One of the best things about baseball isn't the stars, it's the scrubs. That was brought home by the death of Earl Weaver this past weekend. Sure, Weaver had great teams with Hall of Famers like Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Eddie Murray as well as guys who probably should be Hall of Famers like Bobby Grich, but that's not where he had his impact. Rather, it was in the way he used his bench and his platoon players to create strong players from weak ones.
This is not going to be another memorial to Weaver, but rather to a way of utilizing rosters. A team roster is 25 men. That number has largely been stable throughout modern baseball history. It has fluctuated from time to time, shrinking to 23 during the Great Depression so owners could save money, and to 24 in the 1980s when the owners were trying to use the 25th spot as leverage in negotiations with the Players Union ("You give up the right to free agency, arbitration, socks, and oxygen, and we'll give you one more job per team! Deal?"), and there have been select times when managers could carry a slightly larger roster early in the season before reaching a mandatory cut-down date, and of course it rises to 40 in September. For the most part, though, managers have had 25 men to chose from on any given day.
Managers have always chafed against that restriction, though often for the opposite reason they do today. Back in the day, the hitters had crowded the pitchers off the roster. "It would be nice to be able to carry twelve pitchers," Casey Stengel once said, "but you've got to leave room on your bench for some pinch-hitters too." Today, of course, managers do carry 12 pitchers, and sometimes 13. That makes the kind of managing Stengel and Weaver practiced largely impossible.
In the reissue of Weaver on Strategy, Weaver, in an interview with Christina Kahrl, considered the virus-like spread of pitchers:
I made the point [in the first edition] that an extra pitcher usually ends up rusting in the pen. In today's game, with the focus on platoon matchups as every manager tries to have his own stable of situtational left-handed relievers like Jesse Orosco or Rick Honeycutt, you're carrying guys who don't contribute an awful lot over a full season for the space they take up on a twenty-five man roster ... With some teams carrying eleven, twelve, or thirteen pitchers, you're seeing a lot of the strategy of the game disappear, as teams cut back on having quality hitters on their benches."
"But if you're carrying twelve pitchers, you're crodwing your roster with relievers to face hitters that most teams don't have the space to carry any more. That means that there aren't a lot of guys who make it necessary for these situational left-handers to be brought in. So what good does it do to carry a reliever who's just going to get brought in to face left-handed hitters like Ken Griffey, Jr. or Barry Bonds, heavy hitters who couldn't care if they're facing a left-handed or right-handed pitcher?"
Weaver's comments don't even scratch the surface of how pointless the over-reliance on specialist pitchers have become -- a great deal of the time, a team's spot lefty will face more right-handers than left-handers both because switching pitchers every batter is just not feasible every night, because left-handers are often wild and might walk the chosen batter, and because once a manager brings in a pitcher, he's obligated to leave him in for one batter, but since the opposing manager can always pinch-hit, that batter won't necessarily be the one the pitcher was intended to face.
John Lowenstein, one of Weaver's best platoon outfielders (his right-handed partner was future Yankee Gary Roenicke), told Tom Boswell of the Washington Post that Weaver was "a genius at finding situations where an average player -- like me -- can look like a star because a lot of subtle factors are working in his favor. He has passion for finding the perfect player for the perfect spot."
That's out of the question now. Weaver had several players like Benny Ayala, a guy no one really wanted or thought much of-- he was 28 by the time he got to the Orioles. Rob Neyer described him thus:
There were many things that Ayala couldn't do. He couldn't run, he couldn't field, and he couldn't make contact consistently against a right-handed pitcher. He could be overpowered by a left-hander with a good enough fastball. To most managers, that meant that Ayala couldn't play. Earl Weaver was a little different: he focused on what Ayala could do. Ayala could hit with power against a left-handed pitcher in a limited role. Between 1979 and 1982, Ayala batted only 470 times -- but hit .277 with 25 homers, 83 RBI.
In 1982, a year the Orioles just missed taking the AL East, Ayala hit .305/.331/.492 in 133 plate appearances. That same season, Jim Dwyer, who was the left-handed Ayala, hit .304/.407/.493. Neither of those guys were that good, nor would they have been that good even in a straight platoon role. Weaver was able to spot them using specific pitcher matchups that went beyond lefty-righty to the repertoire of the actual pitcher. Stengel platooned the same way, saying that if you have a left-handed hitter at the plate and the opposition has a left-handed pitcher in the game who throws a curve, sure, you could pinch-hit with your right-handed hitter, but if your right-handed hitter is really bad at hitting the curve ball, what have you gained? Weaver took the time to think along these same lines.
That's really not possible now, because there isn't room on the roster for those guys. With just a few players on the bench, one of them the reserve catcher who you absolutely, cannot use (a terrible idea that has gotten stuck in managers' minds -- you can count the number of games that a team lost in modern baseball history because it ran out of catchers and still have some fingers and toes left over -- it happened to Casey Stengel once in the majors in a million-year career) and there just isn't room for creativity -- you use what you have regardless of if it's suited to the spot. Worse, teams look for excuses not to have potential bench players in the majors. Two terrible ideas that have become baseball clichés: If the player is young, "He can't sit on the bench up here, he's got to go down and play every day for his own good." No, not really. Playing every day against Triple-A junkmen is not necessarily going to develop the player's skills an iota beyond where they are now, if you were just a bit more creative, you might see that he can help you now, and since he wasn't going to develop into Willie Mays either way, might as well go for it. If the player is old, "He's a Quadruple-A player." Ayala might not have been even a Quadruple-A player, too good for Triple-A/not good enough for The Show, but nonetheless if you can play at that level chances are you can do something to help a major league team.
Look around the 2012 majors and see how many true role players there were, and then judge how many of those were used to the kind of great effect that Weaver cadged out of his benches on an annual basis. There aren't many. Unsurprisingly, the one manager who had a strong, Weaver-style bench in 2012 was Weaver's own second baseman, Davey Johnson. In addition to Steve Lombardozzi, who played something like a full season while subbing around the diamond, the Washington Nationals had Roger Bernadina as a spot starter, pinch-hitter, pinch-runner, and defensive substitute in the outfield, Tyler Moore for power off the bench, and Chad Tracy as a pure pinch-hitter.
The Yankees haven't had too many seasons of that kind in recent decades. Oscar Gamble was used a little bit like that in his second tour with the Yankees, such as in 1983, when he was used as a RF/DH/PH and hit .261/.356/.456 in 208 plate appearances, or more recently, Jim Leyrtiz when he was being used as a super-sub (C/DH/1B/LF) and slugging .500. Then again, benches of the Brian Cashman era have been almost uniformly bad. The 2013 bench ... well, it's hard to say what the 2013 bench will look like since it's pretty much notional right now. There will be an outfielder to DH or pinch-hit against left-handed pitchers. There will be a left-handed hitter of some kind, possibly the 33-year-old first baseman/DH Dan Johnson, who was signed to a minor league deal today. Eduardo Nunez will be there to ... do whatever it is Eduardo Nunez is supposed to do. Oh, and a backup catcher. In fact, the starting catcher will also be the backup catcher. It's not an inspiring bunch...
...And it's all Boone Logan's fault.