Groundbreaking: 10 MLB Players Who Redefined Their Positions
Baseball is a game of constant innovation, where subtle mental and mechanical adjustments lead to lengthy big league careers.
But it's not as if every change sneaks under the radar. MLB players have historically redefined their positions by translating something unusual or unprecedented into on-field success.
Many fought skepticism and derision on their way to greatness. Now, their nuances are adopted by aspiring All-Stars.
Major League Baseball has progressed thanks to the following groundbreaking individuals.
Tris Speaker was known for setting up in extremely shallow center field, positioning himself close enough to second base to turn six unassisted double plays during his career. Not surprisingly, Speaker holds an MLB record with 449 career outfield assists.
Though there's no exact parallel in the game today, you'll often observe speedy outfielders standing far from the wall. They refuse to allow bloopers or low line drives reach the ground, which I imagine was Speaker's mantra, too.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
To the dismay of MLB batters, R.A. Dickey has learned to control baseball's most unpredictable pitch.
The 37-year-old has enjoyed incredible success in 2012. I've even predicted him to win the NL Cy Young award.
There have been pitch-to-contact knuckleballers like Wilbur Wood. But he constantly lobbed his soft stuff over the plate. The opposition took advantage of Wood in 1973 as he surrendered 381 base hits, a single-season record for the live-ball era.
Phil Niekro was on the other side of the spectrum as a man who frequently generated swings-and-misses. However, he also amassed 1,809 free passes (third-most all time).
Dickey is a new breed of finesse pitcher who uses the knuckleball as a weapon, not a gimmick.
Given his reputation as an intimidator, I was actually a bit disappointed to discover that Bob Gibson was never intentionally walked. After all, he was a legitimate threat at the plate (.206/.243/.301 with 24 HR).
The right-hander made batters very uncomfortable. His evil glares, biting slider and use of "chin music" gave them reason to quiver.
Letting Gibson work atop a 15-inch mound was simply unfair, Major League Baseball decided in 1968. No seriously—league rules were changed after he posted a 1.12 ERA.
Gibson incorporated psychology into his game plan.
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
The classic 20th century first baseman was bulky and immobile, a player whose offensive value hinged on how many home runs he launched.
Keith Hernandez didn't fit the description. He stood about six feet tall and weighed in at less than 200 pounds.
He redefined the position with his glovework and athleticism.
Hernandez won 11 consecutive National League Gold Gloves (1978-1988) because he exhibited extraordinary range. Through extensive study and repetition, he learned to anticipate where balls would be put in play and how they should be handled.
His prolific mustache has also earned national acclaim.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Though Willie Mays wasn't the first five-tool player, he made the phrase applicable to center fielders.
The position's primary responsibility was run prevention, not run production. He was deservedly praised for excelling in all facets of the game.
Ken Griffey, Jr., Matt Kemp and Mike Trout were molded after the Say Hey Kid.
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Mariano Rivera's cutter has changed the closing profession.
Late-inning relievers from previous generations were huge proponents of high-90s fastballs and filthy breaking balls. They would risk injury to master such pitches because they generated swings-and-misses.
Mo sacrifices a few miles per hour to get more lateral movement. He has gained a reputation for breaking bats and inducing weak contact. Strikeouts aren't among his priorities.
Rivera's avoidance of significant arm injuries is just as incredible as his Hall of Fame credentials.
Kenley Jansen (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Brian Wilson (San Francisco Giants) are just two active closers who have been inspired by "The Sandman" and added the cutter to their repertoires.
The Associated Press
Babe Ruth began shattering offensive records in 1920 upon completing the conversion from pitcher to outfielder.
It took Major League Baseball years to catch up.
New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris didn't supplant him as the single-season home run king until 1961. Another four decades later, Barry Bonds finally eclipsed The Bambino's record for highest yearly OPS.
During Ruth's career, ballparks were typically about 300 feet down the right-field line. But before he came along, nobody had enough strength and confidence to aim for the seats with every swing.
Today, every MLB roster has at least one player with that mindset.
Ted Williams was obsessed with the science of hitting. He even wrote a book about it.
The Kid persuaded his peers to use lighter bats by reasoning that stroking the ball with authority had more to do with bat speed than strength. He led the American League in home runs four times despite a slender build.
Williams attributed his all-time best on-base percentage to taking the first pitches of most plate appearances. Falling behind in the count wasn't a disadvantage, he said, because it allowed him to see more of the pitcher's stuff.
Veteran sluggers Bobby Abreu and Chase Utley have thrived from exercising Williams' sort of first-pitch patience.
Tony Tomsic/Getty Images
Catchers used to receive pitches with two hands to prevent the ball from popping out, recalls former Gold Glove winner Earl Battey.
Then Johnny Bench made it to the big leagues.
Frustrated by past thumb injuries, he began using a hinged catcher's mitt. Akin to what first basemen had, it allowed him to secure the baseball without putting his throwing hand in harm's way.
Bench popularized that style of mitt during the late 1960s and 1970s. His preference to hide his bare hand became the norm.
Cal Ripken, Jr.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
The baseball traditionalists initially agreed on one thing—Cal Ripken, Jr. was too big to play shortstop. A 6'4" individual had never been—and supposedly, could never be—an effective middle infielder.
Ripken challenged that fallacy and ultimately redefined the position.
Baseball-Reference.com confirms his fielding prowess. Only Ozzie Smith, Mark Belanger and Brooks Robinson are superior in terms of career defensive WAR.
All the skeptics that expected Ripken to succumb to wear and tear must have been in disbelief as his consecutive-games-played streak grew to epic proportions.
Thanks to him, doors opened for other imposing specimens like Derek Jeter, Hanley Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Troy Tulowitzki.