Incumbency Kings Update
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Smoltz and Hoffman close record Incumbencies

The old Tiger Stadium had an especially large corner in its locker room reserved for the team’s player with the longest tenure. For 15 years that spot belonged to Al Kaline, who was admitted into the Hall of Fame on his first try. When Kaline retired, it was passed onto eleven time all-star Bill Freehan, then to four time Gold Glove winner and World Series hero Mickey Stanley. Next, John Hiller held the honor for a few years. Hiller was most famous for suffering a heart attack in January of 1971, and then recovering to break the Saves record in 1973. Oddly, this succession of stars was followed by a back-up catcher and part time DH with a funny batting stance: John Wockenfuss. The length of time players stay with one team has always fascinated me, but it is rarely discussed. Although it doesn’t predict anything or indicate how good a player is, it is a measure of stability and how well a team and a player are matched.


As I recall, Bill James came up with the term “Incumbency Kings”. Strangely, I can’t trace it back to any of his Abstracts. Even stranger, Bill James himself doesn’t even remember writing about it. He sent me an e-mail saying so, admitting it sounds like something he would do. The concept of Incumbency Kings takes team seniority and adds one more step. Players with the longest single team tenure as the primary player at their position are Incumbency Kings. This winter, two record long Incumbency Kingships – those of John Smoltz and Trevor Hoffman – came to an end.


A player could be injured or serve in the military, but as long as he returns to the same team as the primary player at his previous position, he is deemed to have been the incumbent all along. An incumbency is lost if a player goes back to the minors (except for a rehab assignment), traded, or becomes the primary player at another position. I credited Smoltz as the all-time Incumbency King “pitcher”. His four years as a reliever cut short his incumbency as a “starting pitcher”. The top four starting pitcher incumbencies are shown, because teams used four man rotations throughout the bulk of Major League history. More than three outfielders are shown, so that you can see the top incumbencies at either any outfield position or at each of the three outfield positions.


All Time Incumbency Kings


Position    Player                        Team                    Incumbency………….……

P        John Smoltz      Braves        7.23.1988 –      2008

SP1      Walter Johnson   Senators      8.02.1907 –      1927

SP2      Ted Lyons        White Sox          1924 –      1942

SP3      Warren Spahn     Braves             1946 -      1964

SP4      Bob Feller       Cleveland     8.23.1936 – 7.04.1955


RP/Clsr. Trevor Hoffman   San Diego     6.24.1993/1994 – 2008


C        Gabby Harnett    Chicago (NL)       1924 -      1939

SS       Pee Wee Reese    Dodgers        mid 1940 -      1957

2B       Bid McPhee       Cincinnati         1882 -      1899

3B       Brooks Robinson  Baltimore          1958 -      1975

1B       Cap Anson        Chicago (NL)       1879 -      1897


OF1/LF   Ted Williams     Red Sox       1939/1940 -      1960

CF       Willie Mays      Giants             1951 -      1971

OF3(tie) Al Kaline        Detroit            1954 -      1973

OF3(tie) Ty Cobb          Detroit            1906 -      1925

RF       Roberto Clemente Pittsburgh         1955 -      1972

DH (tie) Hal McRae        Royals             1976 -      1985

DH (tie) Edgar Martinez   Mariners           1995 -      2004



The degree by which the Braves’ John Smoltz broke Walter Johnson’s pitcher incumbency record with the 1907-1927 Washington Senators is so small that it is contestable. Both Smoltz and Walter Johnson pitched 12 starts their rookie seasons and both ended their time with those teams 21 seasons later. The difference is that Smoltz’s first start was on July 23, 1988, while Johnson’s first start was on August 2, 1907. It doesn’t matter that Smoltz’ last appearance with the Braves was on June 2, 2008, while Johnson’s last start was on September 22, 1927. Despite shoulder surgery, Smoltz was still property of the Braves all year and is expected to return to the Majors as a pitcher. Due to his accumulated injuries and a two year stint as a reliever, Smoltz ended up with 3,395 innings for the Braves, while Johnson tallied 5,915 innings for the Senators.


