The Value of Versatility

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

Not so long ago, when a player was described as a utility man, it was a fancy way to call a backup on the bench, and not exactly a term of endearment by any means.  But thanks to Big Leaguers like Ben Zobrist, Marwin Gonzalez, Brock Holt, and even pitchers like Andrew Miller or Nate Eovaldi, the players who can play all over the diamond or handle various roles on the mound have quickly become some of the most valuable guys on their team’s roster.

Think back to the World Series last October, and it’s clear to see how valuable Red Sox starters Rick Porcello, Chris Sale, and Game Three super-human Eovaldi were coming out of the bullpen en route to winning that title over the Dodgers.  The Royals and Cubs both won rings in large part because of Zobrist’s ability to be penciled in anywhere with grass or dirt under his feet, so much so that he was named MVP of the 2016 Fall Classic. This past off-season, Gonzalez signed a 21 million-dollar contract with the Twins, and Holt was an American League All-Star in 2015.

Follow any Major League team in this day and age, and you’ll quickly see how many lineups are determined by matchups against the opposing club’s starting pitcher.  And watch any Big League game, and you’ll quickly see how many late game pinch-hit/pinch-run and defensive decisions are made to put a team in the best position to win. Utility players have quickly become some of the most important pieces of a team.

The game has adapted to appreciate players who can play all over the diamond, and you should, too.  When someone can play multiple positions, they are giving their manager multiple options of how to use them.  It’s never too early for players to prepare themselves for that day when a coach asks them to move to a spot outside of their normal comfort zone.

Here are just a few ways they can bridge that gap and shorten the learning curve:

Catchers can take fungos anywhere on the infield to become comfortable fielding ground balls. That practice will actually help them become more athletic behind the plate specifically on tag plays at home.  Infielders should move to the outfield during batting practice and simply work live off the bat to get a feel for reading and tracking fly balls.  Doing so will improve their ability to handle pop-ups when they move back on to the infield dirt.  Outfielders should always bounce around to all three spots to become interchangeable in centerfield or at one of the corners.  And lastly, all players can always throw on some gear and catch pitchers’ bullpens.  Every team needs an emergency catcher if in the event the two guys on the roster go down in one game, and anyone who can reliably catch in a game quickly becomes one of the most valuable on the entire roster because the position is the most challenging on the field.
Learning how to play a secondary position doesn’t mean you have to become a gold glover at a spot you have very little experience.  Rather all you need to be is reliable.  Reliable and trusting enough to make the routine play, to throw the ball to the correct base, and to be in the right spot on the field when you are supposed to be there.  Knowing all of the responsibilities of multiple positions will turn you into a smarter player in the grand scheme of the game.

So, the next time a coach asks you to play somewhere outside of your primary position, thank him; he is creating some versatility for you that will turn into value when you learn how to play just about anywhere, any day.

Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.