Brock Holt already has played six positions this season. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Versatility is becoming more and more important to a team’s success.
Of the 13 position players on the Red Sox‘ 25-man roster, six have played multiple positions this year, and over the course of their careers 10 have played more than one position.
This movement goes down to the Triple-A level as well. Of the 12 position players on the active Pawtucket roster, nine have played multiple positions this year, many three positions.
“The benefit is the more options the manager has. At the major league level with good players, the better chance the manager has to fill out a deep lineup 162 times a year,” Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said. “If you have a bunch of guys on your roster that are more bound to one position or two, it just gets harder to get through the season and create deep lineups, good matchups, and then it’s also a huge advantage in terms of managing players’ health throughout the season.
“Brock Holt could play seven, eight places on the field theoretically. If there is a time when a player is dragging for whatever reason you can play Holt one day and still give yourself a chance to get good production and not get a drop-off. It might help the team, but also helps the player who gets the day off. There are all sorts of things for a potential benefit.”
The most notable versatile player in the organization is Holt, who has played six positions this year and last year played every position in the field besides catcher and pitcher.
There are others like Mookie Betts who was an infielder until early in the season last year when he was switched to center field, Xander Bogaerts, who added third base to his repertoire in 2013 and played both positions last year, and Hanley Ramirez, who is playing left field after spending his whole career on the left side of the infield.
“It’s huge,” Betts said of being able to play multiple positions. “You get to get in the lineup every day and, like I said, you create value for yourself and the team as well. That’s huge.”
“Being versatile gives you a better opportunity I think, especially to break in, especially if you’re blocked at a certain position,” PawSox first/third baseman and left fielder Travis Shaw said. “Being able to play two or three different spots, if someone goes down you have more of a chance to get called up.”
WHEN DOES IT START?
Generally, once players come to the organization they have at least some experience playing multiple positions — infielders other infield positions and outfielders other outfield positions. As an organization, the Red Sox try to keep the multiple positions going at first, but when a more drastic change is called for (i.e., switching from infield to outfield) that happens more in the upper levels of the minors.
“I don’t think there is any specific time,” Cherington said. “I think we’ve started to do it more probably in the minor leagues, but typically at the upper levels, Double-A, Triple-A. I think when a player first comes into the system, they are always usually going to play a couple positions, like an infielder at least as a shortstop we’re always going to expose to second, third — maybe one other spot early on. If they are an outfielder, a center fielder, they are probably going to see some time on the corners. That would probably happen from the beginning, but more aggressive movement generally doesn’t happen until the upper levels of the minors.”
The general rule is to expose players to as many possible positions while you can in the minors, as players are still developing and it’s about individual development, not necessarily team results. Once a player reaches the majors and experimenting starts, then actual meaningful games can be impacted.
Another asset is the coaches in the minors. Minor league coaches are paid to teach, and more often than not have more patience and the time to work with players on developing skills at new positions. At the major league level there just isn’t as much time due in part to travel issues, and coaches have other things to be concerned with sometimes.
“I think that’s why it’s perfect to do at the minor league level because you have people who are paid to teach and that is what they are doing,” Cherington said. “We’ve got good teachers in the minor leagues that have the time to spend with these guys. It might be early work one day at second and the next day in center field. We’ve got people who can do that and have the time to do it. That’s why it’s a good time to do it.
“Once you get to the big leagues, there’s more going on. You have to work harder to find time to get your work in. Travel is more difficult and all that stuff. It’s important to get that stuff started in the minor leagues.”
Betts made his transition from second base to center field first in Double-A, but also continued it once he moved up to Pawtucket. He gives all his coaches a lot of credit.
“They played a huge part,” he said. “They actually did a lot — I went out every day and worked on a lot of different things.
It requires more work on the players’ parts, but for the ones who are serious about making it to the next level, putting in the extra time is part of the job and part of what it takes.
“Obviously you’re going to put more of a priority on the one you’re not as comfortable at,” Shaw said. “For me, I am pretty comfortable at first base, so there has been a lot more work at third this year than I have done at first. It’s just trying to even that comfort level. That way you feel confident at both spots.”
WHAT MAKES A PLAYER VERSATILE?
Clearly, playing multiple positions isn’t for everyone. Some body types don’t allow for multiple positions, and some players don’t have the mentality to do it.
