MLB Deep Dive: Analyzing The Value of Defensive Versatility

In terms of strategy, no game has shifted more in the past decade than baseball.

We’re well aware of the increase in strikeouts, pitchers not pitching a third time through the order, and other various ways the game has changed. However, in my opinion, there has been one change that hasn’t garnered enough attention: slowly but surely, baseball is becoming a position-less sport.

Simply being able to play one position is not sufficient. Rather, teams are training their players to be as flexible as possible, which makes sense for a variety of reasons. With teams carrying more pitchers, for instance, having players who can fill multiple roles is important. Meanwhile, being able to play multiple positions is critical for roster-building; it allows teams to pursue offensive upgrades in any way possible, and also always them to respond to injuries, or other sources of adversity during the course of a 162-game season.

Despite being such a noteworthy aspect of roster construction, there have not been many attempts to quantity defensive versatility. Since defensive versatility is dependent of what the team asks from a player, this makes sense. However, where is the fun in that? Today, I will be attempting to come up with a method to quantify versatility. The goal of every front office is to find undervalued players on the open market, and by quantifying versatility, that is mine as well!

Defining Versatility

What qualifies as being versatile?

Per Google, the definition of versatility is the “ability to adapt or be adapted to many different functions or activities”. Thus, the first aspect of versatility is obvious: you have to play multiple positions.

Yet, is simply being able to play multiple positions sufficient? In that case, you’re not really defining who is the most versatile, but, rather, who was asked to play the most positions. That is not only a very bland way of looking at versatility, yet also discounts the point of it. Availability is important, but are you going to want a pitcher who can pitch 140 elite innings, or 180 below-average innings? My point is that being able to be a quality defender is also important when it comes to analyzing defensive versatility, rather than just who played the most positions.

By meshing quality and quantity together, we have transformed versatility from being based on opportunity to also being a skill. In the Google definition, it specifically says the versatility is an ability, and if you cannot be an average defender at a position, then did you really demonstrated the ability to adapt?

With that in mind, we now have the information we need to create a metric to quantify defensive versatility! Since we need to value quantity, we certainly need to take into the amount of positions a player plays. However, as mentioned, simply being able to just play a position isn’t a skill. If you wanted to, you could play Albert Pujols in center field, but that doesn’t make him versatility. Thus, we will take this one step further: we’ll look at the amount of positions in which a player was worth at least one defensive runs saved. By doing so, we have shifted our attention from looking at the amount of positions a player plays to the amount they do well, which is the whole point.

We’re getting closer, but there is still something else that needs to be addressed: what about players who can play a position at an ELITE level? To take this into account, let us also look at the total amount of defensive runs saved the players earned at every position they played at an above-average level. Now, players not only get credit for being an above-average defender, but also for exceptional work with the glove.

Who Are The Most Versatile Players In The MLB?

Alas, we now create a shiny new statsitic: the versatility index!

First off, we need to come up the amount of positions a player can play. Since playing four positions means either playing every infield spot or both the outfield and infield, that seems like the proper amount to be considered versatile. Also, at each position, the player’s baseline expectations is to be worth one defensive runs saved.

So, here is the formula:

(# of positions played/3) * (defensive runs saved/3)

In other words, we are multiplying the quantity above expectation and the quantity above expectation. This satisfies all aspects of our definition of versatility as a specific skill, rather than simply being put at various positions.

Let us put our new metric to the test! Between 2019 and 2020, who were the most versatile defenders in the MLB! To satisfy this, we will only look at players who played in both seasons, so Gerardo Parra and Kristopher Negron were not included. With them out of the picture, there are five players that met the criteria needed to be considered as the premier players in terms of defensive versatility:

#5: Chad Pinder, Oakland A’s

Photo Cred: Athletics Nation

Total Positions Played: 4

Total Defensive Runs Saved: 4

Versatility Index: 1.67

The A’s are a team that is really strict when it comes to not overpaying for players in arbitration, which makes sense given their light payroll. Yet, they still made sure to bring back Chad Pinder on a $2.275 million contract for the 2021 season.

