The utility player has made low-profile appearances on rosters throughout baseball history, but only recently fans, media, and ownership have come to appreciate the full value of their versatility. After the Cubs had so much success with utility players Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez in their title run last year, many teams are choosing to develop young talent into utility players instead of having them specialize in one position. While there are many Hall of Famers who played multiple positions over the course of their careers, most of them switched positions not because they were equally good at multiple positions, but because they were good hitters who became defensive liabilities at their previous position. My hope is that that will change within the next 20 to 25 years as some of baseball’s top talents are groomed for the new super-utility role.
Before we marvel at these young and exciting players of today and tomorrow, let us take a moment to reflect on the super-utility men of yesteryear.
Melvin Mora debuted as a Met in 1999 and immediately was used all over the field, playing six positions in 66 games that season. Over the course of his career, he had six seasons where he played at least three different positions in the field. In total, Mora appeared in 908 games at 3B, 194 at SS, 174 in LF, 158 in CF, 48 at 2B, 29 in RF, 27 at 1B. Only pitcher and catcher eluded him. He had a career combined +3.1 DWAR, never having a season below -.8 DWAR. In addition to being a huge asset in the field, Mora was a 105 OPS+ hitter over 6,158 career plate appearances.
While Juan Uribe’s six-foot, 245 lb physique may have looked out of place on a baseball field, he was a true gem of a fielder, accumulating +15 career DWAR across five different positions. Over the course of his entire career, he appeared in 917 games at SS, 644 at 3B, 228 at 2B, 4 at 1B, and 1 in CF. His value as a fielder is what kept him around for so long; even though he hit 20+ home runs on four separate occasions, he was a career 87 OPS+ hitter.
If you are a hardcore baseball fan, you may know that Polanco is one of two players to win a Gold Glove at multiple positions (two at 2B and one at 3B). However, I think very few people realize that he ranks first all-time in fielding percentage at BOTH of those positions! In addition, if he had only played 214 more innings at SS (equivalent to just under 24 games), he would have ranked 6th all-time in fielding percentage there as well! In addition to playing in 1,027 games at 2B, 751 at 3B, and 122 at SS, he appeared in 5 games in LF and 1 at 1B and finished his career with +18.1 DWAR, good for 65th all-time. In addition to being a superb fielder, Polanco was an accomplished contact hitter as well, batting over .300 five times and .297 for his career.
A central part of the 1950s New York Yankees, McDougald could be one of the most overlooked players of all time in terms of Hall of Fame consideration. He never received higher than 1.7% of the vote despite being a part of five World Series championship teams and averaging +4 WAR per season over his 10-year career. A large part of that value came from his play in the field, where he played in 599 games at 2B, 508 at 3B, and 284 at SS. Over the course of his career, he accumulated +14 DWAR, never having a DWAR under +.4 and having at least +1 DWAR in 8 of his 10 seasons. In addition to his elite defense, McDougald was a career 111 OPS+ hitter.
The first and only Hall of Famer on this list, Biggio almost didn’t make my cut because he only had two seasons where he appeared in at least seven games at more than one position. Despite not displaying much fielding diversity within seasons, though, Biggio accumulated 1,989 games at 2B, 428 games at C, 255 games in CF, 109 games in LF, and 2 games in RF over his career. At the time, he was regarded as an above-average fielder, earning four Gold Gloves at 2B. His -3.9 DWAR is somewhat misleading because he played for so long after his defensive prime due to being a Hall of Fame hitter. Over his 20-year career, Biggio earned Silver Sluggers at both catcher and second base, and had a career OPS+ of 112.
Like Biggio, Pete Rose didn’t display spectacular fielding diversity within seasons, but over the course of his career the Hit King appeared in at least 73 games at every position in the field except pitcher, catcher, and shortstop. To be exact, he appeared in 939 games at 1B, 673 in LF, 634 at 3B, 628 at 2B, 589 in RF, and 73 in CF. That’s a lot of games. While his hitting accomplishments are well documented, few people realize that Pete Rose actually won two Gold Gloves during his career as well. Whether he deserved them or not is another story (-14 career DWAR) though to his credit, he had a modest -0.1 DWAR during his first 12 seasons while playing 2B and OF. Despite not being the finest fielder of the bunch, and though he is not a Hall of Famer like Biggio, Pete Rose, aka Charlie Hustle, is the quintessential super-utility player, championing the gamer-ship that all utility players must have to earn the title “super.”
Professional statistical modeler who counts pondering the game of baseball as a favorite, lifelong pastime.