Born to run: Sandy Piez, baseball’s first pinch runner.

Sandy Piez. (Wikipedia).

Sandy Piez did not have a long professional career, or a long stay in the major leagues, or a long life.

But for one year, he set about establishing a role in baseball that became the calling card of men like Terrance Gore, Matt Alexander and, most famously, Herb Washington. In 1914, he became major league baseball’s first full-time pinch runner.

Suiting up for the New York Giants that year, Piez appeared in 37 games, debuting on April 14 as a pinch runner for slow-footed catcher Chief Meyers.

And it was because of the likes of Meyers that Piez stuck with the team. Manager John McGraw determined he needed someone who could run for the club’s slow-as-snails backstops (they used four) and Piez was chosen for the job. He had swiped 73 bags in the Virginia League in 1913, so it seemed like a perfect fit.

And, for all intents and purposes, it was.

He appeared in 31 games, scored 8 runs and stole 4 bases before having his first official at-bat. That came on September 16, when he was a defensive replacement for outfielder George Burns.

Earning his first and only starting opportunities in a doubleheader on the last day of the year, October 6, Piez impressed by going 2-for-4 with a triple and 3 RBI his first game and 1-for-3—as the leadoff hitter, no less!—in the latter match. Both were losing efforts against Philadelphia.

Piez’s final career line: 37 games, 8 at-bats, 9 runs, 3 hits, 4 stolen bases, .375 batting average.

How quirky.

Of course, pinch running was not invented by Piez. But he was the first to do it almost exclusively and regularly and while few players to this day have held the positional title of pinch runner (most still have a job on the diamond), many have made pinch running into an artform.

Terrance Gore, for example, spent 102 games in the major leagues from 2014 to 2020, but had just 67 at-bats. Often, he was used as a defensive replacement; and frequently, he was called on to run.

And boy could he. He stole 40 bases in his brief career and was so adept at it, the Royals, for whom he played, kept him on their postseason roster and used him exclusively in that role in the 2014 and 2015 playoffs.

If any four players could be described as consummate pinch runners, they would be Herb Washington, Matt Alexander, Don Hopkins and Allan Lewis. They were all Athletics experiments.

Washington was a world class sprinter signed by A’s owner Charlie Finley specifically to steal bases in the mid-70s. With Oakland in 1974, he appeared in 92 games, stole 29 bags (and was caught 16 times) and scored 29 runs. At-bats: Zero.

Though largely a non-factor in that year’s postseason, he did appear in a few games and took home a World Series ring. The A’s brought him back for 1975, but “Hurricane Herb” stuck around for only 13 more games.

Alexander forged a nine-year career in the 1970s and early ‘80s. With the Athletics in 1975, he became one of two “designated runners” once Washington left, appearing in 63 games, stealing 17 bags and scoring 16 runs … while managing just 11 plate appearances.

It was a role he fulfilled skillfully throughout his whole career—in 374 games, he stole 103 bases and scored 111 runs; at the dish, he had 36 hits in 168 at-bats for a .214 mark. After leaving the majors, he played in Mexico for a few years. At 36 years old in 1983, he stole 73 bases.

Hopkins spent two years in the big leagues, 1975 and 1976, and both were with Oakland. In ’75, he appeared in 82 games, had 21 stolen bases and scored 25 runs; he had only 1 hit in 6 at-bats. He played briefly the next year and that was it.

Before those three, however, there was Allan Lewis. Playing for the Athletics from 1967 to 1970 and from 1972 to 1973, Lewis appeared in 156 games, had 44 stolen bases, 47 runs scored … and just 6 hits in 29 at-bats. And he wasn’t just a novelty—his services helped the Athletics to two World Series rings.

What’s more, Lewis was the only one of the four to clobber a home run … and it wasn’t inside the park. It was a solo shot off Angels pitcher Greg Garrett on September 27, 1970.

And though those four might have been some of the best at pinch running regularly, Piez was the first.

But just like that, he was gone. After 1914, he returned to the minors, playing for the International League’s Rochester Hustlers in 1915. Following that campaign, in which he stole 17 bags, his professional career was over.

As the passenger of a car driving through Absecon, New Jersey on December 29, 1930, his life ended abruptly when the vehicle hit an ice slick on a bridge and skidded into the water. Unable to save himself, he drowned at the age of 41.

Random notes and musings from the world of baseball, August 24, 2021.

Travis Shaw was drafted by the Red Sox in 2008 and 2011. (Wikipedia).

Welcome back, Travis: You might not remember, but current Red Sox infielder Travis Shaw once had back-to-back 30-home run seasons with the Brewers in 2017 and 2018. Since then, he’s hit just .191 with 20 dingers in 195 games—but the old Travis might be back. Last night, he slugged a grand slam in just his third game with the Red Sox. It was his first home run since May 25.

