It’s been said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. And today, with pitchers throwing harder than they ever have and utilizing data on things like spin rates and specific locations for every hitter, it’s harder than ever. In fact, sometimes it just amazes me that batters are even able to hit some of these pitchers. I don’t intend this to be disrespectful to the players because if you can hit a 95 MPH fastball or an 87 MPH slider, you have my respect. Utility players, versatile guys who don’t hit a lot have been around forever. Rocky Bridges, a colorful character, was primarily a shortstop and second baseman. He hit a little too. One day his manager Chuck Dressen asked him if he could play third. Bridges responded, “Hell yes. I’ll mow your lawn for you if you’d like. I want to stay up here.” Such is the mentality of the super utility player.
I’ve long been fascinated by the Royals historic love of versatile middle infielders who can’t hit a lick. You know the description: a guy who has decent speed and can play second, third, short and some outfield if necessary. In my never-ending quest to bring you, my faithful reader, the most mundane and rarely thought of trivia, I present to you the Royals Mount Rushmore of middle infield futility.
I pored over the yearly data going back to the 1969 season to find the most futile of Royals middle infielders. The one single criteria I had was the player had to have at least 100 plate appearances in a season. That knocked a few deserving bodies off the mountain, guys like Jayson Nix, who won the love of Ned Yost and somehow wrangled a roster spot on the 2014 World Series team, and Felix Martinez, who in 1998 accrued 95 plate appearances, in which he hit .129 with an OPS+ of negative 7.
Nix somehow found himself at the plate in the eighth inning of Game Four with Sal Perez in scoring position. He didn’t disappoint, going down swinging. Just to make sure that wasn’t a fluke, Ned gave him another at bat in Game Five, which resulted in a fly out.
Speaking of OPS+, if you’re somewhat sabermetrically challenged, as I am, an OPS+ of 100 is league average. OPS+ takes a players on base percentage plus slugging percentage and normalizes the number for external factors such as the ballpark the player plays in, such as Coors Field or Fenway Park, places that may be more hitter friendly. So, if a player has an OPS+ of 150, he is 50% better than the league average. Vinnie Pasquantino had the highest OPS+ for the 2022 Royals with a 135. Among players who played regularly, Nicky Lopez took the bottom spot with an OPS+ of 58.
There were a few interesting things that popped out of my research. From 1969 to 1982, the Royals only had four such players: Juan Rios, Tommy Matchick, Bobby Floyd and Todd Cruz. The reason being they had guys like Cookie Rojas, Fred Patek and Frank White who took most of the at-bats and could actually generate some offense.
Greg Pryor was the only player to make the list three times: 1983, 1985 and 1986. The Royals somehow found 367 plate appearances for him over those years. His other two seasons with the Royals were better with an OPS+ of 92 and 82. He still got 454 plate appearances in his “good” seasons.
The 1985 year was something else. The Royals gave 635 plate appearances to Onix Concepcion, Buddy Biancalana and Pryor. The trio managed to put up a combined slash of .203/.230/.226 with an OPS+ of 45. And somehow the Royals managed to win the World Series with that group. Baseball can be strange.
First the honorable mentions:
Steve Jeltz – 1990 – Jeltz got 114 plate appearances and hit .155 with an OPS+ of 12.
Keith Miller – 1993 – Miller got 118 plate appearances and hit .167 with an OPS+ of 13.
Angel Salazar – 1987 – 332 plate appearances with an average of .205 and an OPS+ of 23.
Bobby Floyd – 1972 – 140 plate appearances with an average of .179 and an OPS+ of 23.
Elliot Johnson – 2013 – 173 plate appearances with an average of .179 and an OPS+ of 26.
Now for the honorees. Envelope and drum roll please.
4. Chris Owings - 2019
This should come as no surprise. Owings was as close to a guaranteed out as you can get. Over 40 games and 145 plate appearances, he slashed .133/.193/.222 with an OPS+ of 9. Dayton Moore had signed Owings to a widely panned $3 million contract prior to the 2019 season. This came after he hit a robust .206 with Arizona in 2018. You can’t make this stuff up. Ned Yost loved the guy and played him extensively over the season’s first three months until the evidence, and outcry from fans, became too much. The Royals released him in June of 2019 and to Owings credit, he’s still out there plugging away, having spent time in the Red Sox, Rockies, Orioles, Yankees and Pirates systems going into the 2023 season.
3. Greg Pryor – 1986
Pryor was the only three-time honoree on the list. He spent the last five seasons of a ten-year career with the Royals and wasn’t horrible in two of them. In 1986, he got into 63 games and picked up 117 plate appearances good for a slash of .170/.191/.205 and an OPS+ of 8. He was released prior to the 1987 season and retired at the age of 36.
2. Tony Peña Jr. – 2008
If you’re scoring at home, I’m sure Peña would have been on your short list. The son of former Royals manager Tony Peña, Junior came over in a trade with Atlanta. He was given the primary shortstop duty but couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. In 2008, he got into 95 painful games with 235 plate appearances, good for a slash of .169/.189/.209 and an OPS+ of 7. Pena possessed a strong enough arm that he made the switch to being a pitcher and threw in the Mexican leagues through the 2017 season. I was secretly hoping he could make it back to the majors as a pitcher, but it never happened.
1. Donnie Sadler – 2001
Sadler came to the Royals in a 2001 trade with the Reds. He got into 54 games with 116 plate appearances and slashed .129/.212/.158 for an OPS+ of negative 2. Ouch. The Royals released him after 35 more games in the 2002 season. To his credit, he was able to carve out an 8-year career with his last major league appearance coming in 2007 with Arizona.
So, there you have it, the rarely good, the often bad and the frequently ugly life of good field, no hit middle infielders. Crash Davis had a wonderful quote in the movie Bull Durham. “You know what the difference is between hitting .250 and .300? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is fifty points, okay? There’s six months in a season – that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week, just one, a gork…you get a ground ball with eyes, you get a dying quail…just one more dying quail a week…and you’re in Yankee stadium”.
Of course, when you’re hitting .170 you need more than one more gork a week. You need a backup plan in case the baseball thing doesn’t work out. Hitting a baseball is hard at any level of play.
Even though it pains us to watch these guys hit, and it did, I think we also can relate. That’s what most of us would like if we were standing at the plate, chasing a 90-mph slider or a knee buckling curve. So, we salute you, the Royals middle infield Mount Rushmore of Futility.