The Dodgers Win With Versatility

The Los Angeles Dodgers are the most flexible team in baseball. How they got there is indicative of smart thinking and how the role of utility player has changed.

by Mike Piellucci
Aug 27 2015, 5:35pm

Photo via Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Dodgers have been low-key mediocre since May, currently a blasé 47-46 over three months and change after rampaging their way to a 22-10 season start.

The starting pitching—aside from the obvious Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke juggernaut—has been mediocre; the bullpen is only marginally improved from last year's railway car explosion; and then there's the offense, somehow treading water despite Joc Pederson hitting a cool .154 since July 1 and Yasiel Puig only recently uncovering leads to the whereabouts of his missing bat.

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Adrian Gonzalez and Yasmani Grandal have been stellar but perhaps the greatest reason why the team is getting by at the plate is a collection of talents that would have been considered spare parts less than a decade ago. Some of them are beneficiaries of the super utility player phenomenon, others trade on the growing acceptability of platoon bats, but each is indicative of how the sport is evolving into a game where flexibility is essential – even for its foremost spender. Versatility is in vogue throughout baseball, and no team does it better than the Dodgers.

Justin Turner has become one of the most lethal offensive weapons in baseball. Photo via Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

"I don't think it's necessarily something new," argues Justin Turner, currently entrenched at third base but something of an infielder-at-large in the macro sense. "I think baseball's been this way for a really long time and there's always been those supporting cast and those role guys who go up to do big things and help teams win."

Strictly speaking, Turner is correct. Baseball teams have always depended the likes of Tony Phillips, Lenny Harris, and Dave Roberts, players who can line up throughout the field or pick up a bat or take off for second base whenever their managers call on them. That's especially true within the National League, with its frequent double switches. But while flexibility has always been important, for so long it was also compartmentalized, a garnish instead of a stock ingredient in the everyday lineup. Until a decade or so ago, a utility infielder referred exclusively to the likes of Alberto Callaspo, Turner's recent Dodger teammate who dents memory foam harder than he does a baseball. They played everywhere, because they weren't good enough to play just one position. There will always be a place for that kind of player; he just isn't a factor in any pennant races.

Turner is type of player who can make a difference, and it is a testament to how much baseball has changed that the gingery mashup of Paul Bunyan's beard and Paul McCartney's hair ranks among the game's most potent offensive weapons. He arrived in Los Angeles two winters ago after being discarded by the Mets, and last year became the surprise of the Dodgers' season by racking up a 157 wRC+, or producing 57 percent more offense than the average player. This year, his 147 wRC+ ranks 12th among hitters with at least 320 plate appearances, just behind Giancarlo Stanton and directly ahead of names like Jason Kipnis, Jose Bautista and Manny Machado. He has done all of this while fielding every infield position in each of the last two seasons.

Turner is a super-utility infielder, in other words, the increasingly essential player who grafts a useful bat with the ability to competently field several positions. It's the role that Ben Zobrist made famous, and it's become important enough that the Royals forked over two quality pitching prospects to fetch Zobrist at this year's deadline despite him being 34 and an impending free agent. Kansas City was hardly the only team in on him; it seemed as though half the game's glamour franchises made inquiries.

The other half, meanwhile, had already spliced their own imitations. Pittsburgh's Josh Harrison was a 2014 All-Star who finished ninth in NL MVP voting. The Giants' Matt Duffy has hit his way into the NL Rookie of the Year conversation mainly by playing third base but he's also fielded every infield position. Boston's Brock Holt fielded seven positions convincingly enough to trick Ned Yost into naming him an All-Star this season. The Cubs have jumpstarted their lineup by exploiting Chris Coghlan's ability to pass himself off as a second baseman.

"It certainly helps your roster quite a bit," says Josh Byrnes, the former San Diego Padres general manager who now serves as the Dodgers' Vice President of Baseball Operations. "Every night you're trying to create your best offensive matchups. Most nights, 162 games in 185 days, guys are banged up so having a guy who can cover a lot of scenarios, a lot of spots. It makes your roster feel a lot deeper."

