I’m in the middle of re-reading Buzz Bissinger’s Three Nights in August because I was interested to see how the book stands up over a decade later, and after every protagonist from the dugout but for Mike Matheny has left. I share some of the complaints about the book that have been around for years, mainly Bissinger’s unnecessary encampment in the “old school” bunker, but when pushing that side-issue to, well, the side, it’s still a fascinating read on the nuances of baseball. And it’s a full-access book about the Cardinals so that helps.
I finished the few pages on Rick Ankiel on Monday evening. For those who haven’t read the book, Bissinger details Ankiel’s rise and collapse, and the guilt Tony La Russa felt for starting an inexperienced Ankiel in Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS against the Braves – the day his pitching career famously imploded – even though Ankiel’s trusted backstop, Matheny, was sidelined because of a hunting knife accident. We all know this story inside and out by now, but it’s still haunting (in a sports sense) to revisit.
It’s also a necessary backdrop though to understand the sentiment in the Cardinals dugout when Ankiel returned to the club as an outfielder in August of 2007 and homered in his first game back.
Ankiel was able to reinvent himself as a bona fide hitter in the very top level of baseball, which tells us a lot about the existing athleticism in players that we hear about so often but don’t see. Jason Motte started as a catcher; Trevor Rosenthal a shortstop. Bryce Harper used to pitch. Before rigid specialization sets in, most of these guys could play anywhere. It’s why in little league the pitcher wasn’t some inept buffoon at the plate, but instead batting cleanup and hitting opposite field bombs over the future baseball blogger’s head in right field.
I thought about all of this earlier today when I saw a few tweets from Dan Szymborski about Jordan Schafer, the center fielder-turned-pitcher, who has been invited to spring training after the Cardinals signed him to a minor league contract in December.
The little signing this year that fascinates me the most is Jordan Schafer, simply because he's projected to be an 88 ERA+ after one season.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) January 10, 2017
If Schafer's lack of professional pitching experience means he can be a 98 ERA+ instead of an 88, all of a sudden, he gets interesting.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) January 10, 2017
Because a below-average reliever who is *also* a below-average CF is at least intriguing.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) January 10, 2017
Because then, if Schafer is a reliever, you've got a roster spot for a 5th outfielder absolutely free.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) January 10, 2017
Some quick background, Schafer was a 2005 third round pick of the Braves, and hit for a weak .228/.308/.307 in 1,472 plate appearances spread across the Braves, Astros, and Twins. Last season the Dodgers transitioned the lefty-throwing Schafer to the mound and he put up a 3.15 ERA in 40 IP as a reliever in AA ball and a near-10.00 ERA in 6 IP in AAA.
Schafer’s defense in center field always rated slightly below average for his career, but he is a threat on base and stole at least 22 bases for four straight seasons starting in 2011, with a 77% success rate for his career. Basically he’s a slightly better hitting Adron Chambers, who, with a small dose of development and large dose of devil magic, could be the next Kevin Siegrist.
[Obligatory Adron Chambers highlight]
As Szymborski alluded, in a perfect world this frees up a roster spot if Schafer can bring both skills to the majors. That means more room to shoehorn Jose Bautista into this lineup (I’m still operating on that perfect world theme).
So this experiment with Schafer will most certainly work, right? Yeah, probably not. It’s fun to think about though.
Amphibious Ambidextrous pitchers, the Babe Ruth of Japan, Rick Ankiel, and now Jordan Schafer. Whenever a baseball player showcases skills beyond the norm it serves as a nice diversion from the rigid baseball structure we see on our television every night.
Schafer could be the first double LOOGY. Brought in to get a lefty out and then make an out as a lefty batter.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) January 10, 2017
On the other hand, novelty only goes so far.