The Bobby Grich-verse
The second base position is one of the least represented in the Hall of Good Enough. It’s the one position that has the least expectation in all of baseball, kind of like a punter in football, but with actual value. It is unlikely second base prospects will be drafted in the early rounds, or rank in the top 100 prospects as the position is expected to be filled by players moving positions as they develop and franchise needs arise.
Bobby Grich was player who could play anywhere on the infield even as a slick fielding shortstop, but his heart was at second base. While in the Orioles farm system he was blocked by “Dave” Johnson, a Gold Glover and All-Star second baseman from 1968 to ‘71. “Davey” Johnson was traded away to clear a path for Grich and had a sudden power surge. In his first year in Atlanta, Johnson hit 43 home runs (one of three 40+ homer Braves that season), topping his previous career high of 18 and later managed the ‘86 Mets to the World Series. Grich’s play at second, with the range of a shortstop, his ability to hit for some power, steal bases and get on base necessitated a trade of Johnson to the Braves to clear a path for Grich.
He logged 1833 hits, 224 home runs, 104 stolen bases a .266 AVG and .371 OBP. His sure fielding, power bat and ability to get on base resulted in a career WAR of 71.1 over 17 years. Grich was a six-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glover, a Silver Slugger in 1981 and he received MVP votes in five seasons.
Grich was a bit unlucky with his timing as a full time Oriole in 1972. Baltimore was coming off three straight Pennants from ‘69 to ‘71 including a World Series Championship in 1970. In his first full season Grich made his first of six All-Star teams and the following season he earned his first of four straight Gold Glove awards. Along with Brooks Robinson at third base and Mark Belanger at short, the Orioles had one of the best fielding infields of all time. Robinson is still considered to perhaps still be the greatest fielding third baseman of all-time and Belanger was considered the smoothest fielding shortstop of his time. Grich was considered to have the best range of any second baseman of his time and even set the fielding percentage record for a second baseman in 1973 at .995 and all three infielders had especially high Rtot’s, as they were much better than the rest of the fielders in the league that year. Their first baseman, Boog Powell, was a bopper in the middle of the lineup but was just about smack dab in the middle of average fielding first basemen that year. Powell’s hitting career was much more impressive than his fielding, with four 30+ homer seasons, a career total of 339 homers and .361 OBP, four All-Star Games, a two-time World Series Champ and the 1970 AL MVP (three years in the top three of MVP voting). They didn’t just have a great infield, centerfielder Paul Blair won one of his eight Gold Gloves that year to be one of the best fielding outfielders in MLB history.
One of the best fielders in the league, Grich became a free agent at the end of the 1976 season. A California native who was drafted out of UCLA, Grich signed with the California Angels with the intention to play shortstop with a young Jerry Remy at second. Remy was an above average fielder for his first two seasons, ‘75 and ‘76, but hovered around league average after that. He had zero power and a middling AVG but he could steal a lot of bases, at least 30 a year from ‘75 to ‘78. This plan of playing Grich at short and his superiority as a fielder at any position dropped off after he herniated a disc moving an air conditioning unit on the Valentines Day before his first season with the Angels.
It was supposed to be a great season for the Angels, they brought in Grich, Don Baylor and former star of the three-time World Series Champ A’s, Joe Rudi. Bobby Bonds nearly became the first 40-40 player in MLB history by hitting 37 homers and stealing 41 bases. Frank Tanana broke out at the age of 23 by leading the league in ERA (2.53) and shutouts (7). Nolan Ryan led the league in strikeouts with 341 and finished third in Cy Young voting. Despite all of this, the Angels would finish 5th in the AL West and traded Jerry Remy to his hometown Boston to free up the position for Grich where he became a local celebrity and beloved color commentator.
While they lost Remy and gained a full season from Grich at second, the Angels signed outfielder Lyman Bostock from the Twins. While he had a horrendous start to the season, so bad that Bostock offered to give back his salary to owner Gene Autrey because he did not feel he deserved what he was making. Autrey refused and Bostock had one of the greatest mid-season bounce-backs in baseball history, ultimately hitting .296 on the season before tragically being murdered before the end of the season. The Halos ended the season second in the AL West.
1979 was another year of additions for the Angels. They brought in Bert Campinaris, who although he was getting on in years was one of the best fielding shortstops in the league, often compared to Grich’s Baltimore double play partner Mark Belanger. They also brought in one of the best secondbasemen of all time, Hall of Famer Rod Carew, to play first base. It was Carew’s move to first that solidified Grich as the best second baseman in the league as an All-Star or Silver Slugger over the next four seasons. These additions contributed to 1979 being the first season that the Angels won their division in franchise history. Grich had career highs in home runs and RBI (30, 101) and led to a locker room celebration where he dumped a bottle of beer over Richard Nixon’s head. He later went out dancing with the body of Agnew. But seriously, he did dump a beer on Nixon's head, the photo of which was released and made the disgraced former president seem normal for a bit until more of his tapes came out.
The strike year of 1981 saw one of the oddest seasons in baseball history where the season was split into two halves, the best record of the first half faced the team with the best record of the second half for the playoffs at the end of the year. Grich took advantage of this odd season as he transitioned from a defensive wizard in his Baltimore days to a second baseman with power in California when he led the AL in home runs and slugging (22, .543).
He was a teammate to several of the best fielding center fielders of the ‘60’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s. When he came up in Baltimore, he was teammates with Paul Blair, one of the most dominant center fielders of all time. Fred Lynn came to the Angels from the Red Sox in the early ‘80’s coming off three straight Gold Gloves in one of the best outfields in baseball history. Gary Pettis came up soon after Lynn and went on to win five Gold Gloves of his own.
Throughout his career, Grich was an unimpressive batting average hitter with a .266 AVG, but was able to get on base at a better clip than is expected from a .300 AVG hitter with his .371 OBP. He was a six-time All-Star, four time Gold Glover (before his air conditioner injury), won a Silver Slugger (after his air conditioner injury) and received MVP votes five times. He never played in a World Series although the Orioles went to two during seasons where he got a cup of coffee in the league. His biggest disappointment came in the final games of his career. He led the Angels to a tight series against the Red Sox in the 1986 ALCS for the Halos only to lose the final three games of a seven game series.
He believed, “I was short on talent so I had to be long on intensity.” In reality, he was a shortstop playing second base with the bat of a corner infielder. He was a second baseman not because of his skill set, but that was where his heart wanted to play and where his teams had openings on their depth charts. The average Hall of Famer ended their career with a 69.0 WAR. Grich’s WAR of 71.1 was better than Hall of Fame second basemen Ryne Sandberg (68.0), Roberto Alomar (67.1, Pee Wee Reese (66.3), Craig Biggio (65.5), Jackie Robinson (61.4) and Joe Gordon (57.8) and a whole lot of other big name Hall of Famers.