The ideal baseball player is changing. Long gone are the days where a big swing and a 1 for 4 performance from the 3B spot is an acceptable performance. At the same time, what was once the anomaly (a combination of hitting for average and for power, plus speed and glove skills) is now much more common.
To be considered elite in today’s game, it’s taking a more well-rounded type of athleticism that expands the toolbox beyond a specialty. Skills that even 15 years ago would be seen as less valuable to established power hitters or, critically, perceived as “pulling focus” from a primary position, are now becoming vital to perform at the major league level.
I’m going to put two specific things under the microscope: multi-position players and spraying the ball to all fields.
Rise of the super-utility player
In 2019, Ben Lindbergh of FanGraphs and The Ringer coined the term “Generation Zobrist” in response to the growing cohort of major leaguers who play two, three, four, or more positions on a regular basis. Zobrist famously played every defensive position except for catcher over his 14-year career.
The two years since that comment have only cemented the amount of truth in Lindbergh’s observation. Nearly every team has at least one player whose defensive skills allow them to play all over the field. These so-called super-utility players are adding flexibility to lineups and create opportunities to stretch baseball’s unwritten rules even further.
One of these unwritten rules is around the shift. With the extreme defensive positioning in place to disrupt hitters’ natural tendencies, it’s a great tool to force batters to hit against the grain. Historically, that’s something they’ve had trouble doing. More on that in a bit.
What’s curious about the shift is that it also requires the defenders to field balls from unfamiliar positions. It’s become so common to employ the shift that it’s not uncommon to see configurations like third basemen in right field. The strategy has created a need to develop fielders’ skills outside of their primary position just to pull it off.
Case in point: the 2020 Dodgers had the highest shift rate in baseball. Not only did they win the World Series, but they held left-handed hitters to the second lowest on-base average in the league (.255 to the Padres’ .218). Looking at their lineup, their success isn’t surprising, but it’s outside of their star power. The Dodgers have utility to their advantage, and they’re not the only ones.
From Ben Lindbergh’s piece:
“According to data provided by Baseball Prospectus, 29 percent of minor leaguers with at least 100 games played in 2018 appeared at more than two positions, and 13 percent spent time at more than three positions. Both of those figures are record highs since at least 1984, when BP’s comprehensive minor league data begins.”
The Dodgers’ Chris Taylor has played six of nine defensive positions, only missing pitcher, catcher, and first base. He has split his work fairly evenly between infield and outfield, with 252 appearances among the three outfield positions and 338 appearances in the infield. His teammate Max Muncy is right there with him, though with most of his versatility showing in the infield between first, second, and third.
Free agent and longtime Red Sox super-utility man Brock Holt has made a career of being solid at every position. He’s only missing an appearance behind the plate to complete the full set, and all while only committing 36 errors through over 4900 defensive innings.
The surprising rise of San Diego’s Jake Cronenworth has been news since he broke into the league at the beginning of the 2020 season. He racked up starts all around the horn at first, second, third, and short before finishing the campaign as the Rookie of the Year runner-up.
Taking a page from his Hall of Fame dad’s book, Toronto’s Cavan Biggio is turning into a utility force for the Jays squad. He’s shown versatility and his trademark baseball IQ at first, second, third, and all three outfield positions.
One common criticism of utility players is that they spend so much time learning new positions that they lose the hot bat. That might have been true once upon a time, or it might be more of a reflection on players who try to carve out a career for themselves based on their defensive talent alone. The new generation of multi-position players, though, are no slouches at the plate.
Taylor carries a career line of .263/.335/.444 and won the 2017 NLCS MVP, while Muncy was a 2019 All-Star with two consecutive 35 home run seasons (’18 and ’19). Holt has maintained a respectable 162-game average of .268/.337/.369 over nine seasons.
The newbies are right there, too. Cronenworth raked in 2020, notching a .285/.354/.477 slash line and holding fourth place in the NL in both doubles (15) and triples (3). Biggio also made a splash at the plate with above-average pitch selection that put him on the offensive leaderboard. He finished the season ninth in the AL in on-base percentage (.375), third in doubles (16), and second in walks (41).
And it’s this skill that’s front and centre in the new MLB offensive standard. Strong defence will get a player in the door, but a smart and fundamentally sound hit tool is what makes a star. That’s what we’re looking at next.
