The Greatest Bench Players of All Time

October 3, 2014

Irrelevant Observation #1

(Trios)

 

                Sometimes there are clusters of the very unusual, which help us to recognize patterns that we might otherwise miss.    In the early 1970s there were three serial murderers operating simultaneously in the San Jose/Santa Clara area.   Up until then police had thought of serial murderers—what we now call serial murderers—as being so rare that one need not worry about them.   The presence of three of them operating in the same time and place is one of the things that helped the police world to re-think their assumptions.

                In 1952 the top three teams in the National League all had rookie relievers with .800-area winning percentages.    The Dodgers, who won the pennant, had Joe Black, a 28-year-old who went 15-4 with a 2.15 ERA in 56 games.    The Giants, who finished second, had Hoyt Wilhelm, a 29-year-old who went 15-3 with a "league-leading" 2.43 ERA in 71 games; Wilhelm led the league in ERA only because Black finished a few innings short of qualifying for the title.    The third-place St. Louis Cardinals had Eddie Yuhas, a 28-year-old who went 12-2 with a 2.72 ERA in 54 games.     All three of them were right-handers who had been mediocre starting pitchers in AAA in 1951.   Their imbalanced won-lost records reflect the fact that they were normally used when the score was tied or their team was a run behind.   In that era a starting pitcher was thought to have the right to protect his own leads; it was considered disrespectful to the starting pitcher to take him out of the game with a 3-2 lead in the late innings.   It would be 25 years before relief aces became "closers".  

                In 1961 the three top teams in the National League all had left-handed sluggers on the bench who were. . ..well, unusually good left-handed power hitters to have on your bench.     Jerry Lynch, for the first-place Cincinnati Reds, hit .315 with a .400+ on base percentage, .624 slugging, and drove in 50 runs in just 181 at bats.    I always think of that as a historic season for a bench player, one of the greatest ever, but the Reds’ two closest pursuers had Hall of Famers on their bench having similar seasons.    Duke Snider, 34 years old and battling years of back trouble, batted only 233 times but hit .296 with 16 homers, 56 RBI.   Willie McCovey, unable to break into the Giants’ lineup on an everyday basis because of Orlando Cepeda, hit 18 homers and drove in 50 runs as a half-time player.

                Sometimes the unusual can seem normal, because there’s a cluster.   This forces us to re-evaluate what is normal.

 

Irrelevant Observation #2

(The Duke)

                Did you ever realize that Duke Snider is one of the greatest bench players in the history of baseball?     This seems odd because we think of Duke as the third leg of the great New York Center Field triangle of the 1950s—Willie, Mickey and Duke.   If Duke was not quite the equal of Mays and Mantle, it is mostly that he did not last long enough to enter that pantheon; for a few years he was phenomenal, driving in 392 runs in a three-year span.   Neither Willie nor Mickey ever came close to matching that number; the most runs Mantle ever drove in in a three-year span was 331, Mays, 367.  Snider hit 40 homers five years in a row; neither Mantle nor Mays ever did it more twice in a row.

                We don’t think of Snider as a bench player, and this tends to blind us to the fact that, if you set aside the years that Duke was a starter and focus only on his years as a role player, he is one of the greatest bench players in the history of baseball.   It’s not just 1961; although his average was low in 1960 (.243), it was a loaded-for-bear .243, producing an .885 OPS.     A Williamesque walk rate gave him a .366 on base percentage, and most of his hits were for extra bases, giving him a slugging percentage over .500.    Snider actually was a tremendous bench player for a long time.

 

The Process of Scoring Bench Seasons

Being the world’s greatest bench player is, in a sense, like being the world’s tallest midget, or living in the world’s largest village.   The noun contradicts the adjective, making the combination less remarkable than without the modifier.  A great bench player is an oxymoron.

                Still, good bench players have everything to do with winning championships.   The Red Sox in 2013 had a phenomenal bench—Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp, David Ross, Jose Iglesias and the ubiquitous regular-without-a-position, Daniel Nava.   You didn’t want to be a run ahead of us in the late innings; Farrell would start unloading the bench, and if the left one didn’t get you, the right one would. 

                I’ve been tinkering with a method to identify the greatest bench players of all time; actually, I have been tinkering with this for about two years, and I have a nagging fear that I may have written this up and published it before, although, if I did, I can’t find it.    I’ve gone through at least 20 versions of the method, but I think I have one I can go public with.   Anyway, my method.

                It starts simple, with OPS and Runs Created.   Multiply OPS by runs created.   40 Runs Created with an .800 OPS is better than 40 runs created with a .700 OPS; 50 Runs Created with an .800 OPS is better than 40 Runs Created with an .800 OPS.

                Of course, Ted Williams in 1941 created 202 runs with a 1.287 OPS, which is really good, but Ted Williams in 1941 was not a bench player, thus not relevant to our study.  How do we get him out of the room?

                Let us say that a player might be a bench player up to 350 plate appearances, but that above 350 plate appearances, he is straying over the line into regularhood.   Regularocity?  Regularness?   You choose.   Anyway, we don’t want to put in a "drop dead" line so that a player drops off the map at 351 plate appearances; that would tend to give us a list of the greatest bench players ever which was a list of guys who had 330 to 350 plate appearances.    We’re not trying to find a "magic range" that represents the perfect bench player; we’re trying to be fair to all comers.

                If a player has more than 350 plate appearances, we discount his production (his OPS * Runs Created) by the margin over 350.    Technically, we subtract 350 from his plate appearances, divide by 160, and discount his production by that amount (if he has over 350 plate appearances.)   If a player has 510 plate appearances, he is zeroed out—but as he gets close to 510 plate appearances, he gets close to zero.  

                Oscar Gamble had a great year in 1977, hitting 31 homers and driving in 83 runs, not exactly as a regular, but he had 470 plate appearances, so his production is discounted by 75%.  

