and would primarily reside there (and become such a well-respected defensive third baseman that he earned the nickname “Brooks”), but never permanently. Following his rookie campaign of 1969 in which Money was deployed strictly at shortstop, for the remainder of his 16-year big league career he never would have a season in which he played only one position.
Money’s description of himself was apt, if a tad self-deprecating: “An expensive utility man.”
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1974 TEX 151 573 102 16 3B 89 2B 40 LF 13 CF 5 RF 3 SS 1 1975 TEX 156 676 100 17 2B 79 CF 61 3B 17 LF 7 SS 1 C 1
Consistency at the plate was a constant struggle for Randle, but when his slaps were finding holes, as they were here, he was a real handy guy to have around.
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1976 PIT 122 416 143 17 3B 37 RF 29 CF 27 LF 24 1B 3 1978 PIT 136 552 92 14 LF 112 3B 29 CF 19 RF 10 1B 3
The course of Robinson’s long career meandered all over the place, but one constant was his strong defensive aptitude. Indeed if he hadn’t been so capable and versatile with the glove, it’s certain Robinson wouldn’t have gotten the chance after chance he did to finally prove himself with the bat.
Zander Hollander on Robinson: “Never counted upon, always produces … Plays wherever needed—third base, first base, any outfield position and never embarrasses himself.”
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1977 SDP 146 591 112 21 LF 72 CF 41 1B 32 RF 1 1978 SDP 154 629 133 24 LF 115 CF 26 1B 26
Most superdupersubs are deployed that way because of their positive defensive contributions, but then there’s the case like this.
Richards was a real good offensive player, a terrific on-base guy with outstanding speed. But despite his wheels he just wasn’t a good outfielder; indeed he was laughable in center field. It tells you something about a player’s defensive capability when at the ages of 23-24, he’s got great speed and no power but his team is using him extensively at first base … well, “hiding” him at first base might be more accurate. This unusual deployment rendered Richards one of the rarely seen left-handed-throwing superdupersubs.
Hollander’s summing up of Richards: “Very good hit, very bad field.”
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1977 ATL 140 491 46 3 3B 56 SS 51 2B 38 CF 1 1980 ATL 123 435 74 8 3B 47 2B 26 LF 18 SS 13
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1977 SFG 148 568 90 13 CF 74 2B 27 SS 26 3B 6 LF 4 1B 3 1978 SDP 128 401 73 7 CF 67 2B 40 3B 26 1B 14 LF 12 1980 LAD 117 332 92 8 SS 49 CF 41 2B 18 RF 9 C 5 3B 4 LF 4 1984 MON-CAL 122 302 74 4 SS 66 LF 43 2B 15 RF 11 3B 7 CF 2 1B 1
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1978 TOR 154 676 82 12 RF 102 3B 28 CF 25 SS 4 LF 3 1982 NYM 110 404 79 10 SS 60 2B 56 3B 21 LF 3 CF 1
Royster, Thomas and Bailor were quite similar talents. In all three cases, the defensive versatility was marvelous. But to justify superdupersub deployment, as opposed being just a plain utility man, it seems logical that a player ought to, you know, hit better than a plain utility man. None of these guys really pulled that part off.
Incidentally, you might have noticed that Thomas and Gene Richards were teammates on the 1978 Padres, the first case in history (though it wouldn’t be the last, as we’ll discover next time) of a pair of superdupersubs on the same ballclub. To be certain, as indicated by our comment on Richards, manager Roger Craig had separate logic motivating the two cases, but nonetheless it’s fair to question the wisdom of tossing that manner of lineup-card salad.
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1979 NYM 158 665 116 18 RF 87 LF 80 2B 13 3B 12 CF 5 1980 NYM 146 577 104 16 RF 96 CF 39 3B 21 2B 6
Youngblood wasn’t quite a prominent enough player to have been discussed in our Third Base: The Crossroads series, but he’s an interesting guy to consider in that regard. A superior all-around athlete, Youngblood was an excellent defensive outfielder with a strong arm, and though he was a pretty big fellow he had the agility and hands to not embarrass himself when called upon to play second base.
