Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday Forum: Favorite Fifth Outfielders

Two nights ago, The Common Man got to talking with Christina Kahrl about the endangered species known as the 5th outfielder. With teams increasingly (and stupidly) determined to carry 12 or even 13 pitchers, there simply has not been enough room on the bench to carry more than four pure outfielders, even on National League teams. We’ve been left with, in some cases, 5th outfielders masquerading as 4th outfielders, or, in Sam Fuld’s case, starting left fielders. It’s sad. There is not really a place for the Marvell Wynnes or the Doug Dascenzos in baseball today.

But that allows us to start a new feature here at The Platoon Advantage, a Friday Forum, wherein we all weigh in on a topic in a couple hundred words or less. When we're done, feel free to share your own favorites in the comments.  So here, without further ado, are our favorite 5th outfielders:

Jason Wojciechowski: Billy McMillon
If a fourth outfielder is the default fill-in at any of the three outfield spots when a starter goes down, I suppose that makes a fifth outfielder a man with a well-understood set of talents and flaws and a willingness to wield those talents for whoever is momentarily needful enough to suffer the flaws. The ronin of ballplayers, one might even say. While some ronin are masterless for a good reason, some have simply fallen through the misfortune of ill use by their previous master. These retain their skills but are perhaps underequipped compared to their fellow Bushi.

My nomination, then, for Most Ronin/Fifth Outfielder is former Tiger, Pioneer, Cougar, Sea Dog, Knight, Marlin, Red Baron, Phillie, Mud Hen, Tiger again, Athletic, Clipper, and Rivercat Billy McMillon. (Tiger twice because he played for both the Clemson and Detroit varieties.) McMillon was a Quad-A player, wielding his sword to the tune of a .304/.398/.491 career line in the minors but just .248/.322/.396 over about 675 scattered plate appearances at the top level. In the modern era of 18-man pitching staffs, that is, I contend, exactly what a fifth outfielder is. Not once in his career did McMillon spend an entire year in the majors, and he managed a full season at AAA with nary a callup as late as his age-30 season. For McMillon, as for many ronin plying their trade on the Fifth Outfielder Circuit, this wasn't entirely fair: the 2002 Yankees, for instance, a cruel and exacting master if ever there was one, kept him stashed at Columbus while giving Rondell White (.240/.288/.378) and Raul Mondesi (.241/.315/.430) nearly 800 PAs in the corner outfield spots. Still, nobody was chanting "Free Billy McMillon" (ok, one guy was): he was a slow, low-wattage hitter for his position, a good on-base source in a pinch, and an undistinguished gloveman -- not a Hall of Famer, in other words, probably not even a championship regular, just a solid choice if you found yourself down a couple of outfielders with a battle against your rivals to the south looming.

Mark Smith: Ryan Langerhans

Ryan Langerhans is a personal favorite of mine. Coming up in 2002 and 2003 for about a half a cup of coffee for the Braves, Langerhans got an extended look in 2005 and 2006, but he was only a less-than-league-average hitter playing a corner. Once he got expensive, the Braves sent him to Oakland, who quickly sent him to Washington in late April/early May of 2007. Washington let him go after the 2008 season, but they re-signed him a little later. The most valuable thing he's ever done was bring back Mike Morse when he was traded to Seattle in the middle of 2009. After 3 seasons in Seattle, the Arizona Diamondbacks took him but haven't played him.

In truth, Langerhans fits somewhere between a 4th and 5th outfielder, but either way, he's definitely not a starter. His career has been prolonged by a good glove and an ability to draw walks. With a career .226 batting average, a 13% BB rate increased his OBP to .333, but he didn't add much power (.372 SLG). FanGraphs has him worth 4.5 wins in his career.

So why do I like him so much? Well, he could play defense, and he had a knack for making spectacular plays. But mostly, it was his name. It was really long and really fun to say. Lan-ger-hans. And I'd always put a lot of emphasis on the "hans" part, making it sound like "hawns". He was everything you'd want from a 5th outfielder--a gawky frame, numerous transactions, defense to be valuable if used correctly, a fairly terrible bat for the position he could play, and a last name that could be butchered for entertainment. Lan-ger-HAWNS.