Currently, Pinder is projected to be a slightly below-average hitter, and won’t “start” for the A’s this season. So, why would Oakland want him back? You guessed it! The 28-year-old has played seven different defensive positions since the start of 2019. In other words, the only position he hasn’t been asked to play since catcher.

Unfortunately for Pinder, he has rated as a a below-average defender at first base, second base, and shortstop. Thus, the quality of his versatility isn’t as strong, and mainly, his best asset is that he can play both the infield and outfield. On the surface, he isn’t a great fit for the A’s since his best infield position is third base – they have Matt Chapman – and his overall defensive numbers may be deflated by him being asked to play second base. He is best served complemented left-handed hitters in the outfield and at third base, but right now, he’ll probably complement the left-handed hitting Tony Kemp at second base.

#4: Marwin Gonzalez, Free Agent

Photo Cred: Bleacher Report

Total Positions Played: 5

Total Defensive Runs Saved: 12

Versatility Index: 6.67

Most versatility players are deemed “utility players”, and Marwin Gonzalez was one of the first players to earn that billing. He played an essential role on the Astros’ 2017 World Series championship team, and was coveted in the 2018 offseason as the perfect flexible weapon for a team to utilize.

Unfortunately for Gonzalez, his best position, by far, is left field, which is one of the least valuable positions in the defensive spectrum. Thus, his overall defensive runs above average is generally in the negatives, which has hampered his overall Wins Above Replacement. At the same time, he has proven to be competent in the infield, so that shouldn’t be held against him.

Another unique trait about Gonzalez is that he is a switch hitter. Thus, he not only provides defensive versatility, but offensive versatility as well. Since he has been a below-average hitter in the past two seasons, I wouldn’t sign him to be an everyday starter. Yet, that has never been his best role, and as a useful bench piece, he can bring value to a team. Practically every team in baseball makes sense for him, as unlike Pinder, he is far-less reliant on being used correctly.

#3: Tommy Edman, St.Louis Cardinals

CINCINNATI, OH – AUGUST 17: Tommy Edman #19 of the St. Louis Cardinals bats during a game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on August 17, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Reds won 6-1. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Total Positions Played: 5

Total Defensive Runs Saved: 15

Versatility Index: 8.33

In a way, Tommy Edman shares a lot of similarities with Gonzalez. Both are switch-hitters, are projected to be slightly below-average hitters, and can play five different positions at an above-average level.

In his rookie season, Edman was worth 3.2 fWAR. A 123 weighted-runs-created-plus (wrc+) helped with that, but he also rated out very well as a defender. This is because, unlike Gonzalez, his best positions are in the infield, which boost him with the defensive positional adjustment. In fact, his worst position is in the corner outfield, meaning that WAR will be in his favor.

Given his defense at second base, Edman can be an everyday second baseman, but not one that moves the needle. Right now, he has been deemed the ideal replacement for Kolten Wong, yet I don’t believe this would be his best fit for St.Louis. Although his WAR will be higher by being an everyday player, the team won’t be benefitting from his greatest trait, and if they wanted a 1.5-win second baseman, they could just sign Cesar Hernandez. Matt Carpenter hasn’t exactly been reliable at third base, and with them also dealing with some instability in the outfield and not having much in the way of middle infield depth in the system, having him not stuck to one position allows him to cover up various holes within their organization.

#2: David Fletcher, Los Angeles Angels

Photo Cred: Halos Heaven

Total Positions Played: 4

Total Defensive Runs Saved: 21

Versatility Index: 9.33

David Fletcher is a fun player for a variety of reasons.

For starters, he doesn’t strike out. He boasts a career 10.3% strikeout rate, and his profile as a contact hitter with no power is quite unusual in the modern game. Thus, he needs to provide value elsewhere to move the needle.

Luckily for him, the 26-year-old is an excellent defender. For the most part, he is seen as a second baseman, but between third base and second base, he has been worth a combined 15 defensive runs saved; he also has totaled an extra three defensive runs saved at both shortstop and left field.