For his part, Turner credits Chone Figgins with popularizing the role. In 2004, four years before Zobrist's breakout season in Tampa, Figgins played second, third, short and all three outfield positions in 638 plate appearances for the Angels. The next year, he finished inside the top 20 in AL MVP voting while appearing in at least 39 games at three different spots. "I think he kind of paved the way for utility guys to shake that label," Turner says. "I guess I'm grateful for him for kind of opening the door for us."

It was Figgins who coached Turner on the finer points of the role when they were teammates last season with the Dodgers, like how to focus on fielding one position every day instead of trying to partition his time across each infield spot. Every super utility does the job a little differently — an infield-outfield hybrid like Harrison is a separate breed from an infield specialist like Turner, who improves his game by studying the players who man one spot versus his multi-position counterparts. If he's fielding second, for instance, he's much more apt to spend time with Howie Kendrick than bone up on Zobrist's latest exploits. It's working: According to Fangraphs, he's been worth 3.5 runs more than the average defensive player.

All by himself, then, Turner is an enormous feather in the Dodgers' cap. Not only did they successfully mint their own model of baseball's trendiest player type, but theirs hits like a single-position superstar. For most franchises, this would represent a singular victory in the push for a more versatile roster. What makes the Dodgers especially remarkable is that Turner is only the beginning.

Hernández has gone from a trade throw-in to a vital piece for the Dodgers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers have potentially two more super utility players alongside Turner. Kiké Hernández is the established one, a 23-year-old Puerto Rican who looks like something of a Turner clone in his first season with the team. Acquired in the offseason in a trade that sent slap-hitting speed merchant Dee Gordon to Miami, he's put up a 135 wRC+ with a .195 ISO, numbers that may ultimately dip but are still far beyond anything expected from the 5-11, 170-pound waterbug. Hernández has a jarring platoon split – he's hitting lefties three times as well as righties – but this is a player who has fielded second, short and all three outfield positions with aplomb, and who was particularly instrumental in a recent stretch that saw both Turner and Kendrick shelved.

When Kendrick went down two weeks ago, the club could have called up super prospect Corey Seager to fill his hole in the lineup and shuffled players defensively. Instead, they made 21-year-old Jose Peraza the youngest debuting Dodger since Adrian Beltre. Acquired from Atlanta at the trade deadline, Peraza was regarded as a top-50 prospect while playing exclusively shortstop, and has since added second base and center field to his repertoire. With such facility at the middle positions, odds are he'd more than hold his own at any corner, too. He's back in the minors now but stands a solid chance of returning when rosters expand to 40 players.

As if that weren't enough, there are the players who are limited to "only" two to three positions. Like Hernández, Scott Van Slyke mauls lefties, and is a solid fielder at both corner outfield spots as well as first base. Alex Guerrero offers the unusual combination of third base and left field; while he has all kinds of plate discipline issues, he can drive the ball from Chavez Ravine to Santa Monica on those times he does make contact. Upon acquiring Chase Utley this week, Dodgers general manager Farhan Zahedi made specific mention of the six-time All Star working out at third base in addition to his traditional spot at the keystone. Even Grandal, arguably the best catcher in the game right now, can play first base in a pinch.

And, Turner says, "What gets overlooked is the outfielders. Usually in the outfield, most guys can play at least two, if not all three. Yasi[el] can play all three. Joc can play all three. Scott can play all three. [Andre Either] played all three. Even Carl [Crawford] can play center if we needed him to – he hasn't done it in a while but I'm sure he can do it. I think a utility role gets mislabeled as just an infield-type position where the outfielders makes it easier for the manager as well to be flexible in that."

It's not surprising to hear Turner say that this is the most versatile roster he's played on; with the possible exception of the Cubs, no other team even comes close. Which, given how prominent multi-position players have become, makes it fair to wonder whether the 2015 Dodgers are among the most versatile teams in history.

