February 23rd, 2012

Day 4: The case for Bobby Bo

Twenty-five years ago, a younger Jim Leyland made a midseason decision that his Pittsburgh Pirates would be a better team if they gave a young outfielder, Bobby Bonilla, a shot at third base. The Buccos had a veteran named Jim Morrison at the spot for the first half of the season, but at age 34, he wasn’t part of Pittsburgh’s plans. Thus, Morrison went to Detroit in an August trade, and Bonilla went to the hot corner.

A year later, Bonilla’s first full year at third, he made 32 errors. He also drove in 100 runs and hit 24 homers, and he was hitting .303 with a .925 OPS at the All-Star break. Thus, Bonilla unseated future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt as the National League starter at third in the All-Star Game.

Leyland moved him back to the outfield after 35 more errors in 1989, but for those two seasons, he was the Pirates’ best option. When Leyland took over in Florida in 1997, he had a similar decision to make once the Marlins signed Bonilla as a free agent.

Bonilla was a lot older at 34, and a lot bigger than he was the last time he played third for Leyland. Yet Leyland and Marlins made the choice that he was best off with Bonilla at the hot corner. They knew what they were giving up on defense, considering they had an aging Terry Pendleton at third for the previous two seasons. But add Bonilla to a lineup that included an outfield of Gary Sheffield, Moises Alou and Devon White, and the thought was that the offensive benefits outweighed the defensive miscues.

Bonilla made 22 errors at third with a fielding percentage and range factor that both ranked below league average. He also batted .297 with 17 homers and 96 RBIs.

Bobby Bo, as he was nicknamed, is now the example Leyland is using when asked about moving Miguel Cabrera to third. With national writers starting to stream in, it’s coming up pretty regularly.

“I’ve told everybody, and I’m going to say it one last time: We won the World Series [that year] – and I’m not talking about winning the World Series [this year], I’m not making any predictions, but I am making a point — in 1997, we won the World Series with Bobby Bonilla playing third base and everybody said that would never happen. And that’s the end of it.

“I’m not really talking about it because I’m not going to get driven about this Cabrera thing at third base. If you guys are sitting in here and think – or if I sit here and think, more importantly – that there’s not going to be a ball go by once in a while, that’s not going to happen. We’re all crazy. I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. Some of you will, some of you won’t. But the fact of the matter is, as a manager when you put people there, you accept you believe you might get.”

He also brought up the Bonilla move in Pittsburgh.

“I had Bobby Bonilla at Pittsburgh,” he said. “He played third for me. He was fine. He played outfield, he played third, he had good hands and a good arm. It’s like I said: Everybody’s always looking for perfect players. There’s not very many. They want a Gold Glover at third, they want a Gold Glover at short. They want a guy who hits 25 home runs and knocks in 120 runs. If everybody had those it’d be boring.”

There are a lot of ways those moves can be compared and contrasted. The Pirates had a very good defensive infield in the late 80s aside from Bonilla, and the ’97 Marlins had a gifted young shortstop named Edgar Renteria, who became famous for his last hit of the season that year. But this is the case history. And one great thing about baseball is the treasure trove of statistics that can be used to look back on that time.

Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Normally, spring training isn’t the place for managers to talk about sign-stealing. For one, the games really aren’t that important. For another, the pitchers and catchers have enough of a task learning the signs, let alone trying to hide them well enough.

Still, the topic came up in Jim Leyland’s Thursday afternoon talk with reporters, when the question came up about catchers’ signs and the complexity involved in that. And as is often the case, the unexpected answer is the one that proves most interesting.

“I’ve always said that if a guy on second base can look in and get the sign, I have no problem with that,” Leyland said. “That’s pretty good. But if guys are getting signs off monitors and that, that’s just not good for the game, in my opinion.

“You shouldn’t have to make [signs] so sophisticated because you’re worried about somebody stealing on camera. If you think you need to sophisticate them up a little bit because some guy’s really good, that’s different. But I don’t believe you should be able to get signs with modern technology.”

That topic has come up in recent years, mainly from anonymous suspicions that some ballparks have cameras honed in from center field on the catcher to get the sign. Nothing has ever officially been proven.

Actual workout item of the day: As mentioned in the Tigers notes on the site, Austin Jackson continues to work on eliminating the leg kick in his swing mechanics, and he’s feeling pretty good about it so far. So does hitting coach Lloyd McClendon.

“I haven’t made that big of a change, other than quieting down the leg kick,” Jackson said Thursday. “It’s still there. It’s just not as high. It’s more just picking it up and putting it down now.”

He might still have the leg kick in some situations, but the idea is to get him quicker with his swing, especially in two-strike counts to cut down on his strikeout total.

Actual workout item of the day, part 2: Leyland continues to rave about a young pitcher with a breaking ball that is better than he expected. He is not naming the pitcher.

Non-workout item of the day: Leyland has no hesitation saying that Justin Verlander is the best pitcher he has ever managed, surpassing Kevin Brown. But can you guess the best all-around player he has managed?

It’s neither a former Pirate, Marlin nor Tiger.

“If you really got down to it – I’ve always slighted this guy not for any reason in particular – but I was thinking about that this morning. Probably the best tool player, total tools, was Larry Walker,” Leyland said. “Run, throw, hit, hit with power, great baserunner — he was a tremendous player.”

Leyland managed Walker for only one season, that 1999 campaign that ended with Leyland retiring. His numbers that year were incredible, leading the league in batting average, slugging and on-base percentages, with a 1.168 OPS. He hit 37 home runs, totaled 115 RBIs, stole 11 bases in 15 attempts and racked up 13 outfield assists.

“I’m not saying his results were better than anybody,” Leyland continued. “I’m not saying he was the best player, I’m just saying, if you judged five tools, if you looked at the five tools. Barry’s arm wasn’t quite as good. But if you look at the five tools, Larry Walker might be the best that I’ve had as far as tools. He was tremendous. A tremendous instinctive player.”

Quote of the day: Jim Leyland has said a lot of things this week about the expectations surrounding this team. Give him credit for coming up with a new line.

“I’d feel like I was a real [terrible] manager,” he said, “if somebody picked us last.”