Right now, Fletcher is seen as an everyday player, as he has been a league-average hitter with tremendous defense. However, he doesn’t quite fit at any particular spot. Second base is becoming less demanding with shifts in place, and his offense doesn’t profile at third base or in the corner outfield. Thus, he could be a decent everyday shortstop, but he hasn’t been an elite defender there, meaning that his overall value there is limited without above-average offense.

Thus, Fletcher profiles similarly to Edman. His best trait is his overall flexibility, and for an Angels team that lacks depth, he is useful. Once can argue that with Anthony Rendon at third base and with their need for pitching, Fletcher could be used as a trade chip; he is more of the finishing piece for a team than a building block. He’ll probably be an everyday second baseman for them next season, so, hopefully, his offensive improvement during 2020 will turn out to be legitimate.

#1: Kike Hernandez, Los Angeles Dodgers

Photo Cred: Los Angeles Times

Total Positions Played: 4

Total Defensive Runs Saved: 23

Versatility Index: 10.22

When I think of versatility, Kike Hernandez’s name is the first that comes to mind. Thus, I find it fitting he ranks #1 in versatility index!

The 29-year-old has the capability to play every position that isn’t catcher. Heck, he even has pitched! Unlike Gonzalez, though, he actually is at his best at up-the-middle-positions. Thus, if his used correctly, his WAR should reflect his defensive prowess. Interestingly, ultimate zone rating and defensive runs saved disagree about him severely. However, since UZR has him at around average while drs has him as elite, he probably is a slightly above-average defender at several positions. That is quite valuable.

Also, Hernandez is the best hitter of the top-five players on this list. For his career, he has a 120 wrc+ against lefties, and with his ability to thrive at several up-the-middle positions, there are a lot of potential fits for him. Ideally, he’ll complement left-handed hitters in the middle infield or in center field.

So, who comes to mind? The Red Sox are extremely left-handed, while the Twins could use a versatility player to replace Gonzalez. The Mets, meanwhile, could also use a right-handed hitting up-the-middle player, while the Diamondbacks, Marlins, Rockies, and Cleveland all could certainly use his services. Either way, he is clearly a valuable player, and I’d be comfortable giving him a multi-year deal based on the variety of skills he brings to the table.

Overview

So, those are the five most versatile players in baseball over the last two years!

One common theme from this list is that that versatility is not reflected well with WAR. For instance, if a player is asked to play a less-valuable position, they rightfully don’t earn as many defensive runs above average, but if that is what is being asked from them, is it reflecting their overall usefulness to the team?

DJ LeMahieu stands out as a clear example. Between 2018 and 2019, his defensive runs above average went down by about 10 runs- practically an entire win. Yet, it wasn’t the quality of defense that changed, but, rather, where he played. He was asked to play 262 innings at first base, but had he been regulated to second base, his 13.2 UZR per 150 games was actually higher than it was in 2018. Essentially, his WAR would’ve been higher if he wasn’t playing as many positions, which doesn’t feel correct.

Baseball is becoming a game where positional labels are going away. This isn’t dissimilar to what we’ve seen in other sports, and puts it in a better place. Now, rather than constraining a player to one specific position, the focus can be putting the best collection of talent on the field. Thus, rather than looking at teams strictly based on their projected starting lineup, we now need to look at them as a collection of 26 players.

The Rays and Dodgers were at the forefront of defensive versatility, and now, practically every team appears to value it. However, defensive versatility isn’t just about being a “utility player”. Not being limited to one position gives teams so much flexibility to improve their team, and rather you’re a small-market team that needs to quickly adapt, or a big-market team that wants to be able to use its resources to bolster the roster whenever, versatility is now a requirement, rather than a luxury. I wouldn’t expect Kike Hernandez to be a free agent for much longer, and am fascinated to see how he is compensated on the open market.

Several progressive teams now specifically target athleticism in the draft, which makes sense. The ability to be able to play a multitude of up-the-middle-positions is extremely useful, and gives the players so many different avenues to being a useful contributor to a team. In the future, I’m hoping more research can be done to adjust WAR to account for defensive versatility better, and it will be interesting to see how much farther this idea of “position-less” baseball goes in the future!

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