The All-Star Game is a showcase for baseball’s best players. This year it also served as a showcase for a trend: versatility.
Marte actually started more games before the All-Star break in center field than at second base.
LeMahieu, who entered the first half of the season leading the American League in batting average, has played more second than anywhere else this season. However, the player who is supposed to be the regular second baseman for the Yankees is not LeMahieu, but Gleyber Torres — who has mostly played shortstop. Torres made the All-Star team as a reserve and subbed for LeMahieu when he exited the game.
After decades of increasing reliance on specialization, baseball is discovering the beauty of versatility.
What began with a previously obscure player, Ben Zobrist with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2009, is becoming something of an ideal.
When LeMahieu signed with the Yankees, they didn’t really have a spot for him – they had several.
The Yankees gave LeMahieu a two-year, $24 million deal, even though they were set at second base, where he has twice won gold gloves, and third base, where he played regularly in the minor leagues. They had two solid candidates to start at first base, but they intended to use LeMahieu there as well.
Even before the Yankees began their much-publicized parade to the Injured List, manager Aaron Boone planned to start LeMahieu five or more games a week at any one of three positions. Boone wanted LeMahieu as a rotating regular.
Marte began his career with the Diamondbacks at shortstop, filling in for Nick Ahmed. He moved to second base in 2018 after signing a five-year, $24 million contract extension.
He offered to play center field this season, and the Diamondbacks took him up on it, deciding to use him as a super-utility player. Marte is clearly the team’s emerging star among position players. Even a couple of years ago, it would have been unthinkable for such a player to be shuffled around the diamond.
And as is usually the case with any change in baseball, this is being brought about by necessity.
The main driver is that teams rely more on relief pitching, so they carry more pitchers.
Here is the Opening Day roster for the 1972 New York Mets from Mets360.com.
Pretty typical for the time (though, it was common to carry a third catcher, or a sixth outfielder and fewer infielders).
Today, teams carry at least 12 pitchers, often 13.
That means fewer players to use at the other eight positions.
There is greater demand for a player who can handle all the outfield positions, or play several infield positions. There is real value for players such as Marwin Gonzalez, Enrique Hernandez, Yadiel Rivera, Sean Rodriguez, and Hernan Perez who played at every position except pitcher and catcher last season.
Andrew Romine, then with the Detroit Tigers, did even more, playing all nine positions, becoming the fifth player in MLB history to do that in one game.
Since the days when John McGraw was managing the New York Giants, the most common way for a manager to manipulate his roster creatively was platooning. Essentially, a team used two players at one position, depending mostly on if the opposing starting pitcher was left-handed or right-handed.
Platooning is not dead, but it likely will be used less and less.
Starting pitchers don’t go as deep into games. The advantage you get from playing a right-handed batter against every left-handed starting pitcher is reduced if the pitcher only goes once or twice through the lineup.
Can you afford to tie up two players to play right field, for example, to give you an edge in two plate appearances a game when your roster is so limited?
And playing in the field has changed as well. Over shifts have become routine over the past decade.
Gone are the days of playing in the same spot on the field, with only minor adjustments, inning after inning. Even if a player is only listed at one position, he is arguably playing more than one.
A third baseman could find himself aligned at what traditionally has been the spot traditionally occupied by the shortstop, or the spot traditionally occupied by the second baseman. He might even be positioned in short right field.
ESPN’s fivethirtyeight.com argues that no matter the alignment, defensive positions are growing less relevant because rising strikeout and home run totals mean there are fewer balls in play. Thus putting your optimal defensive lineup at the expense of your offense is counterproductive.
Utility Star is Born
Traditionally a utility player was just a versatile sub, and the demand was limited for such a player. As you can see from the 1972 Mets roster listed above, when you have eight infielders, you don’t really need one guy who can play three or four positions.
Zobrist brought star status to utility players with his breakout season in 2009 at age 28.
He had never played more than 62 games in a major-league season. In fact, he never played anywhere but shortstop and third base as a professional until the season before.
Zobrist was called up by the Rays in May of 2008. While he mostly played shortstop, he played a handful of games at second base, and manager Joe Maddon used him at all three outfield positions as the Rays won their first AL pennant.
The team was hit hard by injuries in 2009, so Maddon used Zobrist everywhere but catcher. He was actually the team’s emergency catcher for part of the season, but was never pressed into duty. Zobrist slashed .297./.405/.543 and hit 27 home runs.
Zobrist compiled the highest WAR (8.6) of any position player in MLB that season. Sports Illustrated ran a profile on him in its MLB season preview.
At the time, only hardcore fans outside of the greater Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg area knew about this guy. And only hardcore number crunchers knew anything about WAR.
The magazine introduced Zobrist and the concept of Wins Above Replacement to a wider audience in one article.
Another Kind of Versatility
Last season Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels became the first player in more than 50 years to pitch in at least 10 games and play more games at another position in a season, appearing on the mound in 10 games and as a designated hitter in 94 games.
The last player to do that was Willie Smith, who pitched in 15 games with the Angels and played 87 games in the outfield in 1964. No one else had done it since 1942.
The player best-known for such double duty was Babe Ruth. In 1918, he pitched in 20 games and played first base and/or the outfield in 75 games. In 1919, he pitched in 19 games and played first base and/or the outfield in 113 games. After that, he never pitched in more than two games in any season.
People have been drawing parallels, or trying to draw them, between Ohtani and Ruth.
I think Ohtani will join Ruth as a seminal figure of the game, though not because Ohtani is going to hit 700 home runs.
More to Come
Ohtani succeeded on the mound and at the plate in 2018, compiling a 4-2 record with a 3.31 ERA and hitting .285 with 22 home runs.
But in September, he learned he needed Tommy John surgery. There was talk that the Angels would call a halt to his two-way playing days. But the Angels didn’t. In fact, they doubled down.
More are on the way. It just makes sense. Teams must take advantage of all their players’ skills.
One prospect has already made the majors as a two-way player. Tampa Bay pitcher Brendan McKay was used as a designated hitter throughout his minor-league career. He has appeared as a DH for one game at the big-league level.
Although there has been speculation that former SI cover boy and second overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, Hunter Greene, will go that way, the Cincinnati Reds are keeping him on the mound.
The Other Way
Using position players to take an inning or two on the mound in a blowout game is more common than using pitchers as designated hitters or position players. Through July 17, it happened 60 times this season.
It’s a good strategy. It saves wear and tear on the bullpen. And the players and fans seem to get a kick out of it.
There have been complaints. There is concern about position players hurting their arms while pitching.
MLB and the Players’ union have adopted a rule change for 2020 that designates which players can or cannot pitch. But there is an exception for blowout games.
Of course, position players being injured while pitching hasn’t been much of a problem.
In fact, the best way to prevent arm injuries is to keep the real pitchers from pitching. They get hurt all the time.