                Kal Daniels had a tremendous bench season in 1987, hitting .334 with 26 homers, essentially the same on-base and slugging as Jerry Lynch in 1961 (.429 and .617, 1.046  OPS), but he had 430 plate appearances, so his production is discounted by 50%, because 430 plate appearances is too many to really be considered a "bench" player. 

                Ted Williams was still the best hitter in baseball in 1960, his final season, hitting .316 with 29 homers, 72 RBI, a .462 on base percentage and .645 slugging, but he had 390 plate appearances, so his production is discounted by 25%, because 390 plate appearances is a little bit high for a player to be considered a bench player.  

 

                But this is not the ONLY discount that needs to be applied.     Justin Morneau in 2010 hit .345 with 18 homers, 56 RBI in only 348 plate appearances, but, of course, Justin Morneau in 2010 was not a "bench" player; he was an injured player, an injured regular.   Giuseppe Paola DiMaggio in 1949 was absolutely tremendous in 329 plate appearances, hitting .346 with 14 homers, 67 RBI, but of course he was not really a "bench" player.  We also need to distinguish between the legitimate bench players and the injured regulars and mid-season callups who have great seasons.

                We can do that, usually, by plate appearances per game.   Morneau had 348 plate appearances in 81 games, or 4.30 plate appearances per game.   DiMaggio in ’49 had 4.33 plate appearances per game.   A legitimate bench player will not have 4.30 plate appearances per game.   A true bench player, generally speaking, will have 3.00 plate appearances per game or less, because he has many games in which he has only one or two plate appearances.

                Again, we don’t want to put in a "drop dead" line at 3.00 plate appearances per game, because that creates an arbitrary list; instead, we gradually discount what the player has done as his plate appearances/game go over 3.00.   Technically, we subtract 3.00 from his plate appearances per game, divide that by 1.50, and discount his production score by that amount.   Morneau’s production score is discounted by 86%; DiMaggio’s, by 89%.   This prevents them from showing up on the list of the greatest bench players ever, although Morneau does get one point in our study for that 2010 season.   

 

                So that’s our "Bench Season Production" score process:

                OPS,

                times Runs Created,

                discounted for plate appearances in essence of 350, and

                discounted for plate appearances/game in excess of 3.00. 

 

                It works pretty well.  There are three problems with it:

1)                  That it ignores fielding,

2)                  That it ignores changes in the run environment (which is not a real problem, but people insist on worrying about it), and

3)                  That it occasionally allows someone to slip through the cracks who is not really a bench player.

 

More on that later.   It’s a pretty good system, or anyway, good enough that I’m going to write up what I’ve got and share it with you, and you can pick holes in it however you see fit.   Fielding is always a problem in accurate evaluation; we’ll just have to jimmy the list subjectively to account for that.

Having given "scores" to every season, I then awarded POINTS for qualifying seasons on the following basis:

26 points to the best season ever (below),

25 points to the next FOUR best seasons,

24 points to the next NINE best seasons,

23 points to the next SIXTEEN best seasons, etc. etc., down to

3 points for the next 576 best seasons,

2 points to the next 625 best seasons, and

1 point to another 4,836 pretty good bench seasons.

 

Altogether there are 10,361 seasons which are credited with points, and they are credited with a total of 48,366 points.

Let me explain how I got there.   I started, a couple of years ago, by identifying (by a different but similar process) the 100 greatest bench seasons ever, and I gave points to them, 100 for the best season, 99 for the second-best, 98 for the third-base, etc.   Then I added up the points for seasons to determine the best bench careers.  But that didn’t work at all, because it ranked players who had one great season off the bench, like Showboat Fisher, Tex Vache or Norris Hopper, ahead of players who were good bench players for 12 or 15 years.

I decided that I didn’t have enough seasons in the Hopper; that must be the problem.  In later iterations of the study I expanded the list to the 200 best bench seasons, the 1,000 best, the 2,000 best, etc., but using the same process, which never worked; it always gave way too much credit for one or two exceptional seasons, rather than giving credit to guys who were consistently good in the reserve role.   So then I compressed the system so that I gave 25 points to the top one season, 24 to the next 4, 23 to the next 9, etc., so that I had a 25-to-1 ratio rather than a 2000-to-1 ratio, but there were still a lot of pretty good seasons by bench players that I thought deserved SOME recognition, so then I bumped the numbers up by one, and gave one point to every season that scored at 10.00 or greater by the scoring system outlined above.  

There are still many more bench players who don’t get ANY credit in each season than there are who do; you still have to have a fairly productive season in a decent number of games to qualify for the list.   We’re not giving points to guys who appear in 50 games and hit .210; you have to get into some games and produce in order to make the list.

 

 

The Greatest Seasons Ever By Bench Players

                According to this process, the greatest bench season ever was by Oscar Gamble in 1979.   I’m actually 100% happy with that answer; I don’t have any problem with it at all.   Playing for two teams, Gamble in 1979 hit .358 with 19 homers, 64 RBI in 270 at bats.    With a terrific strikeout to walk ratio as well (28 strikeouts, 50 walks), Gamble had on base and slugging percentages in Ted Williams/Barry Bonds/Babe Ruth territory, .456 and .609.  This wasn’t done in the steroid era or the 1890s, and it wasn’t done in Coors Field or the Baker Bowl, and he wasn’t "really" a regular who slipped under the radar, and he wasn’t a one-year fluke like Showboat Fisher in 1930 or Chris Duncan in 2006; it is absolutely legit on every front.

                Oscar Gamble is mostly remembered for an outrageous Afro that he wore one season early in his career, the biggest ‘fro in baseball history.   He has a good argument that what he should be remembered as is the greatest bench player of all time; my system does not rank him #1, but

a)      He has the greatest one season ever coming off the bench, and

b)      He also has more seasons which earn points in my system (14) than any other player.