Seby watch: Maybe I dig White Sox catcher Seby Zavala because he has such a cool name. Or perhaps it’s because he’s been such a blessing for the White Sox, despite his low batting average. He’s still among the team’s best sluggers over the past month, clobbering 5 home runs with 14 RBI and 13 runs scored. He hit 20 or more home runs twice in the minor leagues.

Don’t discount Ahmed: Despite slugging 19 home runs in 2019, Diamondbacks’ shortstop Nick Ahmed has never done much with the bat—he has a .236 career average, a .221 mark this year and a .205 average over the past month. But Ahmed is a throwback to the days of the defense-first shortstop, when guys like Mark Belanger (.228 career hitter) and Ed Brinkman (.224) could put together 15 or 20 year careers. In eight seasons, Ahmed has two Gold Gloves and his .978 fielding percentage is 23rd-best all-time. And about that offense—he has 8 doubles over the past month, the same as phenom Wander Franco and more than fellow shortstops Brandon Crawford and Jean Segura.

Alexander the Decent: Tigers pitcher Tyler Alexander has been nothing short of decent this year, which isn’t quite a ringing endorsement—however, his past few outings show promise. In his last start on August 20, he went 7 1/3 innings and surrendered just one run; two starts before that, he didn’t let a single runner score over 5 1/3 frames. Though he hasn’t put it altogether yet, he has the tools to be an effective hurler down the line. He averaged only 1.5 walks per nine innings in the minors, and his rate in the big leagues isn’t much worse at 1.8. He averaged nearly a strikeout per frame with the Tigers last year, and nearly 10 K/9 IP at Triple A in 2019. Keep an eye on Alexander.

Deolis back from the dead: Athletics hurler Deolis Guerra is only 32, yet he’s been playing professionally since 2006; he signed his first contract with the Mets in July 2005. He was traded to the Twins with three others for starter Johan Santana in 2008 and is the only member of that trade who’s still playing. He didn’t make his big league debut until 2015 and has variously had season ERAs of 4.68, 6.48, 8.59 and 54.00 since then. But things are looking up. With Oakland this year, he has a mark of 3.71 and, despite averaging just 7.6 per nine innings for his career, he has averaged more than a K per inning since July 1.

Cleveland Indians-era Francisco Lindor might’ve helped get New York track. The current version, not so much. (Wikipedia).

It’s too late: The Mets recently activated star infielders Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez off the disabled list. Slugging utilityman Jose Martinez, who was supposed to help the club off the bench but has missed the whole year to injury, is on a rehab assignment. In the past few games, first baseman Pete Alonso and outfielder Brandon Nimmo are surging. But, I fear, it’s too late for New York, formerly in first place and now under .500, to make a playoff push. Maybe next year.

How’s he still got a job? ERA+ is a weighted measure of a pitcher’s performance that takes things like park factors into account. A mark of 100 is considered average. Tommy Milone, who recently signed with Cincinnati, has posted a mark over 75 only once since 2015.

Homegrown, not store bought: Fans often complain that the Yankees “bought” all their World Series rings in the 1990s and 2000s, that all they did was open their checkbooks and pay whatever they needed to get the best free agents. Well, they didn’t shy away from bringing help on board as needed, but do recall: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte and Orlando Hernandez—well-nigh the core of those teams—were all either drafted or initially signed by New York. Not plucked off the free agent market.

Swing and a miss, voters: What do Tim Salmon (299 career home runs), Mark Reynolds (298 HR) and Pat Burrell (292 HR) have in common? They have the most home runs of anyone from the All-Star Game era to never make a team. Salmon was a Rookie of the Year, won a Silver Slugger and once finished seventh in MVP voting, so he’s particularly egregious. Burrell and Reynolds’ best seasons received MVP votes, as well.

Other All Star snubs: Orlando Cabrera owns the most hits of anyone (from the All-Star era) never selected to an All-Star game, with 2,055. Jose Cardenal has the most stolen bases (329), Tony Phillips played the most games (2,161) and Barney McCosky has the best average (.312; min. 3000 PA). For pitchers, Mike Torrez has the most wins (185) and innings (3,043), Gene Garber has the most saves (218), Bobby Witt has the most strikeouts (1,955), Mike Timlin has the most appearances (1,058) and Ron Perranoski has the best ERA (2.79; min. 1,000 IP).

Not a party at this 1,999: Oof, he was that close to reaching a big career milestone. Ian Kinsler finished his career after 2019 with 1,999 hits, just one shy of the tidy 2,000 hit mark. Hall of Fame third baseman Jimmy Collins, who played at the turn of the century, also finished with that many.

Sam Rice batted .322 in 20 seasons. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1963. (Wikipedia).

He had no idea: Another Hall of Famer, outfielder Sam Rice, finished at 2,987 hits, just 13 shy of the big three-zero-zero-zero. This is what he said later on: “The truth of the matter is I did not even know how many hits I had. A couple of years after I quit, Clark Griffith told me about it, and asked me if I’d care to have a comeback with the Senators and pick up those 13 hits. But I was out of shape and didn’t want to go through all that would have been necessary to make the effort. Nowadays, with radio and television announcers spouting records every time a player comes to bat, I would have known about my hits and probably would have stayed to make 3,000 of them.”

