In a memorable scene from the 2011 movie “Moneyball,” Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) and coach Ron Washington tell catcher Scott Hatteberg that they want to sign him to play first base.
“I’ve only ever played catcher,” Hatteberg said.
“It’s not that hard, Scott,” Beane said. “Tell him, Wash.”
“It’s incredibly hard,” Washington said.
The movie depicts events from the 2002 season. Fourteen years later, teams still are telling players who have never played first base that it’s not hard. Even if it is.
Even in this post-Moneyball, defensive metrics-heavy era, first base still is the spot in which you’re most likely to have someone playing out of position.
It’s not as bad as the days when the Yankees used Mickey Mantle or the Mets tried Willie Mays at first at the end of their Hall of Fame careers. But first still seems to be last when it comes to getting respect as to how difficult it is to play and play well.
Mike Piazza couldn’t do it. Neither could Alex Rodriguez. But teams keep trying.
“If you have a bad first baseman,” Mark Teixeira said, “it messes up your entire infield.”
Still, nine out of the 30 teams this past week had a player starting at first in their season openers who were not natural first basemen, including two who had never played a regular-season game at the position (Hanley Ramirez of the Red Sox and Matt Holliday of the Cardinals).
Three of the nine were converted catchers, including Joe Mauer (Twins), Mike Napoli (Indians) and John Jaso (Pirates). Jaso had played two games at first before Opening Day. He was replaced for defense by Sean Rodriguez — a middle infielder.
Of the others, Wil Myers (Padres) was San Diego’s centerfielder for last year’s opener. Marwin Gonzalez (Astros) is a shortstop. Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals) and Mark Reynolds (Rockies) have played more games at third base.
For our local teams, the current backups are Dustin Ackley (Yankees) and Wilmer Flores (Mets). Neither is a first baseman. Ackley proved that Friday when he started at first in Detroit in his 24th game at the position and failed to catch two throws from shortstop Didi Gregorius. Neither was scored an error, but both can be blamed on inexperience.
“I had some testy plays for sure out there,” he said, “but I’m starting to feel really comfortable.”
The Yankees might not be as comfortable. They are close to signing Nick Swisher to a minor-league contract. He has played 483 games at first base.
Flores has never played a major-league game at first. The starting shortstop in the 2015 World Series, he now is the Mets’ primary backup at all four infield positions.
“The thing about first base — just catch the ball,” Flores said.
Easier than it sounds. A-Rod — one of the most gifted athletes of this generation — admitted this spring that the hardest part of his ill-fated attempt to play first last year was catching throws. “It wasn’t very pretty,” he said. “For some reason, I just couldn’t get it done. It was strange. I felt really odd over there. I couldn’t even catch the ball.”
The Mets tried to convert Piazza into a first baseman in 2004. “We’ll see how it works out,” he said at the time. “I’m not going to go out there and flop around just because someone thinks it’s a good idea.”
After 68 games of flawed footwork, awkward movements and two collisions with runners, the future Hall of Famer returned to his natural position of catcher in 2005. He never picked up a first baseman’s glove again.
Turned out it is incredibly hard.
If at first . . .
Of the 30 starting Opening Day first basemen, nearly one-third had played more games at another position in their careers and two had never appeared in a game at first:
Player, Team //Games at 1B pre-2016// Most played position// Number of games there
Matt Holliday, Cardinals 0 OF 1,617
Hanley Ramirez, Red Sox 0 SS 1,077
John Jaso, Pirates 2 C 326
Wil Myers, Padres 24 OF 197
Marwin Gonzalez, Astros 44 SS 203
Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals 98 3B 1,133
Joe Mauer, Twins 293 C 885
Mark Reynolds, Rockies 442 3B 773
Mike Napoli, Indians 485 C 539