Thursday, July 17, 2008

Left-Handed Third Basemen

In the year-and-a-half since I've started the blog, there have been 109 posts. According to my Stat Counter statistics, the most popular post of all is this one, on the history of left-handed second basemen in the major leagues. Well, I've never been one above pandering to my audience, and plenty of people have come here in search of answers regarding other southpaw infielders. So let us take a look at the history of the even rarer Left-Handed Third Baseman.

The play-index over at allows one to search on a variety of parameters, and here is the result of searching for all hot-corner lefties since 1956 (the first year of full regular-season box score data). Indeed, there are just four players to have donned gloves on their right hands and played third base in the last fifty-four years. The earliest of these is Mike Squires, whose official position was third base in 13 games spread over two seasons.

The first game was on August 23, 1983. Squires had played over five seasons in the majors at this point, primarily at first base, even earning a gold glove in 1981. But on this day Squire's White Sox were getting blown out by the Royals, and manager Tony LaRussa decided to clear his bench. Between the sixth and eighth innings, LaRussa replaced all but two fielders. Quizzically, he did not replace first baseman Greg Walker with Squires, instead having the latter replace Vance Law at third base. In doing so, Squires was noted at the time for becoming the first left-handed third baseman in over 50 years, which reaches back beyond the data.

That Time Magazine article notes that Washington Senators first baseman Joe Kuhel attempted one game at third base in 1936. does record Kuhel's fielding at first base but not third; however, records Kubel as having two assists in a game in 1936. The box-score of this game has, presumably, been lost to the sands of time.

Mike Squires, meanwhile, did not record a putout or assist in his first action at third base; that would have to wait until 1984. On April 8, LaRussa pinch hit Squires for Law in the bottom of the seventh and then sent him to third for the eighth. Squires was immediately tested as Tigers' hitter Lance Parrish grounded one to third. Squires fielded and threw cleanly for the first assist by a left-handed third baseman in 48 years. In total Squires made 3 putouts and had 9 assists from third base in his 38 innings there, earning a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage. Notably, Squires played two innings at catcher in the major leagues, another position with very few southpaws.

Squires also managed to have an interesting three-position gambit in one game: first-base, third-base, pitcher. Yes, on April 22, 1984, Squires was asked to finish a game against the Detroit Tigers. He had started the game at first base; moved to third in the eighth, and then with two outs in the eighth LaRussa called on Squires with runners on first and second. Squires threw one pitch to Tom Brookens and induced a fly ball to centerfield to end the inning and Squires' pitching career. Surprisingly, this position combination has been tried four times since 1956; and two of them are by a friend from the last paragaph-- Vance Law.

The world would not have to wait another half-century for the next lefty third-baseman. Just over a year after Squires' final game at third base, Montreal Expos manager Buck Rodgers followed LaRussa's lead and inserted left-handed Terry Francona at third base. It was October 6, 1985, the last game in a third-place season for the Expos, and the starter at third base was-- Razor Shines. The 28-year old had a name much better than his ability (hit .185/.239/.198 in 81 career at bats). Wikipedia notes that he spent sixteen years in the minors, and is currently a manager for the Clearwater Threshers of the FSL. Anyway, Rogers must have seen enough (or there was an injury) and replaced Razor Shines with utility player (and current Red Sox manager) Terry Francona. It was the only appearance at third base in Francona's career, and he made good on all three of his assist chances. Francona was then replaced himself in the bottom of the eighth by.... Vance Law. Cue creepy music.

It would be a not quite a year after Francona's game at third, when the New York Yankees suffered an injury to regular third baseman Mike Pagliarulo on August 25. The Yankees then left for a west-coast trip, and in a game on August 29, suffered another injury, this time to shortstop Mike Fischlin. Mattingly himself vaguely recalled the circumstances in a November 2004 interview on his website. From the boxscore, it seems as though the players were shuffled around the field, with Mattingly moving from first to third. Mattingly started an around-the-horn double play to end his first inning of work at the hot corner. He would have five other assists and a putout in the rest of the game. The next day, Mattingly actually started the first game in a doubleheader at third base, though he moved to first in the sixth inning. Wayne Tolleson replaced him at third and started the second game. Pags did pinch hit in both games but did not return to regular action until September 4. Mattingly played one more game at third and that was it for his career.

Another decade passed before the next, and latest lefty third baseman. Mariners' utility man Mario Valdez pinch hit in the 8th and then played his only inning of third base in the ninth inning, but did not have a ball hit to him. And that's all for left-handed third basemen. The prospect of having to turn your back to the plate to throw across the diamond must not be appealing to most managers. One would think it would be an advantage on reaction plays down the line, while a disadvantage over a ball between third and short. Fielding bunts down the third base line would also be quite difficult for a lefty, I suppose.

Next time, we'll check out the even shorter list of left-handed shortstops. I find these investigations extremely interesting, because I get to pick out some of the rarer things in baseball history, and they always seem to coincide with other wacky events!

UPDATE: Be sure to check out the final installment, left-handed shortstops!

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