We all know baseball continues to change yearly (throwing the protocol stuff out the window). Fifteen years ago, replay didn’t exist, no one knew what Sabermetrics were, and starting pitchers going seven was the norm. Now analytics take over the game, and it’s like playing the board game “Risk” daily for teams. One other aspect of the game-changing is player versatility playing in the field. Playing the field with versatility was an aspect that scouts viewed as a unique niche. Now it’s turning to almost a requirement to make a ball club unless you’re a Mike Trout or a catcher.
I recall talking to guys like Danny Santana and Nick Solak in the past two years. While the mindset is that they’ll do what it takes to play every day, the hope is playing one specific position daily. Danny said in January 2020 that he did want to play at one position while Solak embraced his role as a utility man. Look at Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Despite the shortened season, Kiner-Falefa trended positively in 2020. Not only did he win a gold glove at third, but offensively he trended upward after staying in mostly one position (stayed on the left side of the infield). Now that Isiah is the Rangers’ primary shortstop, his natural position, there’s more concentration to enhance the skills at the dish.
I’m not riding the train of utility guys are bad. There’s been a bulk of utility players in MLB history whose bread and butter is playing all around the field. Ben Zobrist’s career was based him on being a utility guy. Other notable utility players in MLB history include Chone Figgins, Craig Counsell, and even going back to the 60s and 70s with Cesar Tovar. Of course, the Rangers’ manager knows a thing or two being a utility guy. While Chris Woodward played a bulk of his games at shortstop (328 games), he also logged 94 games at second, 83 at third, 49 at first, 20 in left field, and 13 in the other outfield positions across a twelve-year big league career.
Does the versatility become a distraction to the players’ ability at the plate? “It’s part of the game,” Chris Woodward told me. “It is an issue, but that’s part of being a baseball player.” Woodward elaborated that guys that anchor to one position do have more expectation, and therefore it’s a balancing act of evaluation. From the offensive side, Woodward took that as a new and fresh challenge during his playing career and felt that the offense shouldn’t suffer. “You have to be able to compartmentalize your job,” Woody said to me. “If I’m a left fielder today, then I’m a left fielder. But when I take that glove off, put my batting gloves on, my job is to be a productive force in the batter’s box. That doesn’t change whether I play the same position or not.”
The Rangers’ roster is a versatile bunch. Even their two gold glovers from 2020 made their major league debuts at different positions than where they anchored in 2020. Joey Gallo debuted as a third baseman in 2015, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa debuted as a second baseman in 2018. Now you’re seeing guys like Rougned Odor getting a shot at third base with another utility man in the conversation, Charlie Culberson. Meanwhile, Ronald Guzmán is getting looks in the outfield, much to Joey Gallo’s delight. “It’s like a baby giraffe out there.” Joey responded with a chuckle, “I can’t wait until he gets a ball, and he can try to throw somebody out. He might throw it into the seats because he’s so excited about it.” Joey added that Guzmán can move around due to how quick he is and run down the baseball.
— Alex Plinck (@aplinckTX) March 3, 2021
We’re moving to the point of baseball where unless you’re a catcher, playing more than one position is a must. Hell, Isiah Kiner-Falefa may win back-to-back gold gloves at two different positions. It’s a new trend and something that baseball players once again have to adapt to. Versatility is not a niche anymore. It’s a requirement.
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