Back at the end of April, Banished to the Pen’s Ben Suissa wrote about Brock Holt’s ability to play every position, and the chances that he might one day play 50 games at each of the non-pitching positions, a feat which has yet to be accomplished in major league history.
It wasn’t until, in a meandering journey across baseball history that I’m sure we’ve all taken numerous times, I found myself reading about Home Run Baker, who led the AL in home runs for four consecutive years in the early 1900s and was – as you may have guessed from his moniker – considered the league’s premier home run hitter before some guy called Babe Ruth blew everyone’s minds.
During the course of this random sampling of baseball history, I stumbled upon this line on Baker’s Wikipedia page and began to ponder the opposite of Brock Holt: who has stuck exclusively at one position for the entirety of their major league careers?
“During his 13 years as a major league player, Baker never played a single inning at any position other than third base.”
This, I imagined, was a relatively rare occurrence. Playing 90% or 95% of your games at one position was one thing, but never moving anywhere else? Never sliding over to first for a single inning or filling in for the left fielder? While not as challenging as Holt’s quest, it nevertheless seems like a difficult and far more precarious distinction to achieve; much like the Webb-Albers battle for games finished without a save, a single day in which events conspire to force a manager’s hand is all it takes to blow the record forever.
Two pressing questions had to be answered. First, of course, was the simpler issue of Wikipedia’s reliability. Were Baker to have exclusively played third base throughout his thirteen-year career, he would be a contender for most games played without ever changing position. It would be simple enough to verify the claim. The second, wider, issue was how many players could make this claim, who held the record and if anyone was on course to pass the all-time leader.
Naturally, the Play Index is our friend once again. The Batting Season Finder allows you to specify which position a player has played and the percentage of games a player has played at that position. Setting it at 100% would, I assumed, retrieve Home Run Baker and all players like him who have played exclusively one position. It has to be done in a series of runs to get each individual position, but this is hardly time-consuming. (For the record, searching for pitchers who have exclusively played pitcher is not at all interesting, as many hundreds of pitchers have done it for hundreds of games, and so I did not include them here). I set the minimum at 300 games played just in case this was incredibly rare, ran the query, and collated the results.
Here is where I encountered my first problem. The initial list of players returned by simply selecting one position at 100% was as follows:
|Milt Scott||341||1B||1882||1886||1336||Pitched 3 innings|
|Jimmy Cooney||324||SS||1890||1892||1459||Two innings at catcher|
Not zero results, for sure, but was Manny Machado really the only player since 1904 to have done this? Where was Baker? Furthermore, the query results clearly indicated that Scott had also briefly appeared as a pitcher, and Cooney had caught two innings. Assuming I had included a flaw in my query, I went directly to Baker’s Baseball-Reference page to check his fielding history, which runs as follows:
Clearly Baker never did play anywhere but third base, or at least the available data doesn’t show it if he did. Why wasn’t he showing up on the query? Further scanning of Baker’s page revealed the answer: he had 1575 games as a batter, but only 1548 in the field, evidently pinch-hitting in some capacity 27 times. Returning to the Play Index, I relaxed my criteria slightly to 98%, and sure enough, Baker showed up. The problem was that a bunch of other players did too, and not all of them had played exclusively third base. Orioles legend Brooks Robinson only ever started games at third base, but he appeared in 25 games at second and 5 at short. Impressive, given that he played 2896 games, but if Ryan Webb had 90 games finished and one save, Effectively Wild listeners wouldn’t pay any attention to him. Others had even started games at other positions; simply unacceptable. I was therefore going to have to dig a little deeper.
The good news is that PI queries also include the full list of positions a player appeared at, using the numerical designations. This allowed for an export of each query and the relatively quick process of deleting anyone who had any number other than their primary position number in that cell. Now I was down to 62 players, all of whom had only ever either appeared in a game at their primary fielding position, pinch-hitter, or designated hitter.
“DESIGNATED HITTER?!” I hear the NL purists cry. “Did Home Run Baker get to DH?” The answer, of course, is that he did not. When Baker started a game, he started it at third base. If you allow DHing into the mix and don’t specify that the player must have had at least 98% of their games at the fielding position, my search would have returned a lot more players, including Robinson Cano, who has 1550 games at second and 37 DH appearances (he also has one lousy record-ruining inning at shortstop from 2013 that would prevent him from appearing here even if I was lenient enough to allow the DH in). Derek Jeter would likely be top of this list, at 2747 games, and no-one came here just for me to tell them that Derek Jeter played far more games at shortstop than he should have done.
So, out go the players who got to DH. Apologies to Glenn Hubbard (1354 career games, 1332 at second) and Kirt Manwaring (1008, including one unfortunate DH appearance and 993 at catcher) among others. That brings the list down to 52 (still with a minimum of 300 games), starting to become much more exclusive given the 145 years of baseball history covered here. Readers who have read anything about the history of record-keeping in baseball will no doubt be aware of the difficulty of verifying some of the early statistics, and I have no doubt that Sam Miller would toss out a number of these results based on the years during which the players played.
If you were going to guess who the leader is, or indeed any of the members, now would be a good time to do so.
Given the various caveats that can be applied here, I’ve selected three current record-holders: one who, so far as we can tell, never did anything but play their position (ie. no pinch-hitting); one all-time leader who never DHed and exclusively fielded one position, but did also pinch-hit; and the active leaders, who I know you’re all dying to track.