 

And he has a lot of very good seasons as a bench player, a bunch of them.    He is a serious candidate to be designated the greatest bench player of all time.  

OK, this is my list of the ten best bench seasons ever; I’m actually happy with eight of the ten listed seasons.

First

Last

YEAR

G

AB

HR

RBI

Avg

OBA

SPct

OPS

Oscar

Gamble

1979

100

274

19

64

.358

.456

.609

1.065

Mark

McGwire

2000

89

236

32

73

.305

.483

.746

1.229

Gavy

Cravath

1919

83

214

12

45

.341

.438

.640

1.078

Elmer

Valo

1955

112

283

3

37

.364

.460

.484

.944

Ted

Williams

1953

37

91

13

34

.407

.509

.901

1.410

Babe

Phelps

1936

115

319

5

57

.367

.421

.498

.920

Jerry

Mumphrey

1987

118

309

13

44

.333

.400

.534

.934

Jim

Thome

2010

108

276

25

59

.283

.412

.627

1.039

Matt

Stairs

2003

121

305

20

57

.292

.389

.561

.950

Cliff

Johnson

1977

107

286

22

54

.297

.407

.584

.991

 

                The only seasons there that I would prefer not to have on the list are Mark McGwire in 2000 and Ted Williams in 1953.   McGwire the first two months of 2000 played at the record-shattering level he had set in 1998 and 1999; then he was hurt, was out for a couple of months, and spent the last two months of the year getting one at bat a game either as a pinch hitter or, on the road, batting in the first inning and then sitting down.   He’s not really a "bench" player, and Ted Williams in ’53 was in the military most of the year, flying missions in Korea, I think, came back late in the season and pinch hit for a couple of weeks, getting back in shape; he was phenomenal but not really a "bench" player, either.   Otherwise. . .legitimate list; these were bench players, and tremendously productive ones, cleanup hitters.    Old Elmer Valo in ’55 also had 52 walks, giving him a .460 on base percentage.

                The next 15 players on the list, rounding out the top 25, actually don’t have ANY serious problems; they’re all true bench players, having great seasons:

 

First

Last

YEAR

G

AB

HR

RBI

Avg

OBA

SPct

OPS

Showboat

Fisher

1930

92

254

8

61

.374

.432

.587

1.019

Ernie

Lombardi

1935

120

332

12

64

.343

.379

.539

.918

Ben

Paschal

1925

89

247

12

56

.360

.417

.611

1.028

Bill

Spiers

1997

132

291

4

48

.320

.438

.481

.919

John

Lowenstein

1982

122

322

24

66

.320

.415

.602

1.017

Bob

Fothergill

1929

115

277

6

62

.354

.378

.570

.949

Ron

Fairly

1961

111

245

10

48

.322

.434

.522

.956

Tony

Clark

2005

130

349

30

87

.304

.366

.636

1.003

Mike

Jorgensen

1974

131

287

11

59

.310

.444

.488

.931

Champ

Summers

1979

117

306

21

62

.291

.401

.556

.957

Johnny

Blanchard

1961

93

243

21

54

.305

.382

.613

.995

Joe

Cunningham

1957

122

261

9

52

.318

.439

.479

.918

Terry

Shumpert

1999

92

262

10

37

.347

.413

.584

.997

Ted

Williams

1960

113

310

29

72

.316

.462

.645

1.107

Don

Padgett

1939

92

233

5

53

.399

.444

.554

.998

 

                You can argue about Williams in 1960, I guess, whether he was a "bench" player or not, but I think it is more accurate to say that he was than to say that he wasn’t.

                Of course, you can also argue about where players should be placed on the list, as well as who belongs on the list, but that’s the purpose of the point system that I designed, to make that issue as irrelevant as possible.    Russ Wrightstone in 1925 hit .346 with 14 homers, 61 RBI in 92 games; that season ranks just 64th on the list—but is that season really less impressive than Fatty Fothergill in 1929, hitting .354 but with less power?    You can argue that, but it doesn’t really matter, because of the point system; Fothergill, in 16th place all time, gets 23 points, whereas Wrightstone, in 64th place, gets 21 points.    That doesn’t really matter very much on the bottom line.   The system is designed to try to recognize outstanding seasons by bench players without giving too much credit to the season that seems just a little bit better.  

 

The Greatest Bench Players of All Time

 

1)   According to my method, the greatest bench player of all time was Matt Stairs.  A native Canadian, Stairs came through the minors as a second baseman.   That’s actually common; lots of guys come up as second basemen and then immediately move somewhere else—Danny Tartabull did that, Tim Raines, Don Buford, Hal McRae.    Their organizations figure if they can play second base at the major league level it’s a good deal, but I always wonder if it’s a good deal for the player, who gets to the majors and then immediately has to change positions.

Anyway, Stairs in 1991 was a hot prospect, hitting .333 at Harrisburg in the Eastern League; that was Double A.   He moved to the outfield in 1992, moved to Triple A and hit .267; then he wasn’t quite such a hot property.   He was sold briefly to Japan, went to the Red Sox, went back to Double A.    Short and built like an oil drum, he finally broke through with Oakland in 1996, one of the funny-looking-but-he-can-hit guys that Billy Beane later became famous for.   He had an outstanding year off the bench for Oakland in 1997, hitting .298 with 27 homers in 352 at bats, was a regular for two years after that and drove in 100 runs both years. 

