During the off season I discussed with a couple of fellow Yankee fans the idea of the Yankees signing Albert Pujols who was a free agent. They asked where Pujols would play since the Yankees already had a first baseman, Mark Teixeira, signed to an expensive long term contract. I said that the Yanks could move one of them to right field and not pick up the option on Nick Swisher whom I did not like anyway. They did not want to move Pujols even though he had been a starting left fielder in his second and third seasons. I said OK, then move Teixeira to the outfield. Teixeira has played 32 MLB games in the outfield. They reacted as if I was a complete idiot for suggesting that a baseball player might be capable of changing positions, you know like Adrian Gonzalez has done this season for Boston, moving from first base to the outfield in eight games to get an extra bat at first base.
Undaunted I brought up something that I had long suspected but had never mentioned to anyone else. I said that aside from the pitcher and catcher and allowing for handedness, i.e., a southpaw at shortstop or third base, you could pick the names out of a hat for defense and fans would not see much difference in the quality of play. Now I was really under attack. Moving Derek Jeter a few feet further back, from shortstop to left field, would cost the Yankees 30 runs they said. I persisted but they were not persuaded.
Now there are players such as Yankee Jayson Nix who are actually capable of playing adequately at multiple infield positions and also in the outfield. How ever can they do it? Are they contortionists, ventriloquists, sorcerers? Back when I attended games and even showed up early enough to watch pre-game practice I saw players working out around second base turning double plays. Turns out they were reserve outfielders just fooling around.
Here’s my hypothesis. Let’s say we draw names out of a hat for MLB regulars, not multiple position players like Jayson Nix. But we make it a pool of players who are not very recognizable. Then we put them into those old style uniforms from a hundred years ago with no names or numbers. No names flashed on the scoreboard or on TV. I maintain that fans casually watching would not notice that these MLB players had been randomly placed at their defensive positions.
Most plays are routine. MLB players should make 90% of them. Good softball players should make most of them. It’s the consistency that matters, being able to make the 90% of plays often enough to be MLB caliber. Infielders can catch fly balls in the outfield. Outfielders can catch grounders and throw out runners.
One reason I think this is possible is that baseball remains the least specialized of the three major American team sports and that skill at one position readily translates to skill at another. I think it’s also because the players are not so different in size. Here are the Yankee infielders:
Robinson Cano 6’0″ 210
Derek Jeter 6’3″ 195
Alex Rodriguez 6’3″ 225
Mark Teixeira 6’3″ 215
Even the shortstop is 6’3″. Now the outfielders:
Curtis Granderson 6’1″ 195
Nick Swisher 5’11″ 200
Bret Gardner 5’10″ 185
The infielders are actually bigger than the outfielders.
But the differences are not great, not so great that they could not reasonably change positions and perform adequately. Imagine trying that in the other sports.
Switch a 6’2″ point guard and a 7′ center in basketball. Or in football switch a nose tackle with a free safety. Those are big changes, literally and figuratively.
The big issue would be exchanging outfielders and infielders. Most people would agree that moving infielders to other infield positions is not that big a deal. Many infielders start out as shortstops and move to second or third because they are not quite good enough to play short. Moving outfielders around is pretty simple.
But could you imagine Curtis Granderson playing second base? Or Robinson Cano center field? Yes. It’s not nearly as much of a stretch as the basketball or football examples.
You can follow the personal baseball blog of Kenneth Matinale here: Radical Baseball