Jim Northrup: 1939-2011

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My folks weren’t really baseball fans, but they both grew up in Detroit, and the bandwagony, city-coming-together effect of the World Series champion Tigers of 1968 rubbed off on them enough to where players on that team were well-known names to me even before I really got my brain around baseball as a kid.  As late as the early 80s, if my parents needed to reference a good baseball player for some reason, they’d mention one of those guys because those are the names they remembered.

Jim Northrup was one of the names that came up often. Northrup died yesterday at the age of 71 after several years of declining health.

Why did Northrup’s name stick out to non-baseball fans? The World Series heroics, most definitely. Northrup hit a grand slam in the blowout Game Six, which put it in everyone’s minds that, hey, maybe the Cardinals weren’t invincible after all. In Game Seven he came up even bigger, though: a triple to center field off Bob Gibson with two on to break up a scoreless tie in the top of the seventh. Curt Flood gets a lot of crap for making a bad play on that ball, but many believe that Flood wouldn’t have gotten to it with a good break anyway. Either way, it was the biggest moment Northrup would ever have on a baseball field.

But not the only big moment. Earlier in 1968 he became something of a grand slam artist, hitting four in the regular season. Two of them came in consecutive at bats in a game against the Indians (Northrup was the first ever to do that). Five days later he hit another against the White Sox.  Coming in the deadest offensive year since the Dead Ball Era, those were some serious fireworks.

Overall, though, Northrup’s calling card was less about heroics and more about solid production and versatility. For a good eight years in the late 60s and early 70s, Northrup was a dependable presence in the Tiger outfield, playing all three positions.

Northrup’s career wound down as Billy Martin took over the Tigers. The two of them never saw eye-to-eye, and if you believe what every single person who has ever spoken about Billy Martin has said, that personal disagreement between the two of them probably speaks pretty well of Jim Northrup’s character and demeanor.

Following short stints in Montreal and Baltimore, Northrup retired following the 1975 season. Over 12 major league seasons he hit .267/.333/.429 with 153 homers and 610 RBI.

Matt Carpenter hit a standup bunt double

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The wave of defensive shifts we’ve seen over the past few years has led to a lot of armchair hitting coaches demanding that players bunt to beat it. This is easier said than done, however.

The shift happens because certain hitters tend to pull the ball. Certain hitters tend to pull the ball because pulling the ball is what happens when one gets a strong, quick swing on a pitch one identifies early and which one endeavors to send as far away from home plate as possible. Which is to say that pulling is a skill that is good to have and which is strongly selected for among hitters.

In light of that, “why not just bunt to beat the shift” takes are kind of lazy. Bunting is hard! And it is not a thing guys who get shifted a lot are good at. Most of the time asking a player to do a thing he is not well-equipped to do is a bad idea. Indeed, a hitter voluntarily going away from his strength is something the defense would much prefer.

Most of the time anyway.

Last night Matt Carpenter made those armchair hitting coaches happy by laying down a bunt to beat the shift. And he laid it down so well that he ended up with a standup double:

One batter later Carpenter scored on a Starlin Castro error.

The shift giveth and the shift taketh away.