The journeyman is a perpetual fixture in the business of Major League Baseball. But who are journeymen? Are they any good? And why do they bounce from team to team in the first place? Here's a look at the numbers.
This season, Octavio Dotel will take the mound for the Detroit Tigers, thereby setting an all-time record. He will play for his 13th different team, something no one in Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA, or the NHL has ever done.
If any player fits the descriptor of "journeyman," it's Dotel. Over the last two seasons, he pitched for five different teams. Before we examine Dotel's case, however, let's try to understand what makes up a journeyman.
What is a journeyman?
For the purposes of this study, a journeyman is a player who has played for at least eight different teams. Perhaps he's spent his entire career bouncing around the league, or perhaps he was a one-team player for many years and was traded and signed left and right during the home stretch of his career.
Since 2001 (meaning, active in 2001 or later), I've found 105 players who fit this definition of journeymen.
Which positions do journeymen tend to play most often?
Before looking at the data, I guessed that the majority of journeymen would be relief pitchers, because I tend to associate the word "journeyman" with guys like Dotel, Julian Tavarez, Russ Springer, et cetera. As it turns out, only about a third are relievers.
(These numbers add up to 110 rather than 105, since a few players qualified at multiple positions.)
Some positions, it appears, are not journeyman-friendly. None of the players involved spent enough time at first or second base, for example, to qualify as a journeyman at that position. Only two (Todd Zeile and Bobby Bonilla) qualify at third base, and only one (Royce Clayton) qualifies at shortstop.
If a player is traded around a lot, it's usually because he's a half-decent player who can plug a leak at a platoon position -- i.e., a team needs a catcher who can start every third or fourth game -- or be used as a utility infielder.
With that in mind, Clayton's story is particularly weird -- of the 2,057 games he played in the field, all but four were spent at short. He played for 11 different teams, each of which used him almost exclusively at shortstop, and most of those teams gave him the majority of the starts.
How good are journeyman pitchers?
The 58 pitchers we're concerned with average an ERA+ score of 103. By that standard, they're just barely above average.
44 of these 58 journeyman pitchers spent much of their careers as relievers, and almost all of those in middle-relief or setup roles. In other words, by and large, they were placed in game situations in which they were more likely to succeed (regarding handedness match-ups, specific batter/pitcher match-ups, etc.). Taking that into account, it seems reasonable to expect an ERA+ figure that's a little above average.
Dotel, if you're curious, has managed a career ERA+ mark of 121, which is good for fourth on this list.
How good are journeyman position players?
Offensively speaking? On average? Not all that good.
At the top is Gary Sheffield, who posted Hall of Fame-caliber numbers at the plate, and right behind him is Rickey Henderson, one of the greatest hitters of all time. After that we have guys like Bobby Bonilla, Ron Gant and Kenny Lofton, who accomplished plenty in their own right.
And as we wander further down the list, we run into utility players like John Mabry and Damian Jackson, who couldn't hit very well but could fill a number of different defensive roles. The very bottom is made up of catchers -- guys like Paul Bako and Alberto Castillo, who couldn't really hit worth a damn but could work a decent game from behind the plate.
How long does it take for a journeyman to become a journeyman?
The story of a journeyman isn't a tragic one -- year after year, they're good enough in at least one respect to convince a team that they're useful. But there is a certain level of prestige assigned to players who spend their entire career with one or two teams. Plenty of young players think, "I'd love to spend my entire career with one team." I doubt any of them think, "I hope I play for eight different teams."
Let's say that a player is on the road to, uh, journeyman-hood once he plays for his third team. When did that happen for these players?
Look at that. About a third of our journeymen took at least eight seasons to play for their third team. At the very top we have Arthur Rhodes, who spent his first nine seasons with the Orioles, and then four more with the Mariners, before bouncing all over the place. And then we have guys like Ron Villone and Josias Manzanillo at the very bottom -- guys who seemed fated to be journeymen from the start.
Why does a player become a journeyman?
These are the major potential factors I can think of:
- As average players grow older, they stop attracting long-term offers. In Rhodes' case, when his contract with the Mariners expired, he was 34 with average career numbers. That's the sort of player to whom you offer a one-year deal. Such circumstances are pretty common with the 105 gentlemen on this list.
- Utility players are short-term solutions. The purpose of a utility fielder is to plug a hole, and "plugging a hole" isn't a long-term solution.
- The middle-relief industry employs a largely transient workforce. There are, of course, some middle relievers who stick with a single team for many years. Generally speaking, though, if you can start or close effectively, you're not going to be a middle reliever. You're probably just an average player, average players are useful for plugging roster gaps, and roster gaps open and close around the league on a year-to-year basis.
- The player is a Bad Clubhouse Presence. Guys such as Sheffield and Milton Bradley became infamous for their poor relationships with the media, fans, and their teammates. They're too good not to find employment, but too much of a headache to sign to a long-term deal. Or keep around for long, once you really get to know them.
Who is the most journeyman player?
Oh, this one is easy. Ed Vosberg, y'all: