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February 25, 2016

Pitching Backward

The Superest Utility

by Jeff Long

What does it really mean to be a super utility player? I’m not talking about Ben Zobrist or Ryan Flaherty here. I’m talking about someone who can literally play any position the manager might need him to. What does that kind of player look like?

Four players have ever played all nine positions on the field in one major-league baseball game (assuming you ignore Will Ferrell, which we will do here). Bert Campaneris was the original, doing so on September 8th, 1965. A little over three years later, Cesar Tovar would accomplish the same feat for the Minnesota Twins during their final home game of the season. Fast forward more than 30 years and Scott Sheldon would accomplish the feat in a September game where his Texas Rangers got blown out by the Chicago White Sox. Last but not least, Shane Halter played all nine positions for the Tigers less than a month later, even scoring the winning run in the process.

One might argue that playing all nine positions in a single game is more parlour trick than a sign of a true super utility player. This argument would seem to be buttressed by the fact that each of these games came in September or October, when the season was all but decided for the teams in question. I won’t argue that fact. In fact, I aim to celebrate it.

We know that four non-Will Ferrell players have played all nine positions in a single game. The interesting thing is that the population of players who have played the maximum number of positions over the course of their career is not much bigger than those who have accomplished the feat in one game. There’s also another component to consider since the American League adopted the Designated Hitter in 1973.

Since 1973, nine players have played all 10 positions over the course of their career. Those players are:

Player

Career Length

From

To

Positions Played

WARP

Shane Halter

8

1997

2004

10

4.9

Cesar Tovar

12

1965

1976

10

31.8

Steve Lyons

9

1985

1993

10

1.0

Bill Pecota

9

1986

1994

10

6.0

Cookie Rojas

16

1962

1977

10

3.6

Don Kelly

8

2007

2015

10

-0.3

Bert Campaneris

19

1964

1983

10

50

Scott Sheldon

5

1997

2001

10

0.1

Jake Elmore

4

2012

2015

10

-0.7

There were also two pre-1973 players who managed to appear at all nine positions over the course of their careers. It’s worth noting that the limitations of the data we have from early baseball makes record keeping hit or miss, but these two players are definitely on the list:

Player

Career Length

From

To

Positions Played

bWAR

Jack Rothrock

11

1925

1937

9

3.9

Bernie Friberg

14

1919

1933

9

4.1

That leaves us with 11 total players who managed to play at every position available to them at the time they played. One of those players is still employed by a major-league team, albeit on a minor-league deal.

Among these 10 players, there are certainly tiers of super utility-ness. The easiest way to break it down is to look at players who weren’t one silly game away from being merely mortal; sorry Bert Campaneris. Among the initial 11, only two made more than one appearance at all nine/10 positions during their careers:

Player

Games at C

1B

2B

3B

SS

LF

CF

RF

DH

P

Shane Halter

2

55

68

262

262

27

16

24

14

2

Steve Lyons

4

115

118

229

6

59

237

43

21

2

You could make the argument that Cookie Rojas deserves to be considered as well, but he only made one appearance as a pitcher. Not only did Halter and Lyons take the mound, they did it twice! Rojas also spent the vast majority of his career at one position—second base, which could be considered a positive or a negative in terms of super utility-ness. I’d argue that it’s a negative since the attribute we’re celebrating here is the varied skill set of the players in question.

***

Don Kelly’s career is winding down, which means that we can more fully appreciate his heir apparent: Jake Elmore. Elmore had played all 10 positions by the end of his second full season, which remarkably only took 74 games.

Elmore’s age 26 season was one fit for a super utility man extraordinaire. On August 19th, 2013 Elmore played on both sides of the battery, pitching an inning after catching four of the first seven. That season would mark the first time Elmore would play seven new positions, having only played the two middle infield positions the prior season. Not only did he manage to pitch and catch in the same game, but he somehow found his way completely around the diamond. On August 14th Elmore would round out the infield, two days before checking off both battery positions. Another 20 days or so and Elmore’s tour of the three outfield positions was complete, while his first experience DHing came in the process.

In fact, the month from August 10th to September 10th would see Elmore get his first taste of six new positions. It’s not exactly playing nine spots in one game, but it’s impressive nonetheless. In fact, Elmore has played more than one position in just eight games, which means he’s arguably the opposite of a player like Campaneris. Elmore is a true utility player who can play multiple positions, but who hasn’t relied on one fluke game or publicity stunt to make the short list of the most versatile players of all time.

Elmore is well on his way to having the well-rounded career one might expect of the super utility men we’ve highlighted above. He hasn’t played at least two games at each position like Halter or Lyons, but he has played multiple innings at every position.[i] Take a look at how his 138 career games have broken down:

C

1B

2B

3B

SS

LF

CF

RF

DH

P

Games

1

26

26

10

47

15

2

1

7

2

Innings

4.1

191.1

163.2

60.0

352.1

60.2

3.0

2.0

N/A

2.0

Elmore’s biggest problem of course is that he hasn’t been very good when he is actually on the field. After all, he’s played four seasons in MLB, but the Brewers will be Elmore’s sixth organization since the start of 2014. Over those four seasons, he still hasn’t amassed enough games to match a full MLB season, but there’s hope that he’ll get a chance to apply his unique set of skills for the rebuilding Brewers this season. We can only hope because players like Elmore are actually a pretty rare find, so we should appreciate them while we can.



[i] It’s worth noting that Elmore has pitched another 5.1 innings over four minor league stints.

Jeff Long is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

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