All of which would suggest that he would make a fine defensive third baseman, perhaps even an excellent defensive third baseman. And if he’d been given the opportunity to focus on the position as a young player, maybe that’s exactly what he would have become. But instead Youngblood’s defensive versatility was leveraged by his managers, and he spent most of his career bouncing around to whichever position he was needed in the short term.
Then in 1984, the Giants under manager Frank Robinson decided that Youngblood would be their first-string third baseman. As a fan I was delighted, reasoning that Youngblood was a natural fit for the position, and they’d get a few solid years out of him over there.
Well, Robinson, the Giants and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Youngblood was overmatched at third base that season, demonstrating neither the reflexes to handle hard-hit balls nor the accuracy of throwing arm to take care of the ones he did flag down, and understandably, the worse he did, the more his confidence at the position became undermined. He was catastrophically bad, committing an amazing 36 errors in 117 games (a 19th century-style .887 fielding percentage) before the Giants were convinced to yank him from the role.
Youngblood was 32 years old that season, and with the luxury of hindsight it’s clear he had passed the point at which he was up to learning to handle full-time play at the hot corner. His case is perhaps a warning to teams that while a solid-fielding player can be put to effective use as a jack-of-all-trades, if you want him to master a particular trade, it’s a good idea not to wait too long.
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1980 CHW-CLE 126 443 97 12 2B 41 LF 31 RF 27 3B 20 CF 9 SS 2 1983 CLE 117 422 93 9 LF 58 RF 34 2B 27 CF 8 1B 3
If there’s such a thing as the model of a superdupersub, Bannister might be it. His talent was modest, but he was the sort who did all the little things well, things that endear a player to his manager: He had good strike zone discipline and he reliably put the ball in play, was a good bunter, a quick and smart baserunner, and could handle the fundamentals at nearly any defensive position. He was the kind of guy about whom broadcasters would say things like, “He plays the right way.” One suspects Bannister was the first player to show up each day, and the last to leave.
Thus Bannister’s teams seemed to try to find a way to get him into the lineup, and were willing to live with his shortcomings, such as in 1977 when the Na-Na Hey-Hey White Sox played him as pretty much their everyday shortstop, and Bannister made 40 errors in 133 games.
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1982 LAD 150 652 156 30 RF 106 CF 44 3B 24 1984 LAD 144 594 131 23 3B 76 RF 38 CF 20 1B 16 LF 1
Every era seems to have one superstar-stud hitter who’s deployed in the superdupersub mode. In our first installment it was Honus Wagner, and in the second it was Stan Musial. We’ll have one next time too, but I’ll leave you to guess who that one’s going to be.
Perhaps the most perfect summation of Guerrero was presented by Bill James in his 1984 Baseball Abstract:
… they asked him to play third base; he said, “Is it that one over there?” and just kept on hitting. You’ve got to like that.
Nor can we fail to include this classic Guerrero story; I can’t remember where I heard it first:
Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, drilling his neophyte third baseman on mental alertness: “Okay, Pedro, it’s the ninth inning, tie game, one out, runners on first and third. What are you thinking?”
Guerrero: “Don’t hit it to me?”
Lasorda: “No, no. After that.”
Guerrero: “Don’t hit it to Sax.”
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1982 CHC 138 532 101 13 LF 54 C 44 RF 35 3B 2 1986 CHC 156 652 90 11 RF 121 3B 24 C 13 1B 12
The last case yet observed of the exceedingly unusual catcher-superdupersub.
Here’s what we had to say about Moreland in Crossroads:
A thick-bodied guy who was converted from third base to catcher in the minors. Arrived in the majors as a catcher, then was moved to the outfield, where he played as an unexciting regular for several years. Then, at age 33, the Cubs made him their full-time regular third baseman. That arrangement lasted just one year, but it’s worth considering whether Moreland—who was never quite a star—might have been a star if he’d been allowed to just dedicate himself to third base.
