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March 25, 2005
2005--Setting the Stage
The 27th Man
Over the last 20 years, baseball has gone through many changes in strategy, few more obvious than the trend towards specialization. "Closer" became a part of the baseball vocabulary in the 1980s, and it's been followed by such species as set-up men, LOOGYs (Left-handed One Out GuY) and defensive specialists. Add to that list the multi-positioned super-utility player, such as Tony Phillips, Jose Oquendo and, most recently, the Angels' Chone Figgins.
In the past, the designation "utility player" was an almost derogatory term for a player who would probably never contend for a starting position, a nice way of calling a guy a bencher. Today, it's a logical reaction to 12-man pitching staffs. By having one player who can fill several roles, the bench becomes longer, making Figgins the 25th, 26th and 27th man on the roster on those days he's not starting.
The superutility player isn't a new phenomenon. As long ago as 1876, there were professionals who played at least 20 games at three or more positions. Research by Clay Davenport dug up the first instance of this. A player by the name of Amos Booth played 24 games behind the plate, 24 games at third base and 22 at shortstop, making him the pioneer of the superutility player. Others such as King Kelly, Pete Browning and the first player to get in 20 games at four positions, Doggie Miller, closely followed Booth. Note that most of these players played catcher in addition to a couple other positions. That's not a skill that has made it to the modern day; catchers are almost always just catchers now.
The superutility player has been around for more than a century, but just as rosters have stayed around 25 men deep--according to research by Clifford Blau--specialization has overtaken those rosters. This has been seen most in the use of matchup relievers--LOOGYs and ROOGYs, if you will--which has subsequently led to the need to use more roster slots on pitchers. Expanding the role of set-up relievers to specific innings in addition to the use of matchup relievers furthered the trend. Where ten pitchers were once enough, the five-man rotation and deeper, six- or seven-man bullpens limited the spots available for bench players.
In the modern era, rosters have been built to both create more power on offense while diffusing the power with relievers. The roles on a smaller bench became sharply defined, usually following a pattern of second catcher, extra infielder, extra outfielder, a hitter who bats opposite the extra infielder and outfielder, usually a left-handed hitter, and a defensive specialist with speed. In the AL, the need for a designated hitter forces teams to look for their matchup pinch-hitters within the ranks of their bench players, forcing a tough choice balancing the needs of the team, platoon advantages and injury risk.
The lack of flexibility this creates is apparent on a team like the 2004 Angels. The team dealt with a significant run of injuries, yet was able to keep players in their defined bench roles because of one factor: Chone Figgins. Figgins would play 92 games at third base, 54 games in center field, 20 games at second base, 13 games at shortstop, two games in right field and one in left field. Instead of being limited to the backup catcher (Jose Molina), infielder (Figgins), outfielder (Jeff Davanon, for the most part), and DH (a combination of players, led by Tim Salmon and whichever injured player needed to be off the field on a given day), the Angels in effect had a bench that was expanded by at least two players. Both Figgins and DaVanon are switch-hitters, making matchup management easier as well.
Of course, Figgins was not on the bench much. His positional flexibility allowed the bench on many days to be merely "normal," a worthwhile and valuable feat for a team so beset by injuries. This function of "graduation"--where superutility players fall into a starting role at one of their positions--is typical, yet often has a deleterious affect on the team. Since "superutility player" is not a role that players are generally groomed for, and in fact is more an accident of opportunity than the result of planning, there is seldom a proper replacement. While it's clear that a player wants to be a starter, both for stability and the likely economic benefit, teams themselves have often done themselves damage by allowing the graduation.
For instance, take the likely bench construction of the 2005 Angels, wherever they list their home. If healthy, it's likely that the bench would include the normal four positions: Jose Molina (backup catcher), Robb Quinlan (infielder), DaVanon (outfielder and switch hitter), and Juan Rivera or Casey Kotchman, depending on whether Mike Scioscia wants another lefty bat on the bench. The loss of Figgins' flexibility from the bench--he'll be playing second base in the absence of Adam Kennedy--forces tough decisions, since Figgins could approximate the slots of both Quinlan and DaVanon, making room for more hitting or perhaps an extra pitcher for a tough run.
Little is being done in the way of developing this type of player, despite the obvious advantages. Superutility players usually fall into three categories, all of which could be easily taught. The first is the speedy, up-the-middle player who can play both sides of the keystone and a credible center field, while functioning as a late-inning pinch-runner as necessary. The second is the corner thumper, playing first and third and both outfield corners. These players tend to have defensive deficiencies and live more by their bat, their positional flexibility more of a way to find them at-bats than a real on-field advantage. The final archetype is the "plus catcher." This type starts as a backup position player, usually in a corner slot, then learns to function as a third catcher. The Dodgers experimented this spring with using Jason Grabowski in the role.
With Figgins graduating to a starting position, at least at the start of the season, and other former superutility players like Melvin Mora and Brandon Inge also settling into starting roles, are there other superutility players on the horizon? The most likely to be noticed for the role is the Cubs new middle infielder/oufielder, Jerry Hairston Jr.. He comes from a long line of versatile Orioles, such as Mora and their current superutility player, David Newhan. Ryan Freel is expected to see time at several positions across the field for the Reds, while Eli Marrero is expected to return to catching duties in Kansas City, requalifying him for the title. The Padres and Pirates both have two qualifiers, opening up their rosters to very interesting permutations. The Pads feature Eric Young and Xavier Nady, while the Pirates return their tandem of roaming hair farmers, Craig Wilson and Rob Mackowiak. Perhaps the most pressure will fall on Pedro Feliz, who will start the season taking most of his at-bats in Barry Bonds' left-field spot before returning to his baseball bedouinry.
Of course, I can't go through a discussion of such roster expanding superutility players without mentioning Brooks Kieschnick. Players who can function in the Babe Ruth role, credibly pitching and hitting, are so rare as to barely mention discussion, but exceptionally valuable when they can be found and used properly. One only wonders if Rick Ankiel or John VanBenschoten might find their way to the major leagues by following this route. As teams seek an edge, finding a legal way to expand a roster by two, even three players could be the next smart move.