Bill: Eugene Kingsale

I used to live in Tacoma, Washington, and, around 2001-02 in particular, would often go watch the Tacoma Rainiers, the Mariners' AAA club. The most interesting player on the team was Gene Kingsale, owner of one of the great names in baseball history who -- I assume for precisely that reason and the fact that (as a tall, slender center fielder a la Ken Griffey, Jr.) he just kind of looked like an athlete -- was treated as kind of a star of the team, even though his numbers in his 100-game stop in Tacoma were thoroughly underwhelming. Kingsale kept getting chances in the majors, and I really do think he was one of those guys who kept getting moved around and kept getting looks just because you looked at him and thought, "that guy's a ballplayer." (I think the same thing is happening with Delmon Young, on a much larger scale.) Across parts of seven different seasons and in four different uniforms, Kingsale played in 211 big-league games and put up a 69 OPS+. Only once was he ever more than a fifth outfielder: he played 89 games for the Padres in 2002 (and played pretty well), fourth-most among outfielders on the team, just ahead of Jeffrey Hammonds' 81.

I haven't looked too deeply into TCM's, Jason's and Mark's picks, but I'm quite sure mine is the only one who is a knight. Kingsale, the first Aruba-born major leaguer, was made a Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau in 2004. Then, six years after Sir Gene was done in the major leagues, in 2009, came maybe the highlight of his baseball career. At age 32 and having played just 53 games in leagues recognized by Baseball-Reference over the previous five-seasons, Sir Gene played for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic and drove in the winning run in the 11th inning of the team's highly improbable victory over the Dominican Republic. He hasn't followed the path of a typical fifth outfielder (if such a thing exists), but he's certainly my favorite fifth outfielder.

The Common Man: John Moses

Johnny Moses was born to be a fifth outfielder. He was drafted in the 16th round in 1980 out of the University of Arizona by the hopeless Seattle Mariners. He moved quickly and made his Major league debut in 1982, but even from the beginning the M’s recognized his limitations. They kept him around as their designated pinch-runner and defensive replacement in 1983 and he got into 93 games, but only batted 143 times. At 28, he got a chance to stick as the M’s primary centerfielder, but only proved that he wasn’t a good hitter and, his speed notwithstanding, was a pretty bad baserunner. In two years, he stole 48 bases, but was caught 33 times. His speed gave him a reputation as a strong defensive outfielder, but that didn’t really manifest itself when he played center.

After being released following 1987, Moses failed to catch on with the Indians, but found a home with the Twins. He subbed for Randy Bush late in games for defensive purposes, pinch-ran for Kent Hrbek, and sported a sweet little mustache. He also was the last Twins position player to pitch in a game until Michael Cuddyer did it this year, pitching once in 1989, and twice in 1990. His magic didn’t last, however. As the Twins got worse, so did Johnny-Mo, and he was as useless in 1990 as they were.

TCM remembers him more fondly than Moses probably deserves. He was a bad ballplayer, under replacement value for his career. He had one good season in 11 years in the Bigs. That’s a huge career for a 5th outfielder, who by their very nature simply have short life spans. But Moses was so good at meeting the expectations for a 5th outfielder that teams kept him in that role. Speed, defense, mustache, and the occasional willingness to pitch in a blowout. That’s what 5th outfielders are made of.


David Kaleida said...

How about a least favorite? Mine was John Cangelosi, after I saw him make two outs in an inning which killed a big Pirates rally.

Michael Clair said...

My god, someone else shares my love of Ryan Langerhans? This is a great day to be alive, boys.

Mark Smith said...

Michael and I are now buddies.

Theo said...

My favorite has to be Rob Mackowiak. I'm not sure if he counts, because he was wildly miscast as a starter for a few years (the early 2000s Pirates were weird like that-they even tried him as an infielder!). That's probably at least part of the reason I like him though.