He hit just .227 in 2000, and lost his hold on regular status.   He was not a good outfielder, not fast, decent arm.  He would last 11 more years as a bench player, being productive almost every year although bouncing endlessly from team to team.  He hit 17 homers and drove in 61 runs in just 340 at bats in 2001, hit 16 bombs in 270 at bats in 2002.   In 2003 he made the list (above) of the ten greatest bench seasons ever.  He drove in 51 runs in half-time play in 2006, hit .289 with 21 homers in 357 at bats in 2007.   He hit for good power in 2008, moved into a pinch hitter role in 2009 and 2010 and hit pinch-hit home runs for two years.   He played for 12 different teams—13 if you count Montreal and Washington as two teams—which is a major league record for a position player.  

Although he was only a regular for two years, Stairs hit 265 major league home runs.   Per at bat, he hit more home runs and drove in more runs than Dale Murphy, Jack Clark, Orlando Cepeda, Joe Carter, Billy Williams or Eddie Murray.  As I said about Oscar Gamble, I am completely happy with Stairs as the #1 guy.   He was a reliable left-handed power bat for a long time.

2)  The number two bench player of all time, in my data, is a Hall of Fame catcher, Ernie Lombardi.    I can hear the argument against Lombardi being eligible for this list forming in the back of your head; it goes something like this.    "Lombardi wasn’t a "bench" player; he was a regular catcher in an era in which regular catchers didn’t play 140 games a year.   He was the Reds’ regular catcher from 1931 to 1941, the Giants regular catcher during the war.   He shouldn’t be eligible for this list."

Well, OK, make up your own list, but Lombardi shows as a bench player by the standards that seem to work for everyone else.   To explain Ernie Lombardi to a modern reader, I would say he was a combination of Mike Piazza, Lance Parrrish and David Ortiz.    Like Piazza, he was a tremendous right-handed hitter, but not well-regarded in his own era as a defensive catcher; Piazza, in truth, was probably a better all-around defensive catcher than Lombardi was.   Piazza had a poor arm for a catcher but was otherwise pretty good; Lombardi had a strong arm and wasn’t a bad receiver, but his mobility issues were serious.   He couldn’t field a bunt, couldn’t chase down a foul pop up, and if the ball bounced three feet away from him, runners could advance because he was so slow going after the ball.  

Lombardi was a truly tremendous hitter.   His numbers look great, but what you have to remember is that he was playing in a pitcher’s park in a pitcher’s league.   The National League ERAs in the 1930s were almost always under 4.00, and went as low as 3.33 in 1933, and Crosley Field was the toughest park for a hitter in the National League, other than Braves Field in Boston.   

He was built like David Ortiz; right-handed and white, but the biggest and strongest man in the league in his era (like Parrish, who had some of the same issues as Lombardi, but not as severely.)   Like Ortiz, he had the ability to center the bat on the ball in a phenomenal percentage of his at bats.    Ortiz just crushes the baseball about 4 times a game; some of them are foul, some of them are caught at the wall, and some of them are ground ball outs, but he just puts the bat right on the ball and sends it out much faster than it came in, it seems, twice as often as anybody else does.   Lombardi was also like that.  Like they did for Ortiz, who for eight years was the only player in baseball who had to hit into a shift, other teams altered their defense for Lombardi.   Because he was so slow (and such a tremendous hitter), the third baseman and shortstop backed up 30 to 50 feet for Lombardi, knowing that, if he hit the ball to them, they would have time to field the ball, run in several steps, and still get Lombardi at first base.  

Those who ran his Hall of Fame campaign basically lied about Lombardi’s defense, claiming that his strong arm made him a sterling defensive catcher.   He was a liability in the field, and for most of his career he was not quite a regular because he was a liability in the field.  Lombardi started 89 games at catcher in 1933, 97 in 1934, 76 in 1935, 89 in 1936 and 85 in 1937.   He started as many as 100 games in a season only four times in his career, and those numbers were 104, 116, 112 and 122.    In a typical year he would start 80 or 90 games and pinch hit 30 or 40 times—what we traditionally think of a bench role.  

Whether Lombardi was or was not a regular actually became a pretty significant controversy in 1942, when Lombardi won his second National League batting title at .330, sort of.   The National League President in 1939 had announced a policy that, in order to be eligible for the batting title, a player had to start 100 games.   Lombardi had started only 84, but National League President Ford Frick put out a press release recognizing him as the league batting champion anyway, contradicting the policy that he himself had announced just three years earlier.   He explained that the 100-game limit didn’t apply to Lombardi because he was a catcher, and anyway he hadn’t intended for it to be an absolute hard-and-fast rule; it was just more of a guideline.   Now you tell us. 

It’s the world’s-tallest-midget debate again; is he the tallest midget, or merely a very short person who is not a midget?  Catchers DO tend to populate the BBP list (Best Bench Players), and you can think of Lombardi as an exception to the usual rules because he is a catcher if you want to, but there are four other Hall of Fame catchers in that era (Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Gabby Hartnett and Rick Ferrell) and none of them shows up on our list as a bench player.   I think he shows up as a bench player because that’s an accurate description of the role that he played.

                3)  Oil Smith.    Another catcher, although in his case no one would argue about his eligibility for the list, since he never started more than 93 games in a season.    A left-handed hitter with a career average of .303, Smith was a tough guy who feuded openly with John McGraw, his manager; he was the one guy on the team who would tell John McGraw where to put it.   McGraw had to get rid of him, but he could really play.

4) Jim Dwyer.    Probably most remembered as one of Earl Weaver’s interchangeable parts, Dwyer started slowly, failing his chances to become a regular with the Cardinals in ’73 and ’74.   But he stayed in the majors for 18 years, having very good seasons off the bench for Montreal in 1975, San Francisco in ’78, Boston in ’79 and ’80, Baltimore in ’82, ’83, ’84, ’85, ’86 and ’87, and for Minnesota in ’88 and ’89.

