Swiss Army Players

Photo Credit: USA Today

by: Rich Daniels

As much as the game of baseball remains timeless to fans, it still manages to evolve from time to time. 

These days statistical metrics are all the rage. Everything is tracked and analyzed to within an inch of its life and the resulting strategies manifest on the field. Short stint relievers, launch velocities, and defensive shifts are all the rage in the modern game.

Specialization is a big trend particularly in stocking major league bullpens with as many as eight or nine relievers. While deep bullpens create match-up problems for the opposition, the extra pitchers on the roster thin the bench of position players. Some teams go through short stretches with as little as two position players on the bench. Enter the utility man who plays four or five positions or even the rare breed that plays up to seven positions to become a Super Utility Man. 

The concept of the super utility man is a relatively recent development with its roots in a team that doesn't even exist anymore...technically. 

Bert Campaneris was the starting shortstop for the Charlie Finley owned Oakland A's that dominated the American League in the early 1970's. He led the league in stolen bases six times, went to six All-Star Games and was the lightning accompanying the thunder of Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando and Joe Rudi for the three-peat World Series Champion A's. Prior to that, however, the A's resided in Kansas City and hadn't grown to championship caliber.

Always looking to sell more tickets, Finley found creative promotions to put behinds in seats.

One of those gimmicks was having a player play an inning at each position in one game. The man for the job was the highly athletic Bert Campaneris. On September 8, 1965, the young Cuban logged an inning at each position including facing five batters as a pitcher. Cesar Tovar, Scott Sheldon, Shane Halter and Andrew Romine have since repeated the feat in major league play.

The first real utility man was actually a contemporary of Campaneris named Dave Roberts. No, not the current Dodgers manager. No, not the pitcher of the same name. This Dave Roberts came right out of San Diego State in the 1972 June Draft straight to the major leagues with the San Diego Padres. That first season saw Roberts play second, third and short with one appearance as an emergency catcher.

The 1973 season was easily his best with 21 home runs and 11 stolen bases as the primary third basemen for the Padres. After that, Roberts' offensive production fell off and he was relegated to a bench role. That's when his athletic ability and adaptability came to the forefront. Roberts spent the next eight seasons covering every defensive position except for pitcher for the Padres, Rangers, Astros, and Phillies. He even DH'd a little while with Texas. Roberts major league tenure ended in 1982 with career marks of 49 home runs and 27 stolen bases. Much more significantly, however, Dave Roberts demonstrated the value of versatility and the advantages it offered a manager.

These days utility players are the norm rather than the exception.

Twenty-nine of the thirty major league teams have at least one player that has manned four or more defensive positions. Fifteen teams have two or three players to turn the trick. Leury Garcia of the White Sox, Charlie Culberson of the Braves, Yadiel Rivera of the Marlins, Scott Kingery of the Phillies and Ian Happ of the Cubs have each appeared at six positions this season.

The real utility warriors are the players that lead the way by checking in at seven positions for their teams. Detroit's Niko Goodrum, Houston's Marwin Gonzalez, Seattle's Austin Romine, Milwaukee's Hernan Perez, Pittsburgh's Sean Rodriguez and the Dodgers' Enrique Hernandez have all stepped in at seven positions for their teams so far this season. The top super utility man, however, has to be Boston's Blake Swihart. He, too, has occupied seven different positions for his team but his service includes appreciable appearances behind the plate. The Rangers' Isiah Kiner-Falefa gets honorable mention status for having catching duties included among the five positions he's played.

Players like that allow for the eight or, sometimes, nine man bullpens of modern rosters to exist without penalizing their team offensively or defensively. 

Super utility men have become a critical need for teams in the modern game. Just ask the Royals or Cubs about the value Ben Zobrist brought to their World Series runs. Watch a team trot out six or seven relievers in a game and know that such a high number of strategic situational changes wouldn't be available without a powerfully deep bullpen accommodated only by sacrificing one or two position player roster spots which merge into the team's utility man. The super utility role has also been the door that opened stardom to players like Zobrist, Cleveland's Jose Ramirez and St. Louis' Matt Carpenter.

Super utility men have escaped the shadows of baseball anonymity and become integral parts of the managerial strategy. 

Indeed, these enigmas in baseball spikes have become so woven into the fabric of the everyday game, that they are now often taken for granted. And they add to the fun for fans who can watch for where their team's member of the "Glove Of The Day Club" will turn up next. 

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