July 26, 2016
We live in an era of short benches. Recently, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred made news when he admitted that the league office has had discussions about new restrictions for teams around how they can use relievers (and how many). There’s nothing imminent, but Manfred cited the dominance of relievers in recent years and hinted that the move would bring a little offensive spark back into the game. Plus, we all know the complaints about innings where a team uses four pitchers. Because they have eight relievers on the roster.
The thing about an octopus bullpen is that it means that there are only a couple roster spots left for substitute position players. Four and even three-man benches are common. And that has another important effect on the makeup of a roster. Because there’s little room to carry both a dedicated backup middle infielder and a dedicated backup corner infielder. The fourth outfielder had better be able to hack it in all three spots out there. Or maybe the utility infielder is also willing to grab an outfielder’s glove and do his best out there.
Or maybe the regular position players need to be willing to move around a little bit. At the end of last season, I took a look at how many of these multi-position regulars there were in baseball. In 2015, 18 players played at least 81 games and played in at least five games at four different positions, and eight of them added a fifth position to their resume. We’ve gone beyond the days of the utility infielder who was the shortstop who had enough bat to fit on a bench and more than enough glove to fake it at second and third. Teams are starting to recognize that having a player (or five) around who can shift around makes things more interesting for the manager. I’ve estimated that the “Zobrist Effect” could actually be worth a half a win or so in the right circumstances. But first, you need a Ben Zobrist.
Well, why not grow one? Do teams actively cultivate these types of players in their farm systems? There’s plenty of incentive for them to do so. For one, even if they are being groomed to be the “third baseman of the future,” the future that we speak of might be in five years. Even if he projects to stick at third with no problem, in five years, his team might accidentally find itself with a pretty good third baseman already on the major-league roster. Might as well hedge the bet and get him some experience at second or in left field or whatever makes sense right now, even though he’s just in Low-A.
There’s also the reality of the fact that even among the lucky few minor leaguers who make it to the bigs, they are most likely to be bench/role players, at least at first, and will have to fill a utility role. So, why not train players for the reality that they will eventually face? And we know from previous research that even if a player is a highly trained shortstop, the idea that a player can simply step into second or third with limited experience—or even pick it at first—is flawed.
But then there’s another side to moving players around. Some teams don’t like to do it because players only have so much bandwidth. They are trying to learn the art of hitting, how to field one position, and how to be adult humans all at the same time. Trying to add another position or two to the mix might be overload, and frankly you don’t need to be good at two positions at the MLB level. But you’d better be handy with the bat.
So, I vote we take a look at what’s actually happening on those minor-league diamonds. Are teams getting all that they can out of their minor leaguers?
Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
Now, one token appearance at a position does not make for adequate training. When we raise the bar to 10 games or more, it’s still a respectable number—45 percent—who could boast that they had spent time at more than one position. One in eight had actually spent more than 10 games at three or more positions. Even moving the bar up to 25 games, we still see that about one in six minor leaguers had at least two positions in which they got regular action.
One thing that we do know is that the most specialized position of all is catcher. Catchers do get to spend some time wandering around without all that stuff on in the minors (and occasionally in the majors), but for the moment, we will politely excuse them from our sample.
So, here’s a question. When is it a good time to start teaching a player a second position? To get some idea of how teams approach the question, I looked at the age of a player and then how likely he was to be a multi-position guy with at least two spots with 25 games. An interesting table:
As the years progress, we see that the ranks of the multi-positional players begin to swell. Now, it’s not entirely clear what the forces are (broadly speaking) behind these numbers sliding. Early on, it might simply be that teams don’t want to overload the kids. But as the years go on, and minor leaguers start to get to that “Why are you still in the minors?” age, some of the shifting to a more utility role might be the mark of someone who is learning a few new tricks to try to stick around and make it as a utility infielder, or perhaps someone who is realizing that to even keep playing minor league ball, he’s going to need to fill a utility role on the Triple-A team. And maybe he’s happy with it and he’s the kind of guy that the team wants to keep around because he’s a good role model for the kids.
So what combinations of positions do we see? I looked to see what position a player played the most often, and then looked at what that group of players did when they were roaming around.
I doubt anyone’s surprised by this table, but I think that there are a few interesting things worth noting. Aside from catchers, the players who did the least two-timing were first basemen, possibly because first base is the last stop on the defensive spectrum, and it might just be that some guys are parked there in the hopes that enough bat will grow that it’s worth putting them on the cold corner. But the second-least-likely to be a multi-position player was the shortstop. Given that the surest path to finding a good utility infielder is to find a guy who can at least respectably handle shortstop, that’s a little surprising. Maybe teams are just hoping that their shortstops will stick there.
What is clear is that in the minors, teams seem to view their players in three buckets (four, if you count catchers). There are outfielders, infielders (2B, SS, and 3B), and first basemen. We commonly speak of a defensive “spectrum.” Indeed, our conceptualizations of value assume that defensive positions ride along a single sliding scale. This suggests otherwise. Instead it looks like there’s a defensive flowchart.
It seems that shortstops and center fielders are at the top. Shortstops flunk into becoming second basemen or third basemen, and third basemen eventually flunk into the last stop on the bus at first base. Center fielders tend to flunk into being corner outfielders, or if they can’t hack it out there, first basemen. This isn’t the sort of movement that is done frequently at the major-league level. But in the minors where the rules are made up and the score doesn’t matter and the whole point is to sort out who fits (and where) for the major-league roster, we see a different conceptualization of how things are when it comes to positioning. Our WAR metrics commonly make the implicit assumption that a player at a “lower” position on the defensive spectrum (such as right field) can be filled by a player at a “higher” position, like second base. Yet, we don’t see a lot of 2B-RF combos.
But that also means that the new breed of utility infielders who are willing to give it a go in the outfield are likely being sent to the majors with little to no experience in playing out there.
Now are there teams that place a greater emphasis on this sort of multi-positional skill? It’s hard to tell from the cross-sectional numbers, but again looking at 2015 (and this time, excluding catchers), we can see what percentage of their players were doing double duty (again 25+ games at a position).
Finally I wanted to know how these multi-positional trends compared to the past, so I pulled data from 2010.
Preparing Them for the Real World
But in a world where there are more and more spots on the roster reserved for relievers and fewer for bench players, the need for those bench players to be jacks of all trades will be stronger. Maybe the team that figures out how to leverage that sort of training will be two steps ahead. Or maybe they’ll just have more interesting looking box scores.