While platooning has fallen out of favor in this century, a couple of decades ago almost all MLB teams used platoons at one or two positions. The Pirates duo of Don Slaught and Mike LaValliere was one of the best, backstopping the Pirates during their three consecutive division championships from 1990-92.
The lefthanded half of the platoon, Mike LaValliere, was the first to arrive in Pittsburgh. He had started as a rookie for the '86 Cardinals, but Whitey Herzog wanted the Pirates' veteran catcher Tony Pena to work with his ptiching staff of mostly lefthanded junkballers. The Cardinals would pay a steep price for Pena, sending LaValliere, Mike Dunne and Andy Van Slyke.
The '87 Cardinals won the pennant but the Pirates won the trade. Platooning with Junior Ortiz in 1987, LaValliere improved his batting average from .236 to .300, threw out 45% of base stealers and even won the Gold Glove - an impressive accomplishment for a part time player. By 1989 Ortiz had slumped to .217 with one home run, while LaValliere hit .316 with a .406 OBP. It was time to make a move.
Spanky's numbers would certainly lead to a starting job today, but it was sacrilege in 1989 to suggest that a lefthanded hitting catcher could play every day.So the Pirates sent a journeyman pitcher and a nothing prospect to the Yankees, acquiring the nondescript, 31 year old Don Slaught. In retrospect it's hard to imagine much excitement about bringing in the guy who had just hit .251 with five home runs while catching the second worst pitching staff in the American League.
Yet it all worked out in 1990. Just as LaValliere had done three years before, Don Slaught suddenly turned into a line drive hitter of epic proportions in Pittsburgh. He hit .300 with a .375 OBP and had 25 extra base hits in 230 at-bats. LaValliere didn't have any power but got on base at a .362 clip. This was great production out of the 7 hole in a year when the Pirates' team OBP of .330 led the league. While LaValliere was the better catcher of the pair, Slaught threw out a respectable 31% of runners too. The pitching staff improved to fifth in the league, led by Doug Drabek's 22 win season.
In 1991, it was more of the same as LaValliere hit .289, Slaught hit .295 and both had OBPs over .350 again. Both were veteran catchers by now and the pitching staff thrived, posting the second best ERA in the league. Bob Walk's 3.60 was the highest ERA in the starting rotation.
In 1992, LaValliere dropped to a .256 average but had excellent plate discipline and still had a .350 OBP. Slaught, now a 33 year old catcher who had never been a full time player, posted an unreal .345/.384/.482 slash line. Behind the plate, this was the duo's finest season. They combined to throw out 37% of base stealers and did an excellent job catching a young knuckleballer named Tim Wakefield who went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA. While the '09 Red Sox had to carry three catchers for part of the year just to have someone who could catch Wakefield, the '92 Pirates didn't even have to break their regular platoon as both men did a near flawless job of catching the knuckler.
Of course with this duo having led the Bucs to three straight division titles, hitting and fielding well every year, the clear choice was to keep them together. Not so. General manager Ted Simmons began dismantling the division champions in the offseason, and 11 men from the playoff roster were gone by Opening Day including aces Doug Drabek and John Smiley. LaValliere criticized these moves, and he became the 12th player gone - released after one game in 1993. The Pirates still owed $4.05 million on his contract so they paid him to catch for the White Sox in 1993 and '94.
With LaValliere gone, incredibly, Slaught still wasn't an everyday player. Tom Prince batted 204 times and hit .196 with two home runs. Slaught continued with the Bucs until 1995, and overall hit .305/.370/.421 for the Bucs before he departed via free agency to make way for Jason Kendall.
Both catchers are now working in instructional roles. LaValliere and Jeff Robinson opened a youth baseball training facility in Florida, while Slaught is president of the video training company RightView Pro.
A switch hitter with excellent contact hitting, on base, throwing and game calling skills, Don SlaValliere was truly a Great Pirate in History.