5) Wally Schang.    Another catcher, Schang started more than 100 games only twice, with the Yankees in 1921 and 1922.   But he had a long career, was a switch hitter (rare in that era) with a career average of .284 and great strikeout/walk ratios, and he played almost all of his career with the best teams in baseball—the Philadelphia A’s up to 1914, the Red Sox in the late teens, the Yankees in the early twenties.    He was a teammate of Babe Ruth from 1918 to 1925, except 1920.

6)  Smoky Burgess.   Our fourth catcher in the top six, but we’ll slow down on them after this.   Smoky was chubby; Boyd and Harris wrote about him that "Smoky Burgess was fat. Not baseball fat like Mickey Lolich or Early Wynn. But FAT fat. Like the mailman or your Uncle Dwight. Putsy Fat. Slobby Fat. Just Plain Fat. In fact I would venture to say that Smoky Burgess was probably the fattest man ever to play professional baseball."    Burgess was only truly fat at the end of his career, but he was always heavy—but a tremendous hitter and a consistently tremendous hitter, and also he had a very good arm, throwing out 48% of potential base stealers in 1952, and 50% in 1960. 

7)  Wes Covington.   A left-handed hitting outfielder, the other dominant "type" on our list—left-handed hitting outfielders and catchers.    Covington was a bad outfielder but a cleanup hitter, hitting 21 homers in 96 games in 1957, .330 with 24 homers, 74 RBI in 90 games in 1958, and continuing to be a deadly bat off the bench until 1965.

8)  John Lowenstein.    A running mate to Jim Dwyer, he failed his chances to become a regular with Cleveland in the early 70s, got his feet on the ground with the Orioles in the 1980s and was a consistently productive platoon outfielder, hitting .320 with 24 homers as a bench player in 1982.

9)  Oscar Gamble.

10)  Lee Lacy.   Very different than the other outfielders on this list, in that he was fast, a right-handed hitter and could also play the infield.   Had a .286 average in a sixteen-year career in which he was never a regular. 

11)  Spud Davis.   Another notoriously slow catcher, Davis was a .308 hitter in a 16-year career in which he started more than 94 games only three times (107, 107 and 130).   A better defensive catcher than Lombardi, to whom he is otherwise comparable, although his arm was not equal to Lombardi’s.

12)  Jerry Lynch.   Jerry Lynch and Wes Covington are really the same player.    Lynch played from 1954 to 1966, entirely in the National League; Covington played 1956 to 1966, entirely in the National League except for 39 games one year in the AL.   Both were left-handed hitting, right-handed throwing outfielders, bad outfielders but certifiable cleanup hitters.   Covington hit .279 with a .466 slugging percentage, Lynch .277 with .463.    131 homers, 499 career RBI for Covington, 115 and 470 for Lynch. 

13)  Rance Mulliniks, platoon third baseman.    Rance Mulliniks was the moment at which I realized the Royals organization was losing their magic.   The Royals from their founding in 1969 through the late 1970s had a remarkable ability to collect very talented players who had failed their first major league shot with some other team, like Amos Otis, Hal McRae, John Mayberry, Freddy Patek and Darrell Porter.   The Royals took those kind of guys and built one of the best teams in baseball out of them.

Rance Mulliniks was that kind of guy.  He came up as a shortstop, with the Angels in the mid-70s, but he wasn’t quite quick enough to be an everyday shortstop and was thrown in on the Al Cowens/Willie Aikens trade in 1980, bringing him to KC.   I thought, "Oh, this is great; here they’ve stolen another of those guys," but by 1980 they didn’t know what to do with him; they continued to play him at shortstop, which obviously wasn’t working, and as a backup at second base.   He moved on to Toronto, where he became the best platoon third baseman in baseball history.

14)  Fatty Fothergill.   Built like Kirby Puckett, Tony Gwynn or the Panda Bear, Fothergill was a career .325 hitter in the American League in the 1920s and 1930s.

15)  Cliff Johnson.   A catcher/DH, Johnson as a hitter was like those 1950s guys (Hank Sauer, Gus Zernial, Jim Lemon, Bob Cerv) who could hit 35 homers a year, but mostly didn’t get a chance to play until they were 30 years old because of obvious defensive limitations.  Johnson had just enough ability as a catcher that you could play him there if you insisted on it, which probably worked against him; he would have had a better career if somebody had just let him go to a less demanding defensive position.   Earl Williams was another guy like that.

16)  Glenallen Hill.   A big man and an acknowledged steroid user, Glenallen hit some of the longest home runs in modern baseball history.   He failed his chances to become a regular, with Toronto (when Toronto had the best team in baseball) and Cleveland (when Cleveland had guys like Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Brian Giles and Jeromy Burnitz, so many of them that they couldn’t find places to play them all).   He would later hit 20 homers a year as a bench player.

17)  Mike Grady.   Good to have him on the list; he’s a different kind of player, a 19th century catcher/first baseman/third baseman/outfielder who was a career .294 hitter, but never a regular.

18)  Jim Eisenreich.   Eisenreich had what was at the time diagnosed as Tourette’s Syndrome, although it may have been something a little bit different; anyway he had some medical issue that limited his control of his body.   That tore a huge hole in the start of his career, delayed him by several years getting under way, and then he had to take medicine that also interfered with his ability to play every day.   Absent that issue, I have no doubt that he would be in the Hall of Fame.   He was fast, graceful, an intuitive player, had a good arm when he was young, and hit .300 six times.   Had the exact same face as Honus Wagner. 

19)  Jim King.   1950s National League backup/1960s expansion player, a left-handed power bat.   Not as good as Lynch or Covington, but the same kind of guy.

20)  Duke Snider.

21)  Ron Fairly.    In 1961, when Snider had one of his best years as a bench player, Fairly also hit .322—doing essentially the same job as Snider—and had a walk/strikeout ratio of 48 to 22.    Fairly had numerous chances to be a regular at first base or in the outfield, but his best years were years when he was coming off the bench; he was an effective bench player in ’59, ’61, ’69, ’74, ’75, ’76 and ’78.  

