Wally Pipp was a first baseman for the New York Yankees. On a nondescript day in 1925, he decided to ask for a day off – some say due to a headache.
It would be the last time that Wally Pipp would start at 1B for the Yankees. The resulting starter at 1B in that game was Lou Gehrig, who would go on to make 2,130 consecutive starts, a record that stood until Cal Ripken famously broke it in 1995.
The Pittsburgh Pirates may have a similar scenario playing out in the dwindling months of the 2015 baseball season.
Of course, no one is suggesting that the players involved are approaching the caliber of Gehrig. Rather, the Pirates scenario is more modest, but just as intriguing in the eyes of Pirates fans.
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Jordy Mercer went down with a knee injury on July 19th. Since then, Jung Ho Kang has held down the shortstop position with aplomb, disproving those who had concerns about his defensive capabilities while getting better at the plate with each at bat. In the 19 games since Mercer’s injury, Kang has a slashline of .380/.429/.648, giving the team a spark no matter where he hits in the order.
I’m going to stop here to recommend that you read Michael Baumann’s piece over at Grantland on Kang, if you haven’t already. Here’s a snippet:
"It’s not just that Kang has played as well as could have been expected; it’s also the manner in which he’s done so. Kang doesn’t really have a lot of anything, but he’s got a little of everything. He can play any position on the infield and hit in any spot in the lineup without looking out of place. He hits lefties better, but he hits righties just fine. Kang has turned into the National League’s Ben Zobrist, and when the competition gets tougher and benches get shorter in the playoffs, such players become force multipliers."
We will save the nuts and bolts of how Kang got to this point for another day, but let’s examine it from the point-of-view of the man most directly affected by Kang’s emergence. Mercer to this point has been a very competent major league shortstop. After setting career highs in HR (12) and RBI (55) in 2014 while carrying a .255 AVG, many had hoped to see Mercer take another step forward this year. That did not happen, as his poor start to 2015 attests. Mercer had battled all year to right his ship, yet he entered and exited July with the exact same batting average – .242. None of this is to overshadow his defense, which is so rock solid that Clint Hurdle trusts him explicitly. Mercer had played every single inning of every single game in July, and there is a reason for that.
Now that Mercer is starting his rehab assignment, what happens next? Will he suffer the same fate as Wally Pipp? Right now it’s very hard to assume that he won’t, at least for the duration of this season. Hurdle hates to take bats out of a lineup just for the sake of defense. The picture for 2016 and beyond gets considerably cloudier, with Neil Walker‘s contract situation casting a shadow on every potential infield roster decision. Ostensibly, many feel that Kang was brought in specifically to replace Walker at some point, but I have my doubts. However if Walker and the Pirates do come to an impasse, the team is left with two parts who are interchangeable (Harrison and Kang) who can handle 3B/2B duties. Lineup flexibility is a great thing, and in this case it may help someone like Mercer hold onto an everyday starting job.
For his part, Mercer can help his cause by staying within himself at the plate. Despite some cameos at the top of the order, Mercer often finds himself slotted in the number eight spot. In that spot he would do well to extend at-bats and make pitchers work. Elevate their pitch counts. Move a runner over with a bunt late in games when a pinch hitter is behind him.
While today’s game makes a Pipp/Gehrig scenario very unlikely to unfold exactly the same way, with each moment like the one below, Jung Ho Kang makes a hell of a case for history to repeat itself.