tampabay.com

Baseball's hands of stone

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Columnist
Published August 29, 2007


Once again, history smiles on Brooks Robinson. On Johnny Bench and on Willie Mays.

The all-time Rawlings Gold Glove team was announced last week, and most of the names were accepted without shock or debate. Oh, you could probably argue whether Joe Morgan belonged, and maybe you were surprised when Wes Parker sneaked past Keith Hernandez and Don Mattingly at first base.

But, for the most part, the list was exactly what you would have expected if you had looked at a list of Gold Glove winners of the past 50 years.

In other words, it was a bore.

That's why we've decided to seek baseball's parallel universe. The ballfield where honorees do not have gloves of gold, but hands of stone. We went in search of history's worst fielders.

Granted, it is an entirely subjective argument. And, truth be told, we fudged a little for entertainment's sake. After all, do you really care if John Gochnauer committed 98 errors and batted .185 while playing shortstop for Cleveland in 1903? I mean, other than the fact he was once traded for Bobby Abreu?

Defense, much more than offense, is better judged by sight. By a feeling. By interpretation. It is instructive to look at fielding percentage, but it is just as critical to consider a player's range. And then there is the matter of a pitching staff, which can impact a fielder's numbers if they induce a lot of ground balls or get a lot of strikeouts.

"The tools for measuring defense are getting better, but we're still well behind compared to measuring offense," said Baseball Prospectus editor Joe Sheehan, who was on the screening committee for the Rawlings Gold Glove team. "I can speak authoritatively about offense but, when it comes to defense, we're all sort of wandering around the wilderness."

So are these really the worst fielders in history?

Nah, just some of the more infamous.

Catcher

He is one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball history, and that's fortunate for Mike Piazza because he wouldn't have made it past Class A if he had to depend on his defense.

Piazza was either first or second in the National League in errors for catchers six times in an 11-year span. And that's not the worst part. Piazza could singlehandedly create a stolen base boom with his sorry throwing arm.

There have been a lot of catchers with worse defensive skills, but I doubt if any of them lasted long enough in the majors to catch more than 1,600 games the way Piazza has.

First base

Sometimes, simplicity is the way to go. You have a first baseman with a nickname of Dr. Strangeglove, and you have to figure he is going to lead the straw polls. It was not just his skills that made Dick Stuart a horrible first baseman, but his openly contemptuous attitude toward playing defense.

Stuart lived to hold a bat in his hands, and was actually a pretty fair hitter. He once hit 66 home runs in a minor league season and averaged nearly 30 per year for the Pirates, Red Sox and Phillies from 1959-65.

"He could have been a great fielder, but he never worked on it," former Pirates pitcher Bob Friend told a Pittsburgh writer when Stuart died in 2002. "One time, there was a throw over to first that bounced in the dirt in front of him. He lost it and was looking around when he looked up at the umpire and said, 'Don't just stand there. Help me find the S.O.B.' "

Second base

Do you go with Steve Sax, whose throwing problem became so severe that fans sitting behind first base began wearing helmets? Or do you choose Chuck Knoblauch, whose similar throwing phobia transformed him from a Gold Glove winner at second base into a leftfielder and, eventually, a retiree heading toward a pension?

I say neither.

Mike Andrews may be one of the few players in history whose career ended because of a specific error. Andrews came up with Boston in 1967 and was annually among the AL leaders in errors by the time he got to Oakland in 1973. When he made two errors in the 12th inning of Game 2 of the World Series against the Mets, owner Charlie Finley was so outraged he forced Andrews to sign an affidavit claiming he was injured so he could be dropped from the roster.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn interceded and said Andrews must remain on the roster.

It didn't matter. Andrews never again played the field in the major leagues, and was done by age 30.

Third base

Tough call. Bobby Bonilla was awful, Howard Johnson was dreadful and Butch Hobson was pitiful. When faced with so many choices, you go with the most entertaining. And, as Jayson Stark points out in his wonderful new book The Stark Truth, Johnson is the only member of baseball's 30-30-30 club.

That's right, in 1991, HoJo had 38 homers, 30 steals and 31 errors.

Shortstop

It's ironic that Jose Offerman recently went after a pitcher with a bat in an independent league game because plenty of pitchers have wanted to take a bat to him after watching Offerman flub another grounder.

His career fielding percentage as a shortstop .944 would have been embarrassing by 1905 standards. It was comical in the 1990s.

Outfielders

Greg Luzinski was so awful in leftfield, the Phillies positioned him so he was literally facing the foul line. The idea was that any ball between him and foul territory (i.e. to his right) was his responsibility. Anything hit behind him (i.e. to his left) belonged to centerfielder Garry Maddox, who covered as much ground as anyone in the league. That is the definition of a bad outfielder.

Unfortunately, Pete Incaviglia never read that definition. Incaviglia wasn't content to know he had limited range and ability as an outfielder. He still tried to play as if he knew what he was doing. Inky had a laugh-inducing 14 errors in rightfield in 1986, so the Rangers moved him to leftfield in 1987 where he cut his miscues down to 13. He eventually found his niche as a DH.

A Hall of Famer with great speed and a steady bat, Lou Brock somehow squeezed horrible defense into his repertoire. During the 1960s and '70s, no outfielder was more lethal with a glove. Brock led the NL in errors seven times, and his .959 fielding percentage was the worst for any regular outfielder during those two decades.

Pitcher

This could be Terry Mulholland, who committed errors for eight teams and a had a pathetic .907 fielding percentage for his 21-year major league career. Or it could be former Reds and Padres pitcher Clay Kirby, who managed to boot one out of every five chances in 1974.

Instead, we'll go with Dick Bosman. He was actually a decent fielder (11 errors in 11 seasons) but the Rays minor league pitching instructor has a special place on this list. On July 19, 1974, while pitching for Cleveland, Bosman threw a no-hitter against Oakland. It would have been a perfect game if not for one miscue - Bosman's own throwing error on a Sal Bando grounder in the fourth inning.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8811.