Didn’t see clearly: Pitcher Joe Cleary made one career appearance, with the Washington Senators in 1945. Something must have been in his eyes that day, since he couldn’t find the plate and threw a wild pitch. And surrendered 3 walks. And 5 hits. And 7 earned runs. All in one-third of an inning. That gave him a career ERA of 189.00.

What a way to go: In his final season, 1929, Negro leaguer Pythias Russ batted .369 in 64 games for the Chicago American Giants. On August 9, 1930, he died from tuberculosis at just 26 years old.

It’s a big club: According to Baseball Reference, 22,504 players have donned a big league uniform. Per Stathead, 8,897 of them—including pitchers—have hit at least one home run. Over 7,000 have hit two or more, and more than 4,000 have hit at least 10.

Died too young: Bo Diaz

Bo Diaz died at just 37 years old. (Wikipedia/fair use)

He was an All-Star twice, but never a superstar. He was the first Venezuelan to start regularly at catcher, but isn’t the best Venezuelan to start at catcher. He played 13 seasons in the major leagues, but managed one hundred or more games only four times. He hit for average on occasion and had decent power, but nothing about him was stupendous.

Nevertheless, Bo Diaz proved to be a valuable backstop in the 1970s and 1980s, a consistent performer for three teams.

His professional career began in the Red Sox system in 1971 at 18 years old. After playing just one game above Single A from 1971 to 1975, he jumped to Triple A full time in 1976. Being stuck behind future Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, his chances of making an impact with the big club were slim.  

Debuting with the Red Sox in 1977, he played just two games – striking out in his only at-bat – before being shipped off to the Indians in early 1978 in a pretty star-studded deal. He was sent with utility man Ted Cox, starting pitcher Mike Paxton and hurler Rick Wise, himself an All-Star who won 188 games, to Cleveland for Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley and catcher Fred Kendall, the father of future Pirates star Jason.

Diaz didn’t play much in four seasons with Cleveland, appearing in 198 games and hitting just .224 over the first three. Though it was a stunted 63-game campaign, 1981 was Diaz’s first All-Star season, with the then-28-year-old batting .313 with an excellent 156 OPS+.

With his stock up considerably, the Indians traded him to the Phillies in a three-team deal. It was a bad move for Cleveland. None of the players they received paid off, with only one – pitcher Lary Sorensen – even donning an Indians uniform.

One of the men they received in the trade was pitcher Scott Munninghoff. He spent only four games in the majors – and that was with Philly in 1980 – but holds the distinction of being one of just three pitchers to hit a triple in their first and only big league at-bats. He knocked his in 1980; the Mets’ Eric Cammack managed it in 2000 and Eduardo Rodriguez of Brewers fame did it in 1973.

But this is about Diaz.

Despite leading the league in stolen bases allowed that season, he had a career year in 1982, batting .288 with 18 home runs and 85 RBI in 144 games. He would never again replicate such numbers, but reached double digit home runs four more times. After a ho-hum 1983 regular season, he reached the World Series with the Phillies that year, contributing a .333 average in a losing effort.

Partway through 1985, he was shipped to the Reds for a handful of players, and it was with Cincinnati that he would wrap up his major league career. 1987 marked his second All-Star campaign, with Diaz hitting 15 home runs with 82 RBI and leading the league with 59 baserunners caught stealing. He slipped to .219 in 1988 and .203 in 1989. By then he was 36 years old, so he decided to retire.

Diaz spent more than a decade in the big leagues, but managed but a paucity of stolen bases, walks, and strikeouts. In 993 career games, he had nine steals – that’s one every 110 or so games. He averaged one walk every 18 plate appearances, and one strikeout every eight plate appearances.

Also, his slash lines – that’s batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage – were remarkably similar with each of the teams he played. With the Indians, he hit .254/.294/.395; with the Phillies it was .256/.308/.402 and with the Reds, it was .254/.287/.392.

And here’s an interesting tidbit lifted from the bastion of knowledge that is Wikipedia: “Díaz was part of an extremely unlikely event spanning thirteen years. On January 6, 1973, he caught for minor league pitcher Urbano Lugo, who threw a no-hitter as the Leones del Caracas defeated the Tiburones de La Guaira, 6–0. Thirteen years later, on January 24, 1986, Díaz was the catcher for another no-hitter in a 4–0 Caracas’ victory over La Guaira. This time, the pitcher was major leaguer Urbano Lugo, Jr., son of the elder Lugo.”

On November 23, 1990, he was killed while adjusting a satellite dish – it fell, crushing his head and neck. He was 37 years old. He was elected to the Venezuelan Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously in 2006; he was elected to the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019.