Single Position Club Champion, No Pinch-Hitting/Dubious Record-Keeping Edition – Sid Farrar, 1B, Philadelphia Quakers/Athletics – 943 games
Given that Farrar’s baseball career took place in the 1880s and early 1890s, one could be forgiven for doubting the veracity of this record, and I make no ironclad claims that Farrar really never spent a single inning away from first. Nevertheless, his B-Ref page proudly displays that all 943 career games were spent at first base, and the fascinating biographical information provided by David Nemec at the SABR Bio Project lends weight to the idea that Farrar was exclusively a first baseman, as does the fact that pinch-hitting was incredibly rare until the turn of the 20th century. Farrar was not a good hitter or runner by all accounts, with his 91 career OPS+ an indication that his fielding was more valuable. As Nemec quotes in his conclusion:
Unlike most first basemen of his era, who were known for their bat work, Farrar’s reputation rested much more heavily on his fielding. Consequently, he was never portrayed either in baseball cards or photographs with a bat in his hands, and it is still a mystery whether he swung from the right or left side, or even conceivably from both.
Nemec also notes that both Farrar’s focus and his reputation as a “clean player” were enough to keep him on the team. During the 1890 season, his last in the major leagues, he proposed what essentially came down to a “loser leaves town” series in any cities with both a National League and Players League representative, like Philadelphia, putting him years ahead of Vince McMahon or any other wrestling promoter. According to Nemec, the National League teams were almost universally terrified by this notion, as they were predominantly inferior to their PL counterparts, so it never caught on. In addition to holding the unheralded distinction of playing exclusively first base, Farrar was also the father of Geraldine Farrar, who would become “renowned as the ‘It’ girl of the opera” in the first two decades of the 1900s, considerably surpassing her father in fame and singing ability, if not glovework.
Single Position Club Champion, Pinch-Hitting Permitted Edition – Luis Aparicio, SS, Chicago White Sox/Baltimore Orioles/Boston Red Sox – 2601 games
If you had put some thought into this – not as much as me, perhaps, but considered factors which might be likely to keep a player at the same position for their whole career – you would have concluded that a great defender, in the NL or before the DH was adopted, would have the best chance of making the club. If you had a reasonable grasp of baseball history and a mental catalogue of great defensive stars, you probably would have arrived at Aparicio before long. The Venezuelan shortstop played in 2601 major league games from 1956 to 1973, starting 2538 of them at short, and entering another 43 at the position.
Much like Farrar, his hitting was nothing to write home about, but his fielding was another matter. B-Ref puts him at 31.6 dWAR over the course of his career, good for sixth all-time. Aparicio won nine Gold Gloves over his 18 seasons, and was also a demon on the basepaths, leading MLB in steals on five different occasions, and the AL another four, finishing his career with 506 steals at a 79% success rate. Aparicio was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984, so it’s fair to say he hasn’t been overlooked like Sid Farrar, but we should nevertheless applaud his ability to competently play the hardest defensive position on the diamond well into his late 30s, therefore preserving his membership in the SPC.
Honourable mention: Scott Rolen, 3B, Philadelphia Phillies/St. Louis Cardinals/Toronto Blue Jays/Cincinnati Reds – 2038 games.
Single Position Club Active Leader – J.J. Hardy, SS, Baltimore Orioles – 1282 games (pinch-hitting)/Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore Orioles – 340 games (no pinch-hitting)
It seems somewhat incredible that J.J. Hardy, a rare shortstop with good power who has been in the major leagues for 11 years and spent 6 of those with AL teams, has never had a single DH appearance. It seems even more incredible that Machado, an outstanding defender and comfortably above-average hitter, has never done anything but play third base in the major leagues, including never pinch-hitting, after coming up exclusively as a shortstop. It is perhaps less surprising when you consider that both of them have spent the last three seasons on the same team; the Orioles clearly don’t like to move certain players around (they don’t mind playing Steve Pearce at second, though).
At nearly 33, Hardy doesn’t have much of a shot to catch Aparicio. Even if he could stay healthy, something which has eluded him recently, he’d probably have to play until he was 40 just to get close, and the chances that he would never DH or play an easier defensive position get worse every year. Machado should consequently end up playing shortstop at some point, and he’s likely to be a good enough hitter that he’ll DH down the line too. Even if he did somehow stay permanently at third, never pinch-hitting and thus toppling Farrar looks like an impossibility; I couldn’t believe that he hasn’t done it already, but I’ve checked his page three times now to be sure. He does have the advantage of age on his side for catching Aparicio, but being a more than capable shortstop and playing in the AL doesn’t do him any favours.
Other contenders include:
Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies – 1009 games.
If he never gets traded and stays healthy enough to play another 1600 career games… OK, no.
Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs – 791 games.
The fact that Castro is still playing short with Addison Russell in the majors offers some chance, but there are still too many infielders either in Chicago or on their way for everything to fit in.
Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals – 560 games.
A plausible top 10 candidate, especially now he seems to be making the strides as a hitter that might keep him in the majors for a while yet, but in his age-26 season already, 2000 games is a long way to go, and if he actually keeps hitting well, a DH appearance is just a moment away.
Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs – 487 games.
If he never leaves the NL, Rizzo has the bat to stick around for a long time and is firmly ensconced at first base with no risk of the DH.
Before I leave you with the full club, I nearly forgot what brought me here in the first place: Home Run Baker. The third baseman ended up seventh all-time, behind Willie Kamm and ahead of George McQuinn, making him one of the club’s most senior members, if not its most distinguished. Had someone not thought to include that positional detail on his Wikipedia entry, I never would have thought about the club, and therefore we never would have discovered its members, listed in full below for your perusal (just change the number of entries to 100 from the drop-down menu to see the entire table).
|7||Home Run Baker||1575||1908||1922||22-36||6666||5984||*5/H||PHA-NYY|
Many thanks to Baseball-Reference and the indispensable Play Index for the data used here, and to the SABR Bio Project for the historical information.Next post: Write-Up for the Weekend (MLB Draft, Angels marketing, and Venditte!)
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