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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

April 14, 2010 at 11:15 AM

The Suzuki revolution (Kurt, that is), and players who changed baseball

figginsout.jpg

First, a quick Kurt Suzuki story. Our computers at the Seattle Times used to be programmed to automatically change “Suzuki” to “Ichiro” in box scores, since we had settled on using “Ichiro” in all references to the Mariners outfielder.

That worked fine for several seasons, until a few years ago, when a rookie catcher named Kurt Suzuki joined the A’s. Sure enough, the box scores in our paper from his early games showed that Oakland’s catcher was, yes, Ichiro. That caused some confusion, but the bug was quickly fixed.

Suzuki has gone on to become one of the better catchers in the league, and yesterday made an outstanding play against the Mariners that sort of get lost amidst Milton Bradley’s home run and Doug Fister’s pitching.

In the seventh inning, A’s submariner Brad Ziegler threw a very wide pitch to Franklin Gutierrez with Chone Figgins on third. Suzuki made a leaping backhanded grab of the pitch, and then was able to fire a strike to third to nail Figgins trying to advance (shown above).

After the game, I went to the Oakland clubhouse, and A’s manager Bob Geren was raving about the play.

“From my angle, I don’t think there’s another catcher in baseball who makes that play,” Geren said. “He literally dove for a ball that, 99 percent out of the time, is going toward the backstop. And then he recovered to throw a perfect strike to get Figgins. That was flat-out amazing.

“If we win the game, that was the game-winning play. But we didn’t score any runs, so I don’t know if you see that play in a highlight film or not, but it certainly should be.”

Geren compared it to a play Suzuki made last week when he caught a Jose Lopez pop fly while careening into the visiting dugout.

“He continues to do amazing things athletically, acrobatically,” Geren said. “He’s revolutionizing that position. Guys don’t do that. He’s athletic as a catcher can get. It’s really fun to watch.”

The last part of that statement by Geren caught my attention and made me think. How many players have truly revolutionized a position? (I’ll reserve judgment on Suzuki’s lasting impact, with all due respect). I’ve come up with a few examples, but I’d love to hear what you think.

Historically, you’d have to go with pitcher Candy Cummings, who is credited with inventing the curve ball in the late 1800s. Cummings even made the Hall of Fame on that achievement, though there is some dispute among historians if he is indeed the curve-ball pioneer. But whomever was the first pitcher to put a wrinkle on the ball definitely revolutionized the game, just as Bruce Sutter would do in more recent times with his forkball/split-fingered fastball. With Roger Craig as the tutor, the split became the pitch d’jour in the 1980s and 1990s.

According to the Bill James Historical Abstract, the first recognizable relief pitcher was Doc Crandall of the New York Giants, who played from 1908-18. But when I think of revolutionizing that position, I think of the way Tony La Russa used Dennis Eckersley exclusively in the ninth inning on those great Oakland teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That dictated how managers have used closers ever since. La Russa wasn’t the first to save his closer for the ninth — Dick Williams used three setup men to get to Rollie Fingers on his great Oakland teams in the early 1970s — but La Russa’s Eckersley model has definitely become the industry standard.

Back to catching, long before Suzuki, Johnny Bench pioneered the art of one-handed catching (the other hand was tucked behind his back or off to the side, the better to protect it from injury) when he popularized the hinged catcher’s mitt (which Randy Hundley of the Cubs is credited with introducing). Benito Santiago was known for throwing out runners from his knees, and also introduced the unorthodox stance a lot of catcher’s use with the bases empty, with their right leg extended wide to reduce the strain on their knees.

Certainly, Cal Ripken Jr. revolutionized the shortstop position, showing that big, powerful guys could play a position that used to be populated by fast little guys like Maury Wills and Luis Aparicio. Alex Rodriguez took that to another level, with Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter also contributing, and now it’s not unusual for shortstops to also be power hitters.

Amongst outfielders, I think of Willie Mays and his basket catch, which was imitated by an entire generation, despite the protestations of coaches everywhere (just as the high leg kick of his Giants teammate, Juan Marichal, was replicated by a whole generation of Little League pitchers in the 1960s). And there was Paul Blair of the Orioles, who played a very shallow center field, daring hitters to knock it over his head — and then running it down if they did. A lot of center fielders have tried that method over the years. On a more specific level, Carl Yastrzemski wrote the book on playing the ball off the Green Monster at Fenway Park, and now every left fielder tries to play the caroms like Yaz did.

Can you think of any other players that revolutionized a position, keeping in mind there’s a difference between playing it very well, and actually changing the way it’s played.

(Photo by Associated Press)

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