Trevor Hoffman is the all-time Incumbency King of relievers as well as closers. Mariano Rivera may be closing in on both of Hoffman’s incumbency records, but he’ll have to continue for a few more years. On June 24, 1993, Hoffman was traded by the Marlins to the Padres along with two pitching prospects of ultimately no consequence (Andres Berumen and Jose Martinez) for Gary Sheffield and Rich Rodriguez. The next year Hoffman was the Padres’ closer. Rivera’s career with the Yankees began on May 23, 1995 and started one more game than he relieved that rookie season (10 to 9). He had to wait another year for John Wetteland to retire, before taking over as the Yankees’ closer in 1997. If you count Rivera’s rookie season as a reliever, then he will have passed Roy Face as the no. 2 all-time incumbent relief pitcher by the time you read this. Although, Face was pitching for the Pirates in 1953, he was back in the minors in 1954. He returned to the Pirates in 1955 and mostly relieved for them until was traded at the end of August in 1968.


Below are the current Incumbency Kings. Pitchers whose incumbencies were not purely as a starter or as a reliever are indicated by a “P” instead of “SP” or “RP”. The in-season starting dates for a starter begin when his starts come on a regular rotation basis. For a reliever, it is based on his first appearance after his last call-up. If an incumbency begins due to a trade, the trade date becomes the starting date.


Current Incumbency Kings


By Pos.        Incumbency King     Team                   Beginning of Icumbency….…….

    P1    Tim Wakefield    Boston        5.27.1995 (SP: 7.31.02

  P2/SP1  Mark Buehrle     Chicago W.S.       2000 (SP: 2001

   SP2    Roy Oswalt       Houston       6.02.2001

   SP3    Roy Halladay     Toronto       7.07.2001 (+ m.98–m.00

    P5    Jake Westbrook   Cleveland     7.01.2001 (SP: 7.12.03

   P5/6   Carlos Zambrano  Chicago Cubs  4.11.2002 (SP: 7.01.02

   SP4tie Jake Peavy       San Diego     6.22.2002

   SP4tie John Lackey      L.A. Angels‘A 6.24.2002


P/RP/Cl’s Mariano Rivera   N. Y. Yankees 5.23.1995/8.01.95/1997


    C     Jorge Posada     N. Y. Yankees      1998


   SS     Derek Jeter      N. Y. Yankees      1996

   2B     Mark Ellis       Oakland       6.07.2002 (inj.‘04 DNP)

   3B     Aramis Ramirez   Chicago Cubs  7.23.2003

   1B     Todd Helton      Colorado      8.02.1997

   DH     David Ortiz      Boston             2003


   OF1    Ichiro Suzuki    Seattle            2001

   CF     Vernon Wells     Toronto       8.26.2001

   LF     Carl Crawford    Tampa Bay          2002

   RF     Brian Giles      San Diego     8.26.2003


Chipper Jones has been with his team longer than any active player. However, he doesn’t make the list of Incumbency Kings, because he was shifted to the outfield in 2002 and 2003. The Team Seniority list will come with a future article. It will include each team’s most senior player.


By merely four days Mariano Rivera beats out Tim Wakefield as our current Pitcher Incumbency King. Wakefield’s claim as an Incumbency King is “longest single team tenure as mostly a starter”.


Mark Buehrle’s rookie season was 2000. In 2001, he began his incumbency as a starting pitcher. He is now MLB’s leading incumbent starting pitcher.


Similar to the Smoltz vs. Johnson contention, if Jake Westbrook never comes back, then his incumbency as a pitcher for the Indians conceivably ended early last year. That would make Carlos Zambrano’s incumbency the 5th longest of pitchers who have been primarily starters.


John Lackey had one more MLB start than Jake Peavy in 2002, but his first start came two days later. That’s a tie. Zambrano misses by less than two weeks of having one of the top 5 longest incumbent starting pitching gigs.


Perhaps, utility player should be counted as a position to have their own Incumbency King. Willie Bloomquist had a kingly Mariners tenure as a utility player from 2003 to 2008. No one is currently comparable, unless you count the Brewers’ ever regular playing Bill Hall as a super utility guy.


Say “adios, amigo” to the others who lost their Incumbency Kingships in the past year: Ben Sheets, C.C. Sabathia, Manny Ramirez, and Pat Burrell. When he was traded, Manny’s time in Boston had just passed his length of service to Cleveland. This year, Brian Giles’ time in San Diego is set to pass his length of service to Pittsburgh.


Finally, say “fare well - please” to Brad Ausmus, whom the Astros allowed to be their no. 1 catcher for eight straight years starting in 2001 - after having been their starting catcher for a previous two seasons (’97-’98) broken up by a second stint as Detroit’s no. 1 catcher. Chris Biggio – Ausmus’s Astro team-mate until Biggio retired just over a year ago - played longer for one team than any other second-baseman or catcher in modern times. That is another Team Seniority tease for the upcoming article.

John Carter