Their names normally don’t get the top billing every day, but multi-position players deserve a lot of acknowledgement for a team’s success. There is no way a team can make it through a full 162-game season without losing a few position players to injuries, and regular starters need a day off now and then along the way.
With the way the game has changed recently, baseball’s latest trend is no longer to rely on the “utility” player but to seek the “multi-position” player; that is, a player who is a productive hitter and moonlights at many defensive positions, including both infield and outfield. Some even play catcher as part of their repertoire.
The Old Utility Player
Originally, utility players were veteran players who could play all the infield positions except first base. They filled in as late inning defensive players or pinch runners. They were never considered a top-notch hitter and were usually the forgotten guy on the bench. Utility outfield players were usually the first guys off the bench to pinch hit. They were also used as late inning defensive replacements. Occasionally, they would get a spot start if the team played a double-header or a start if there was a day game that had followed a night game.
At one time they served a purpose. Teams only needed one or two utility men to come off the bench in a pinch. Now, however, “utility” doesn’t meet the needs of today’s pitcher-heavy teams. Today’s teams need players who can play multiple positions—both infield and outfield—and play each well. They’re more than “utility” players; they provide the flexibility teams need by being able to take most any position at any time.
The Need Only Grows
In the game today, pitch counts seem to rule. This sometimes leads to more pitchers used per game, which, in turn, means the need for an increased bullpen. Since the size of the roster doesn’t change, the larger the bullpen, the smaller the bench for position players. A smaller bench means more significance is placed on position flexibility and the need for multi-position players.
The now-standard complement of eight starting position players, five starting pitchers, and eight relievers leaves room for only four additional non-pitchers. Two of those spots typically go to a backup catcher and a DH in the AL, For the NL they’re usually a backup catcher and, maybe another pitcher. This leaves only one roster spot for a backup infielder or outfielder.
While that used to be a utility player, teams now have to be more creative with their arsenal of players. They’re looking for those versatile, and certainly dependable players who can play any position necessary and to be able to play at a moment’s notice. This is not just by necessity, but more and more is by design and purpose.
Today’s Teams Need Multi-Position Players
With more pitchers on the roster the managers have to be creative with their non-pitcher players. And, with the fewer bench opportunities available, today’s players must be able and willing to move around the field during a game on weekly or even day-to-day bases. Recently more teams have shown a preference for more multi-position players and more and more fielders are playing “out of position.” Though it is a demanding role, it seems to be the new norm.
With the ability to play multiple positions, these players can fill any number of voids a team can have. This gives the manager more flexibility when making his game plan. This is what has made multi-positional players so valuable in the new reshaping of baseball.
The Challenge for Multi-Position Players
A difficult aspect about being relied upon to hold down multiple positions is not just the physical but also the amount of information the players need to have. Different positions see different angles and different plays.
For example, if you play third base the ball is going to get on you a little quicker from right-handed hitters. At second base, you’ve got to turn double plays. If you play first, it’s holding guys on and coming off the bag fielding ground balls.
Multi-position players have to know all this (and more) and not only be physically ready to play when needed, they have to be mentally able as well. These players literally have to be able to think on their feet and adjust their game for the position their playing at that moment. That is, they need to be an expert at all their positions.
The Arizona Diamondbacks’ Utilization
Torey Lovullo recognizes the value of multi-position players who provide the flexibility of playing many positions. Since he took over the team in 2017, he has utilized many of these players to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ advantage. This season Ildemaro Vargas and Wilmer Flores, (currently on the Injured List) have played multiple positions in the infield. The outfield players consist of Blake Swihart, the recently called up Tim Locastro, and Jarrod Dyson. Even Ketel Marte has played both infield and outfield this season.
Wilmer Flores can play also first base which makes him all the more versatile. Before his injury he had played 12 games there. Idelmaro Vargas played 12 games at second base and nine games at third. Blake Swihart, who came over from the Boston Red Sox on April 19, has played games at first base and at both right and left field. An added benefit, he saw time at catcher when playing with the Red Sox.
Multi-positional players for the Diamondbacks do not consider themselves “backups” because they are getting ample playing time as other players move around and as the starters take scheduled days off. These players seem to enjoy jumping around positions, seeing their name in a different spot every day.
Moving the guys around keeps everyone fresh over the 162-game season. A team striving for a playoff spot needs star players taking the field every day, but it also needs guys who can play like the stars on an as-needed basis. They need the multi-position players. It’s safe to say that Diamondback’s manager Torey Lovullo has a soft spot in his heart for them. Guys who can play any position have always been valuable and perhaps no more valuable than they are today.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images