22)  Denny Walling.   A similar player to Ron Fairly, a generation later.

23)  Olmedo Saenz.   A pinch hitter and corner infielder, he was very good for the A’s in the same years that Matt Stairs was there, and for the Dodgers for several years after that.    He was trapped in the minors for a long time; I used to go to spring training in Arizona almost every year in the 1990s, and I remember Saenz would always be hitting .400 in spring training, but there was never a job for him because he didn’t hit enough to be a steroid-era first baseman and he wasn’t very good at third.  

24)  Russell Branyan.   Known as Russell the Muscle, Branyan was a BIG left-handed first baseman who hit 194 homers in less than 3000 major league at bats.   He struck out a lot, and. . .well, he looked like hell in the uniform; I know this sounds silly, but it matters to people in baseball.   He was (like me) just a sloppy-looking guy who always looked like his clothes didn’t fit.  

25)  Bubbles Hargrave.   The only major league player ever called "Bubbles", he was credited as leading the National League in hitting in 1926 (.353) although he started only 89 games, so we regard it as a bench season.   Finished sixth in the NL MVP voting that year, and was also mentioned in ’25 and ’27, playing the same role.   Career .310 hitter.

 

I’m going to list players 26 through 100 here, just mostly because it is fun to see these players’ names and jog memories of them.   But I am going to list them by eras, rather than by ranking, because it doesn’t really matter who is 27th and who is 47th; that’s just kind of a half-arbitrary distinction that doesn’t have anything to do with who the player was.    Although these lists are 90% determined by the process outlined above, I did make some small subjective adjustments to balance the lists a little. 

1900-1920:  Hank Gowdy, c; Sammy Strang, inf; Les Mann, of.

1920-1940:  Billy Sullivan Jr., c-inf; Babe Phelps, c; Pinky Hargrave, c (brother of Bubbles);  Butch Henline, c-of;  Frank Snyder, c (a platoon partner of Oil Smith);  Bob O’Farrell, c; Bernie Friberg, inf-of; Tommy Thevenow, ss-2b; Riggs Stephenson, 2b-of; Sheriff Dave Harris, of; Cy Williams, of; Sammy Byrd, of.

1940-1960:  Joe Adcock, 1b-of (Duke Snider rule; if you ignore his seasons as a regular and just focus on his years as a bench player, he’s one of the best bench players ever); Joe Collins, 1b; Earl Torgeson, 1b;  Joe Cunningham, 1b-of; Alex Grammas, ss; Eddie Kasko, inf; Debs Garms, of-3b;  Phil Cavaretta, of-1b; Ron Northey, of; Gene Hermanski, of;  Wally Post, of.

1960-1980:  Don Mincher, 1b; Mike Jorgensen, 1b; Willie McCovey, 1b-of (McCovey is also like Duke Snider; he actually had ELEVEN good years as a bench player, one of the highest numbers in history, although we don’t think of him as a bench player); Tito Francona, 1b-of; Ron Blomberg, 1b-dh;  Jay Johnstone, of; Manny Mota, of-ph; Rick Monday, of; Gary Roenicke, of; Bernie Carbo, of; Greg Gross, of; Lee Maye, of; Gates Brown, ph.

1980-2000:   Jeff Reed, c; Don Slaught, c; John Wockenfuss, c;  Greg Myers, c; Jim Leyritz, c-1b-3b; Dave Bergman, 1b (subjectively I would rate Bergman in the top 10.   He was a really good defensive first baseman and he got on base); Ken Phelps, 1b-dh; Terry Shumpert, inf; Damion Easley, inf;  Lenny Harris, inf-of; Dave Magadan, 3b-1b; Sean Berry, 3b; John Grubb, of; John Vander Wal, of; Gary Redus, of; Daryl Boston, of; Randy Bush, of-dh; Orlando Palmeiro, of; Thomas Howard, cf; Lonnie Smith, of; Stan Javier, of.

21st century:  Greg Colbrunn, 1b; Greg Norton, corner infielder; Eric Hinske, corner infielder; Tony Clark, 1b; Geoff Blum, inf;  Scott Spiezio, inf; Jason Michaels, of; David Delucci, of; Marcus Thames, of; Alex Ochoa, of (the best throwing arm of his generation, and not a bad hitter), Ryan Spilborghs, of, Jonny Gomes, of; Frank Catalanotto, lf-2b; Matt Diaz, of; Craig Wilson, of-1b-c. 

 
 

COMMENTS (32 Comments, most recent shown first)

MidnighttheCat
This might be the best list I have found on this whole site so far !

The logic for who is included and who not seems pretty solid to me.

It is nice to see Wes Covington, Glenallen Hill, Oscar Gamble (who was always a favorite of mine as a Yankees fan in the 1970s), and as you say it is pleasing to see the names of these players and recall them.

Many of the players on this list are ones that I make sure to include when I construct SIM teams on websites I play on, and they often perform as hoped for (regulars don't always).

I would have expected Manny Mota, once often called the best pinch hitter in history (I forget by whom), to make the top 20.

A list of best utility infielders - a group I personally identify with in my own profession (adjunct professor) - would be nice to see as well - Tim Foli? Luis Sojo? Debs Garms? (who made this list, another name that was nice to see), it would be interesting to see an argument about who qualifies, how to measure fielding in that context, and its relation to hitting, etc.