Or, for that matter, the team who has depended the most on those chess pieces. Among players with 170 or more plate appearances, Turner leads the team in wRC+, with Hernández and Ethier – the only Dodger besides Hernández to field all three outfield spots this year – checking in at fourth and fifth. Van Slyke is ninth, and still performing better seven percent better than the average hitter in a relatively down campaign.

At the very least, the Dodgers are a case study in baseball progressivism. Whereas the late nineties Yankees invested their financial might in a portfolio of single-position All Stars, the Dodgers have distributed their wealth and playing time up and down the active roster. Every player plays, and the ones who can handle more than one spot vastly outnumber those who can't.

"I don't think there's a stigma attached it," says Byrnes, and that is no small thing. For so long, adaptability was considered something of a glass ceiling in baseball. Now, it amounts to empowerment.

Turner, Hernandez and Van Slyke have been responsible for plenty of Dodger celebrations. Photo via Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This all begs an obvious question: How did the Dodgers develop this roster in the first place? Or, more to the point, how will everyone else in baseball attempt to keep pace?

If there truly is a blueprint, Byrnes isn't unfurling it. The closest he comes is admitting that there is at least some kind of mandate within the organization to prioritize flexibility. "I think encouraging our staff to have imagination," he says. "More than ever, it's, 'OK, what can this guy do on the field and how in the minors can we expand his versatility as best we can?'"

For now, it seems as though they are more adept at recognizing it within other organizations than their own. Among the Dodgers' most frequently used multi-position players, only Van Slyke was drafted by the team – Turner, Hernández, Peraza and Ethier were acquired in trades, while Guerrero was signed via international free agency.

Then again, with Seager — baseball's top overall prospect — being groomed to play both shortstop and third base, perhaps the best is yet to come.

There's still so much unknown, and even the Dodgers themselves aren't sure where the eventual endpoint is for how versatile a team could become. Byrnes thinks that it eventually will be the pitcher-hitter model that Micah Owings and Brooks Kieschnick attempted with limited success. "A guy who takes 100 plate appearances and pitches 50 innings," he clarifies. "That's probably the last frontier." Hernández, at least, agrees with him. "Zack Greinke, where when he's pitching, you really can't tell if there's a pitcher in the lineup or not... I really believe there's a guy who can break out of the bench and then come in and throw the seventh or the eighth inning. I really do believe that could end up happening one day."

The more immediate picture concerns how many utility players can one team regularly field. "If you've got six Kiké's on your team, you can probably be fine," says Van Slyke. "You'd be fine sustaining that a whole year and sticking guys wherever. But, obviously, if you field one position, you're going to make plays that guys who step in once a week aren't going to make."

It's a balancing act, in other words, and that also extends to player satisfaction. Byrnes might be correct that there's no longer a stigma attached to being a utility man but that doesn't stop players from wanting the stability of a full-time position to call their own. Hernández, for instance, is not shy about hoping to settle in as either a second baseman or a shortstop. "But right now the only spot there is for me is to be a role player, so that's what I'm doing," he adds. One could debate whether Hernández is selling himself and the players of his ilk short, but there's also this: Figgins' and Zobrist's combined career earnings of $74.8 million are more than $10 million less than the contract Ethier signed two seasons ago to be a starting corner outfielder.

How much Zobrist nets in free agency this winter will be the next step in elevating the position's pay grade to a level commensurate with its tactical value. It could go a long way toward making players like Hernández embrace versatility as its own end product. Until then, he'll relish the opportunity that the sport's evolution provided him, while still striving for more.

"I'm in the big leagues," he smiles. "You can't go up from here. I got to the big leagues as a utility player, so if down the road I get my chance to play every day I better make the best of it so I can become an everyday player. If not, then utility it is."

Things can certainly be better for Kiké Hernández. But for players like him, they've also been a lot worse, too.

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