Indeed, Moreland had a good career, and his defensive adaptability certainly added to his value. But he was one of those talents about whom there were a couple of important “buts”: He could play catcher, but not well enough to make it there as a big league regular. He was a good hitter, but not good enough to be much of an asset as a corner outfielder.
Given this, third base would seem to have been the place that best fit Moreland’s skill profile. Perhaps his conversion to catcher in the minors was what enabled Moreland to make the majors (especially considering he was in the Phillies organization, and they had some guy named Schmidt handling third), but one can imagine an alternative scenario in which Moreland is a third baseman all along, and puts together a career something along the lines of a Gary Gaetti or a Tim Wallach (though it’s doubtful Moreland would have developed into quite the defender either of those guys were).
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1983 STL 101 361 115 11 LF 50 3B 30 RF 23 1B 9 CF 7 1984 STL 137 426 106 14 RF 35 LF 34 3B 32 1B 30 CF 15 1986 STL 137 470 118 17 RF 87 1B 38 CF 27 LF 1
Whitey Herzog was a terrific manager, but he wasn’t perfect. And a particular blind spot he seems to have had was with the young Van Slyke.
Without a doubt, the yeoman service Herzog got from Van Slyke was quite valuable. But clearly Herzog didn’t perceive just what kind of a talent he had on his hands, as he never provided Van Slyke with the opportunity to start every day, nor to focus his considerable defensive aptitude at any particular position. Van Slyke’s immediate blossoming into a star hitter and multiple-Gold Glove-winning center fielder as soon as the Cardinals traded him away makes it plain just how badly Herzog misplayed this card.
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1984 CLE 144 528 110 13 1B 67 LF 43 3B 36 2B 1 1989 KCR 123 434 80 5 RF 28 LF 26 1B 20 2B 3 3B 1
A solid journeyman who had a nice career with several teams, it’s doubtful a game of his went by in which a broadcaster didn’t mention the statistical oddity of Tabler’s tremendous hitting performance with the bases loaded.
It quickly became a cliché, a tediously overexposed point of trivia, a tired excuse for the commentator to not tell us anything new about Tabler. Any fan who followed baseball at the time knows exactly what I’m talking about, so I’ll spare everyone a repetition of the worn-out formula. I won’t even bother to point out that Tabler, who hit .282/.345/.379 overall for his career, produced at a phenomenal .489/.505/.693 clip in his 109 plate appearances with the bases loaded, driving in 108 runs. Won’t even bring it up.
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1985 CLE 143 523 93 11 LF 122 RF 30 1B 11 CF 4 2B 1 3B 1 1986 CLE 162 709 130 28 RF 78 1B 70 LF 45 CF 9 1987 CLE 149 629 104 14 1B 84 LF 42 RF 14 CF 13
He was grossly overrated, of course, but Carter was a fine ballplayer. Among his positive attributes was defensive versatility; he was the sort of “gamer” who didn’t give a rip which position his manager asked him to play, game-to-game or inning-to-inning.
Though he was good, it’s easy to see how Carter’s weaknesses could have been better mitigated, with his strengths still leveraged. Offensively, Carter was generally miscast as a centerpiece star, almost always batting third or fourth in the order and being lavished with 650-700 plate appearances per season. He’d have been more appropriately deployed as part of the supporting cast, batting fifth or sixth and perhaps sitting down against the tougher right handers, and in such a mode his flexibility with the glove would still come in quite handy.
Of course, in such a scenario, instead of being perceived as better than he was, Carter might well have been overlooked and underrated. C’est la vie.