Anyway thanks.
9:24 AM Mar 8th
 
Fireball Wenz
If I recall correctly, the Red Sox gave up on Matt Stairs in part because they preferred Morgan Burkhart, a Pioneer League find who seemed to have the same skill set.
8:09 PM Oct 16th
 
trn6229
Thanks Bill. After the Orioles lost key free agents after the 1976 season, Reggie Jackson, Bobby Grich and Wayne Garland, Weaver brought up Eddie Murray, he still had Ken Singleton and Lee May. Later players such as Benny Ayala, Terry Crowley, John Lowenstein, Gary Roenicke, Pat Kelly and others kept the Orioles winning tradition going. Benny Ayala could do one thing well: mash a left handed pitcher. Weaver spotted him so that he could do what he did best. Casey Stengel had players such as Joe Collins and Gene Woodling who he would mix and match with other players. The 1971 Orioles and Tigers had five good players for four spots. The Orioles had Boog Powell, Frank Robinson, Merv Rettenmund, Don Buford, Paul Blair. The Tigers had Norm Cash, Al Kaline, Mickey Stanley, Willie Horton, Jim Northrup. Weaver and Billy Martin would mix and match for the optimum matchup. Some players were older so they needed a rest now and then. The 1936 St, Louis Browns used starting players and no bench at all. No wonder Rogers Hornsby's team won 57 and lost 95. Take Care, Tom Nahigian
4:46 PM Oct 7th
 
briangunn
LOVE lists like this. Thank you for the time and research, Bill. I wonder which teams have the best benches of all time. I remember those Earl Weaver Orioles benches used to rake.
11:28 PM Oct 6th
 
DavidHNix
In those days, with nine or ten man pitching staffs, lots of teams carried three catchers. Now, they only carry two. I think managers never want to be caught without an available catcher when the guy in the game takes a foul tip off his meat hand. There isn't room on the roster for more than one pinch hitting specialist, and the odds are against your best bench hitter being a catcher.
5:20 PM Oct 6th
 
meandean
Bill, since so many of the greatest bench careers were turned in by good-offense/questionable-defense backup catchers, my question is: Why don't we see that type anymore? It's been a long time since Smoky Burgess, never mind the other catchers who dominate the top of the list.

I mean, the strategy apparently worked! And you still do need a backup catcher on your team. Heck, if anything, you'd think the DH rule would benefit these guys.

After asking why this has changed, my next question would be, should it have changed...
4:43 PM Oct 6th
 
raincheck
i was with you all the way right up to #16, but obviously Glenallen Hill is a mass market California winery specializing in White Zinfandel, not a baseball player.

You say up top that championship teams have good benches. I noticed the 70s Dodgers were well represented - Lacy, Mota, Johnstone and Monday (not to mention Ferguson). Would be interesting to see this method applied to teams.

1:34 PM Oct 6th
 
DavidHNix
Ralph Houk must have been the all time bench player, in terms of splinters in his butt.

From 1950 to 1954, he was apparently on the Yankees roster pretty much the entire time -- no minor league appearances in any of those seasons -- he appeared in 10, 3, 9, 8 and 1 game (he was released in August of '53, resigned in April of '54, and finally released again in July).
11:27 AM Oct 6th
 
jdw
Sabr has a nice bio on Valo here:

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/c43041ae

Quite an interesting life and career.
3:16 AM Oct 6th
 
jdw
Cravath is similar to McGwire as a likely a "not really bench player".

He may have been banged up to start the season: just 3 starts in the Phils first 13 games. He then started 42 straight games. Clearly the regular RF at that point of the season.

Jack Coombs got fired as the manager, and Cravath started himself just 5 times in the 75 games he managed. PH some. For the most part, he was a starter turned manager, and then kept himself out of the line up.
3:03 AM Oct 6th
 
jdw
FWIW, I wasn't making a case for Gamble not being seen as a bench player. He was a LHB platoon player for the majority of his career, and a rather strict one for most of it. On a certain level, that is a bench player, though the type that tends to get a good number of PA if he can hit.

I was only trying to explain why the stars aligned in 1979 for that terrific performance to end up #1. He's missing 100+ PA due to the injury, the trade, and the odd role of the dice for the Yanks to draw a ton of LHP starters in August (causing just 7 starts for Oscar). 430 PA is a 50% discount, rather than the 0% discount he had from PA over 350.

It makes him an interesting season on the list beyond just the performance level.
2:32 AM Oct 6th
 
flyingfish
Are we allowed to "like" comments here? In any case, I like rgregory1956's comment, as I like any comment that makes me laugh.
6:21 PM Oct 5th
 
rgregory1956
RMc, I'd ask if this is an indictment of Lenny Harris or perhaps of WAR. Maybe he should have gotten nude photos of the guys at BBR instead.
5:30 PM Oct 5th
 
RMc
Interesting to see Lenny Harris on this list, considering that Lenny Harris never did a damn thing in his entire major league career (2.0 WAR, total) and yet lasted 18 years. Did he have naked pictures of every GM in baseball?
4:58 PM Oct 5th
 
nettles9
I would say that anyone who disagrees with Bill's study has the right to do their own study of the question, based on whatever parameters they decide. Just because Bill does the study doesn't mean that the question only has Bill's results as THE answer. I would be interested in reading, from those who disagree with Bill's study in any way, what parameters you would use for your version of the study. Thanks.
6:16 AM Oct 5th
 
articmike
If a guy ends up on the bench over and over again, regardless of the manager's reasoning, doesn't that make him a bench player? When we leaf through the old baseball encyclopedia looking at stat lines, we call a lot of players from different eras relief pitchers, even though they weren't used the same way as one another, and attitudes, during their various times, about how to employ a bullpen, were different. A definition of who is a bench player has to be loose enough to work across eras; it doesn't have to be tightened up. Since 1973, the need for pinch hitters has been grossly different in the two leagues. Definitions need to work for two different leagues in the same year to be any good. Somewhere since ' 73 there've been AL teams that would've put Jerry Lynch in the lineup. When the game changes, different types of players serve as bench players. The same talent can be a bench player or not, as contxt changes. If he's used off the bench, call him a bench player. All the types of players used have to be considered bench players if multi-generational analysis is to be the product. Today we have 14-man pitching staffs. If a club has one platoon position, the platooner who's not playing today is 33% of his team's whole bench. In some circumstances, he'll enter as the day's first pinch-hitter on the first pitching change. Not a usage pattern from the 30s, but a use of a bench player nonetheless. If he gets a hit, the game recap will say he came off the bench to start a rally. In every game broadcast of a tight game, or any postseason game -- and this hasn't changed in 50 years -- the broadcasters announce who each manager has left on the bench. If a guy is there over and over again, calling him a bench player doesn't seem wrong.
3:24 AM Oct 5th
 
evanecurb
Surprised that Mike Easler didn't make the list. Speaking of which, I'm surprised that none of the 1970s Pirates made the list.

