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Happy Birthday, Joel Youngblood

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Happy birthday to Joel Youngblood, the former outfielder and sort-of infielder who spent most of his career with the Mets and Giants, and who was the third base coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks in the second half of 2010.

Youngblood is a Texas native who was a 2nd round draft choice of the Cincinnati Reds in the January 1970 draft, making his debut with Cincy in 1976. Youngblood was traded twice in quick succession in 1977, first to the Cards on the eve of the season for Bill Caudill, then to the Mets in June for Mike Phillips. Youngblood would end up playing with the Mets for about five seasons, performing pretty solidly as an outfielder for them, before being dealt to Montreal in the middle of the 1982 season. Youngblood then signed with San Francisco as a free agent after the 1982 season.

Youngblood is memorable to me because of what happened to him with the Giants, and in particular, with San Francisco in the 1984 season. Youngblood was the type of player there seemed to be a lot of over the years, pretty decent hitters with big arms, who would end up settling in right field. Youngblood averaged over 15 assists per 162 games in his career as an outfielder, and it wasn't because teams were constantly running on him -- he had a cannon.

In the late 70s and early 80s, though, there was something of a trend of teams taking right fielders who could throw really well and trying to convert them to third base. Youngblood was actually more of a utility player in 1983 with the Giants, getting the bulk of his games at second base, although that was in large part because their regular second baseman, Brad Wellman, had a 543 OPS, while the outfield was pretty stacked with Jeffrey Leonard, Chili Davis, and Jack Clark (plus Darrell Evans at first base).

In 1984, though, the Giants decided to make Youngblood a third baseman, replacing future Ranger Tom O'Malley. Youngblood had a big arm, and wasn't terrible at second base, so he would be fine at third, right?

Well, no. In 117 games at third (114 starts), Youngblood made 36 errors, good for an .887 fielding percentage. While Butch Hobson is legendary for his 43 error season in 1978 with the Red Sox, he still had an .899 fielding percentage. Total Zone had Youngblood at -21 runs at third base that season (-22 runs overall), an incredible total, given how few games he played at the position. Only 7 players in the B-R database who played at least half their games at third base have been worse than -22 runs.

After that, the Giants figured they needed to get someone who could play third base, rather than someone who, in the abstract, might have the tools to play third base, and Youngblood logged just 9 games (and 3 starts) at the position the rest of his career.*

* Youngblood ended up his career playing 76 games in 1989 in Cincinnati, the team he debuted with in 1976 when he appeared in 55 games (logging just 60 plate appearances). Thus, per Jim Baker's rule, he qualifies as having registered a "Willie Keeler".

Anyway, one of the weird things about baseball is that there are certain guys who stick in your mind for certain reasons. Youngblood spent his entire career in the N.L., and thus never played against the Rangers, but he was a player I always thought was interesting, and his 1984 season epitomized, in my mind, the futility of the RF/3B switch (along with Pedro Guerrero).

UPDATE -- I've also been reminded of Youngblood's true claim to fame -- on August 4, 1982, he played a game at Wrigley Field for the Mets, got a hit, was traded after the game to the Expos, fly to Philadelphia where the Expos had a game that night, played for the Expos, and got a hit in that game, as well. Two hits in two different games for two different teams in two different cities.