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Team sports are filled with long-established positions: pitcher, quarterback, center, forward, goalie. Yet some have new names for players that just don’t fit into the old mold of positions, such as a “swingman” in basketball, a “scatback” in football, or “utility man” in baseball.
What the heck is a utility player, and is being one a good thing? The “utility” position in baseball is for players who can play a number of positions when needed. Utility is another word for useful; a utility player is very useful for a manager, to give him options according to each game’s matchups. So it’s good for a manager to have at his disposal.
Being a utility man can be a good thing for the player, too. It can build the player’s value to other teams in a number of areas, among them defensive flexibility, and an instant injection of speed. For minor league players who don’t quite hit well enough to remain in the big leagues, being a utility man can help him stick there.
Baseball’s utility spot is unlike the other positions in that it is not a defensive place on the field nor designated hitter. It’s not an official position a manager puts on a scorecard, but more of a term designated to players who have abilities so they can serve the role.
A definition of utility is “the state of being useful, profitable, or beneficial.” That alone can indicate that being a team’s utility player, or known throughout the league for the role, is a good thing.
Uber Utility Players in Major League Baseball
The utility “position” has probably been around in the MLB for a long time. It’s just that in more modern times it was given a name. Off the top of our heads, you mention utility player, and these standouts come to mind:
- Derrel Thomas. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda took a player with a history of daily play at shortstop, and despite his offensive limitations, plugged his defensive skills into any spot that needed to be filled. From 1979 to 1983, Thomas could be found anywhere on the field except pitcher. In a stretch in 1980, Lasorda found all of his catchers unavailable to play. So Thomas ~ all 160 pounds of him ~ played the demanding position for 5 games.
- Tony Phillips. Oakland Athletics manager Tony LaRussa appreciated the ability of Phillips to play outfield along with 2nd base. That he walked a lot, had above-average foot speed, and even moderate power at the plate helped.
- Luis Sojo. Not quite by design but because he couldn’t hit enough to crack packed lineups, Sojo ended up a super utility man who contributed just enough offense to get by. In his career he played for playoff teams like the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners, but in particular champion New York Yankees teams of the late 1990s.
- Brock Holt. Became the first utility player to be named to an All-Star team (2015), for the Boston Red Sox. That season, defensively, Holt played 2nd base in 58 games; 35 games somewhere in the outfield; 33 games at 3rd base; 11 games at shortstop; 8 games at 1st base; and a game as designated hitter.
- Ben Zobrist. A good hitter with power and speed, Zobrist was moved wherever his manager needed for a Tampa Bay Rays World Series team, and championship squads for both the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs. Zobrist was a good hitter who remarkably built up his value with his ability to play multiple positions.
Aside from defensive versatility, utility players in baseball are valuable to try to stack a lineup against either a right-handed or left-handed pitcher. It is known that right-handed batters do not hit as well against right-handed pitchers, and same for lefty hitters against lefty pitchers.
This is why some baseball players get “platooned,” meaning he plays mostly against pitchers who throw from the opposite side as he hits. Managers want more of those players in the batting lineup, or to bring in against a new reliever.
Some of the best utility players also were switch-hitters, which made them usable at any time regardless of the pitcher, including Thomas and Zobrist.
The reason people might ask if being a utility player in baseball is a good thing is, getting known for serving the role well could hold them back from being a starter. A manager might not place this person in the same position every day, instead favoring the flexibility to put him wherever needed ~ even if that means starting games on the bench.
Players in the MLB want to play in as many games as possible to help with salary negotiations. Because a utility player is needed in various roles that can be unpredictable by the game, he often does not play in almost every game like a starter.
However, good utility players (like those mentioned above) end up playing in a majority of games over a season. For instance, in his All-Star season of 2015, Brock Holt of the Boston Red Sox played in 129 out of 162 games ~ almost 80 percent!
Additionally, some utility players would not be in the MLB if not for their value as a “Swiss army knife” ~ a tool for the manager to use in a variety of ways.
For baseball teams, having a good utility player is a very good thing. It’s like having an above-average player ready for any position, which provides the manager with flexibility. However, the utility man does not have a set day-to-day spot on the field defensively.
A good way to describe baseball’s utility player is the saying in construction work, “Jack of all trades; master of none.” Meaning, good at a lot of things to help succeed, just not an expert at any one of them.
The utility player is capable of playing more than one defensive position. These players are able to give the various starters a rest; replace a starter due to injury or illness; be added to a batting lineup to stack hitters from 1 side of the plate; be inserted late in a game to provide improved defense.