Using the whole field
To the casual fan, success at the plate looks like it can be boiled down to one idea, “see the ball, hit the ball.” But what that actually means for batters is that they have to do one thing really, really well: pitch selection.
Having great pitch selection makes a bunch of things possible. First, batters have the ability to identify whether pitches are close to the strike zone or not. This gets batters ahead in the count so they have a better chance of getting something in the strike zone the next pitch. The more pitches that have to be thrown, the higher the likelihood of a) the pitcher making a hittable mistake, or b) drawing a walk.
Finally, using pitch selection and spin recognition can upgrade a batter’s approach in powerful ways. If they can pick up on breaking ball spin out of the pitcher’s hand and react, they have a better chance of getting good contact on a ball that’s designed to generate weak contact. A great swing on a tough pitch can sometimes be better than a good swing on a mistake. Getting the bat on something that’s breaking or on the fringes of the plate often means the batter isn’t pulling it the way they would with a meatball.
The stats tell all in this scenario. The game is driven by statistics so much that probability-based defensive alignments make it tough to get a ground ball through the infield. Plus, the elite speed of outfielders allows them to track down fly balls that stay in the park. So, a lot of the time, batters have to shoot the ball to the opposite field or dump a looper into the outfield to get on base against a probability-led defensive alignment.
When you combine smart swing decisions and the ability to put good swings on pitches designed to get outs, players get on base with more frequency. There doesn’t need to be a deadlock between a batter’s ability to make good contact and their ability to reach base.
Now that we’ve got this idea down, the punch line is going to make more sense.
Established power hitters use the whole field; stepping into the box expecting to pull the ball just isn’t a successful strategy anymore. Sluggers like Barry Bonds and David Ortiz had no problem smashing the ball to the pull side. It just wasn’t part of their game to hit for average or to alter their swing to get on base. It was big fly or bust.
Just a decade or two out of the heavy hitter era, there are some great examples of players whose overall performance is really impacted for the worse by their inability to hit to the opposite field.
Take Joey Gallo, for example. In his six-year career to this point, he’s notched 120 home runs. His tally for singles? 122. The lefty power bat draws the shift every at-bat and often falls prey to the stacked right side. These are Gallo’s outs between 2018 and 2020:
There’s a huge cluster there on the right side of the infield – classic pattern for a pull hitter trying to hit through the shift. Lots of fly balls to the outfield, too, but sparse to right field. Why? Because he just hits them out of the park instead. Here are Gallo’s hits from the same period:
Obvious power to right field, but notice the infield hits on the third base side. There’s plenty of opportunity for pull hitters to beat the shift if they can send the ball to the opposite field.
Today’s game requires hitters to hit to all fields to be effective. It’s a testament to pitch selection and a fundamentally sound swing that hitters can spray the ball around the field based on where the pitch is, not where they want to (or can) put it. And as it turns out, most of the best ones do just that.
22-year-old Nationals left fielder Juan Soto has absolutely taken the sport by storm the last few years. In 2020, his age 21 season, he led the NL in batting average (.351) and led the majors in on-base percentage (.490) and slugging (.695). For a lefty with lots of pop, he’s a testament to the new game by not being reliant on pulling the ball. His spray map shows just how well he hits to opposite field. Most of his homers have actually ended up going to left-centre.
Trea Turner is another great example from Washington as well. Something’s in the water over there. In 2020, he slashed well above the expected shortstop levels at .335/.394/.588. Though most of his home runs left the yard over the left-field fence, the spread of singles, doubles, and triples covered the whole field. It also helps that his elite speed gets him to second or third on balls to the gap. This kind of multi-pronged athleticism puts tons of pressure on the defence to be perfect without relying on too much realignment.
One last chart for good measure from first baseman Paul Goldschmidt of the Cardinals. Goldy’s a great example of a player who’s got power at a power position and still takes the ball to all fields. He’s a lifetime .293/.392/.522 hitter averaging 31 HR a season over ten seasons. There’s hardly a cluster to be found, which offers proof that even power guys can do it.
Once upon a time, the likes of Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro were the anomaly. Their power, speed, and ability to hit for average all over the field led them to stardom in an era where you were either a power guy or a base hit guy. In today’s game their approach has been adopted by players and coaches around the world, and it’s having a huge impact. Multi-tool utility players combined with oppo-field skills from power hitters make for teams that have fewer weaknesses than ever. I think that’s great news for the game.