12:23 AM Oct 5th
 
bjames
I was also surprised that Bauer and Woodling didn't make the list, but they were high-end bench players, batting 400+ times a season. I think actually Skowron may have been closer to making the list than Woodling and Bauer.
11:52 PM Oct 4th
 
bjames
Responding to Something's Fishy: Because he is not better IN EVERY ROLE. If you make him a regular, you're putting him into roles where he is not better.
11:50 PM Oct 4th
 
tigerlily
Nice article Bill; however, when I hear the term bench player I tend to think of Chico Ruiz. I was surprised that neither Bauer nor Woodling made the list. Both averaged about 3.7 PA/G for their careers with most of their seasons somewhere between 3,5 & 3.8.
10:48 PM Oct 4th
 
OldBackstop
HeyBill (habit). Interesting piece! Does your idea of a "bench player" for these purposes better fit a fourth OFer or a pinch hitter? (or both?) The reason I ask is maybe Games Starts is relevant in weeding out the McGwires and Ted Willamseses.
8:11 PM Oct 4th
 
flyingfish
So, Bill, some of these bench players were much better than regulars. Why, then, weren't they regulars? In other words, if you had Oscar Gamble on your team and a regular, why wouldn't you make OG the regular?
5:43 PM Oct 4th
 
bjames
Bench players are in the lineup, they're out of the lineup. Their job description changes in the middle of the season; they get traded to somebody who needs them for the pennant race. That is EXACTLY what we mean by the term "bench player".
5:31 PM Oct 4th
 
bjames
You guys are nuts. Oscar Gamble is EXACTLY what people mean by the term "bench player". And his 1979 season is absolutely a bench season.
5:30 PM Oct 4th
 
MarisFan61
You can add a lot more names from the ones listed here. BTW, Bill did say in the article that Ted isn't really who we're talking about, and I would offer that a lot of the others aren't either. I think the criteria would have needed to be a lot tighter, and maybe somewhat fundamentally different, to wind up more purely with "bench players." These results are much more of what we might call "part-time" players than bench players.
4:59 PM Oct 4th
 
DavidHNix
Mention of Jerry Lynch brings to mind George Crowe. I think I got both of their cards in the same pack, way back yonder. Crowe didn't get to the majors until he was in his 30s, but he brought the thunder off the bench for a few years.

If a player is starting most games, but getting pulled early for defensive purposes, is he really a "bench" player? I'm wondering specifically if that was the case at the end of Ted Williams' career.
4:39 PM Oct 4th
 
MarisFan61
Love the article, including seeing a lot of those names! -- but I have to say, I'm pretty sure that a lot of the players included here aren't within the common notion of "Bench Player." Like, JDW went through the detail of Oscar Gamble for that year, and that sure doesn't fit it -- it's more of a function of how his numbers just fit the criteria that were used -- and I don't think semi-regular platoon players are in the usual concept either. Nothing wrong with that -- but I think it's important to try to know when something we're looking at doesn't match most people mean by it.
2:31 PM Oct 4th
 
tangotiger
I was thinking Lee Lacy, so I'm glad he made it. I think he fits the idea we have of a "career" bench player.

I was also thinking if Eric Davis would make it. The classic "if only". Was he the last "next Willie Mays"?
12:32 AM Oct 4th
 
jdw
Gamble in 1979 was an interesting bird. A LHB platoon player, his season broke down like this:

Texas
Games 1-23: 15 Starts + 4 other games in 23 team games
Games 24-49: hurt / DL in 26 team games (5/5 - 6/1)
Games 50-103: 33 Starts + 12 other games in 54 team games

New York
Games 106-160: 28 Starts + 10 other games in 55 team games

His PA were low due to all the stars aligning:

* very strict platoon LHB on both teams
* month long injury
* missing a couple of games due to the trade
* the Yankees facing a high number of LHP in August

The last came up when looking at his game log and wondering why he played so little in August after the trade: just 7 starts. Thought it possible that Martin was slow to pull the trigger, or perhaps a trade made by the GM/Boss that Martin was fighting before coming around in September. When looking at the team's box scores, the answer was a high number of LHP which left Lou in LF.

Anyway, the first is what cuts him from being a fulltime regular to a 450 or so PA man. Then the other three cut 100+ PA off his tremendous season.
7:29 PM Oct 3rd
 
aagcobb
You would think that with a guy like Matt Stairs, some AL team could've plugged him in at DH, and he could've had an Ortiz like career. Wonder why that didn't happen?
6:36 PM Oct 3rd
 
bjames
You punch a hole in the wall at Fenway, Massachusetts will bring back the death penalty.
5:17 PM Oct 3rd
 
kimchi
Kinda think Evan Gattis will wind up on this list. If he played in Fenway, his line-drives off the Monstah would be singles, unless they punched a hole in the wall (which I guess would be a ground-rule double).
3:57 PM Oct 3rd
 
 
©2019 Be Jolly, Inc. All Rights Reserved.|Web site design and development by Americaneagle.com|Terms & Conditions|Privacy Policy