By Richard Cuicchi | May 29, 2016 at 10:30 PM EDT | No Comments
Being labelled a utility player is normally not the most prestigious designation a ball player can have, but most major league managers would give their right arm for a good one on their roster.
In an era of increasing specialization in the game, utility players seem out of place. However, for a big league manager, it’s like having 26, 27 or 28 players on the roster because a utility player can fill multiple roles for a team on a day-to-day basis if needed.
Being a utility player often carries a connotation of being a journeymen or commodity player. It used to be that a utility player was strictly used as backup, often a young player on his way up or an older player on the downside of his career. Nowadays it’s more of a strategic role because their value to the team is higher since they can play multiple starting roles on any given day.
With a versatile utility player, a manager the flexibility to juggle his lineup to give opposing pitchers different looks, give a starting position player a day off when he has minor strains and bruises, or avoid having to put a regular starter on the disabled list when there is nagging injury that just requires several days’ rest.
Preparation for a “super sub” can be tricky. He has to keep fresh at all the positions at which he might be used. That means having to frequently take fielding practice for multiple positions and keeping up to date on current defensive positioning information about the opposition. His mindset and approach for each game could be different depending on which position he is playing. It’s not easy because the player has to be ready for so many aspects of the game.
There are several utility players in the game today that do a good job of using their multiple talents to benefit their teams.
On any given day, Josh Harrison of the Pittsburgh Pirates could be lacing up his spikes to play infield or outfield positions, or serve as the designated hitter. He’s been a major component of the Pirates’ recent resurgence as a perennial playoff contender. Over the course of last year he played three infield and two outfield positions. Harrison has been more settled in at second base this season, as a result of the Pirates dealing last year’s regular second baseman Neil Walker to the Mets during the offseason. His value was recognized in 2014 with an all-star selection.
Ben Zobrist, currently with the Chicago Cubs, has been another super utility guy during his career. He played nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, before spending time with both Oakland and Kansas City last season. He was a key part of the Royals’ World Series championship team, as he played all three outfield positions, as well as third base, after being acquired at the trade deadline. As a free agent over the winter, one of Zobrist’s requirements for the teams he was considering was that he would have one primary role on the roster, versus splitting time among several positions. The Cubs committed to that requirement and consequently Zobrist has been playing second base, with only a few appearances in the outfield so far this season. Zobrist has been a two-time all-star during his career.
Brock Holt played every position except pitcher and catcher for the struggling Boston Red Sox last season, and he managed to earn an all-star spot on the American League roster. This season he is still making the rounds on the field at multiple positions for a much better team.
In previous years, players such as Nick Punto, Jerry Hairston Jr., Mark DeRosa, and Willie Bloomquist, made big impacts on their respective teams as utility players.
Looking further back in baseball history, if there were such an honor as Utility Player Hall of Fame, it would have to include Billy Goodman. He won the American League batting title with a whopping .352 average for the Boston Red Sox in 1950, while not holding down a regular position. Coming up to the big leagues as an infielder, the 24-year-old was competing against veterans Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Vern Stephens for a regular job in the Red Sox infield. In the outfield the Red Sox had Dom DiMaggio and Ted Williams, so his opportunities for a regular job were limited. However, Goodman wound up appearing in 110 games that season, including 45 games as an outfielder, 27 at third base, 21 a first base, 5 at second base, and one at shortstop. Remarkably, Goodman finished second in the league’s MVP voting that season.
Most aspiring baseball prospects don’t usually have a goal of being a utility player. However, it is a niche role that has become more valuable to teams. As demonstrated by several players over the years, high-performing utility players can gain comparable recognition as their teammates who have regular starting jobs at a position. They also allow their managers to sleep better at night.