The word most used by players who are playing multiple positions is athletic.
“You have to be athletic and you have to be talented to do it,” said PawSox middle infielder Deven Marrero, who now is playing second base in addition to shortstop. “Not many people can play different positions and play them well. We pretty much have everyone in our lineup and play a different position every night and play it well. It’s very important.”
“It’s awesome because we have a lot of great athletes that can do a lot of stuff,” he added. “It’s important and it’s cool seeing all these guys go to different positions and do well and want to do well. We don’t have any guys that are mad they are playing different positions, they are excited because you know that is an opportunity for them to get to the show.”
Cherington knows versatility isn’t for everyone and is rather difficult. Generally the minors give evaluators and executives the chance to see how a player is doing and if it is something that can happen at the next level.
“They have to have the skills to move around the field, first of all. It’s easier said than done,” he said. “You can tell a guy to move to another spot — in order to be an asset in the big leagues you have to do that well, play multiple spots functionally well. That’s easier said than done, and if you’re not doing it in the minor leagues, if you’re not starting that process, I just think it can be hard for it to happen in the big leagues.
THE BROCK HOLT EXCEPTION
There are always exceptions to rules, and Holt is the exception to starting the versatility process in the minors. In the 2014 season the Red Sox had 14 hitters make trips to the disabled list at one point or another, and number of other players who had nagging injuries all season long and needed a day or two off.
This is where Holt came in.
“It was more of a necessity,” Holt said. “I started doing it last year and we just had guys go down with injuries, I was up here and I was swinging the bat pretty well so they just asked me if I would be open to taking some fly balls and moving around. I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ To have an opportunity to stay in the lineup as much as possible I was open to do it and it worked out.”
While ideally the Red Sox would have liked to have had Holt get some work in the minors — or even spring training — at other spots on the field besides the middle infield, he become one of those exceptions.
“The exception is Brock Holt,” Cherington said. “He moved around a little bit in the infield a little bit in the minor leagues, but as far as the outfield stuff, he never had done that ’til last year. He’s probably the exception to the rule. He’s just a baseball player, a good athlete — he was able to do it on the fly. I think most guys probably benefit from a little bit more practice.”
It’s paid off, as Holt committed an error last Thursday that ended an impressive display of defense. He had combined for 168 chances in 476 2/3 defensive innings at six positions (2B, 3B, SS, LF, CF, RF) since his last error on Aug. 2, 2014.
WHAT IS THE MINDSET LIKE?
Being asked to play a new position may be taken as a negative by certain players, but these players in the Red Sox system who have been asked to do it have the attitude of taking it as a compliment, as the organization sees something positive in them.
“For me it was a positive. I felt like they wanted to keep me in the lineup so I took it as a positive,” Holt said. “You go out and try to do what I can. I saw it that the more positions I can play, the better chance I had to being on the field.”
“It’s a good thing, that’s for sure, because it makes you more useful to a big league club,” Marrero said. “You can play this position, that position, so down here they want to make you as versatile as possible as they can so if you do get a chance to go up there you’re ready to do all those different things and you can fill more spots rather than just fill one spot that you’re good at. Being versatile is a big deal and is very important, especially in this game now because there are so many versatile players in the big leagues that stay there for a long time just because they can play many positions very well.”
Having drastic changes in positions pay off in Betts and Holt not only is beneficial for the organization and its success, but also for the players who may follow. The coaches now have a better idea of the process, and the players see that it can work and it can ultimately be a huge break for a career.
“I think you look at Mookie and Brock to see how that has helped create an opportunity,” Cherington said. “I think you learn something from their reactions. You hope that the reaction is going to be, ‘OK, this gives me a better chance to create an opportunity in the big leagues, help the big league team win.’ You hope the reaction is a positive one. We’re trying to increase opportunity and help guys.”
Being versatile and playing multiple positions is a movement that is likely to be around for awhile, and the Red Sox and their players seem to be in sync about it.
“They don’t do it just to do it,” Marrero said. “They know what they are doing. They have been doing this a very long time. Whatever they say goes, and there is a good reason behind it. There is no bad reason behind it. There reason is to make that ball club up there the best as possible. If that is what it takes, that’s what it takes.”