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1985 CHW 122 353 78 7 CF 68 3B 39 LF 26 1B 6 LF 1 1988 DET 130 489 95 15 LF 60 SS 37 3B 31 2B 5 CF 5 RF 5 1B 4 1989 SDP-CHC 121 349 105 10 3B 97 RF 10 SS 9 LF 4 CF 2 1B 2
Salazar put together a fine career as a handyman with several ball clubs. But he didn’t fit the image one might have of the typical superdupersub, as a scrappy overachiever. Instead Salazar was a highly impressive athlete, with speed, a great arm, and decent power, but somehow, and maybe this isn’t fair, he seemed to be coasting on his talent, not taking it to the next tier he appeared capable of reaching.
Here’s what The Scouting Report: 1985 had to say about Salazar:
He has been unable to resist swinging at high fastballs and distantly outside breaking balls. Pitchers need not throw him strikes; he’ll swing at pitches many inches out of the strike zone. He is impossible to walk and much too easy to strike out.
… With more discipline and restraint at the plate and with some knowledge of the strike zone, Salazar possibly could be a very, very good hitter.
… This may not be common knowledge, but as a third baseman, Salazar has dazzling range and a powerful throwing arm. But he doesn’t necessarily use these attributes to his advantage. Because of his range, he is able to reach balls on which he has no play. But he often throws the ball away instead of holding on to it. And he likes to flaunt his powerful throwing arm by delaying his throws to first base, challenging baserunners rather than releasing the ball quickly and throwing them out routinely.
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1987 STL 116 312 99 11 RF 37 2B 32 SS 23 3B 8 LF 8 CF 3 1B 3 P 1 1988 STL 148 518 102 14 2B 69 3B 47 SS 17 1B 16 RF 9 CF 4 LF 2 C 1 P 1
Jim Baker, writing in the 1984 Baseball Abstract, was just merciless on Oquendo:
… Jose is reported to be strong in one field while severely lacking in another. Allegedly he is one hell of a fielder. Obviously, he is one poor excuse for a hitter. What must be asked is how much offense can be sacrificed in the name of defense? Can a team afford to have two pitchers in the batting order? (Look at Oquendo’s second-half stats. They’re on to him. I can think of ten pitchers I’d send up to pinch-hit for him.) I realize that he’s still very young, but I can’t see him improving that much. At least not to the point where his range factor won’t have to be 7.0 to offset his shortcomings at the plate. Where do you draw the line?
While it was certainly true that Oquendo was pathetic at the plate in 1983, Baker’s rant ought to have been entirely directed at the Mets organization for playing Oquendo as a first-string major league shortstop at the age of 19, and avoided belittling Oquendo himself. Because indeed Oquendo was extremely young, and he would improve a very great deal.
The Cardinals would acquire him, and Oquendo would be a player whom Whitey Herzog would handle brilliantly. Herzog leveraged Oquendo’s first-rate defensive skill in a utility role, and in his early-to-mid-20s Oquendo wonderfully blossomed as a hitter, playing himself from utility right through the superdupersub mode and into a gig as the Cards’ full-time second baseman. He would then become decimated by injuries, but for a while there Oquendo was a heck of a good ballplayer.
Year Club G PA OPS+ WS Games by Position 1988 CHW 146 526 92 13 3B 128 CF 8 RF 6 2B 4 C 2 1B 1 1989 CHW 140 494 88 11 2B 70 1B 40 3B 28 LF 10 RF 9 SS 3 CF 1 C 1
Before he earned his place on the all-time inner-circle short list of inane, irritating and entirely unlistenable TV color commentators, Lyons was a pretty useful ballplayer for a few years.
We’ll see the superdupersubs right up to the present day.
References & Resources
Zander Hollander, editor, The Complete Handbook of Baseball: 1979, New York: Signet, 1979, pp. 66, 209, 292.
Bill James, The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1984, New York: Ballantine, 1984, pp. 205, 212.
Dave Campbell, Denny Mathews, Brooks Robinson and Duke Snider, The Scouting Report: 1985, New York: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 627.