Lately, I’ve been writing about defensive determinism, which is basically the idea that a player’s position on the defensive spectrum determines whether (and where) his team will move him on the diamond. Interestingly enough, players also typically do not move to positions that they have not played in professional baseball, save for specific exceptions (such as, that person has a bat like Miguel Cabrera or Ryan Braun, or that person was previously a shortstop). Simply stated, a team is not likely to move a player to a fielding position that he has not previously played, and that shifts him to a more difficult spot on the spectrum (for example, one would probably not move a LF to SS).
Yesterday, Curt noted the importance of roster depth to contending, and cited the St. Louis Cardinals as a specific example. Indeed, the Cardinals have an organizational knack for developing guys that can serve their team in any circumstance. Interestingly enough, the Cardinals are also quite aggressive with how they move their players around the defensive spectrum. If the Cardinals are a pure anomaly in terms of their extreme use of organizational (drafted and developed) players, they are also easily the greatest anomaly for moving players in strange patterns across the diamond.
Skip Schumaker is probably the most iconic example of a player the Cardinals moved around the diamond regardless of position and track record. For the first four years of his MLB career, Schumaker switched between all three outfield positions (CF gradually became his top OF position, after years between LF and RF). In 2009, the Cardinals started Schumaker at 2B for 124 games, despite a nearly total lack of experience in the infield. The Cardinals trained Schumaker as an outfielder in the minors, save for six games at 3B. After 2009, Schumaker remained a 2B in the MLB, while also serving some time at various outfield positions.
Schumaker left the Cardinals after 2012, but the club continued their strange 2B tradition with Matt Carpenter. Carpenter’s 2013 breakout occurred during his first professional season at 2B, where he started 128 games. Carpenter received minor league training primarily as a 3B, but the Cardinals also had him work as a 1B, RF, and LF at various points in their system. Carpenter already had a profile that suggested he could work several different positions in the MLB, but it was mainly as a “true corner” player (1B-3B-LF-RF). With Kolten Wong graduating to the MLB, Carpenter’s stay at 2B will probably be shorter than that of Schumaker, but it’s not any less bizarre.
Ultimately, three of the core members of the Cardinals played at “strange” positions in 2013 (or, positions without minor league training). Yadier Molina made the common C-to-1B switch in his second year, and the Cardinals rested Molina at various points during the 2013 season, too. Pete Kozma has switched positions at several points in his MLB career, but the Cardinals used their minor league system to train him for many different positions. Since Kozma played RF in the minors, and also is primarily trained as a SS, his move to LF in 2013 is not terribly odd. In general, Molina and Kozma follow the logic that players from the center of the diamond can move to corner defensive positions. More importantly, nearly a handful of the Cardinals’ organizational starters featured minor league careers with service at multiple positions:
|Cardinals||Year of Position Switch||2013 Positions||Minors||Note|
|M. Carpenter||2nd/3rd yr.||2B-3B-1B-RF||1B-3B-LF-RF||Carpenter DNP 2B in minors|
|A. Craig||1st year||1B-OF||1B-LF-RF|
|T. Cruz||1st year||C-3B||C-1B-3B||Cruz also played “UTILITY” role in first year|
|D. Descalso||1st/3rd yr.||SS-2B-3B||IF||Descalso has also played 1B in MLB|
|R. Jackson||1st/2nd yr.||SS-3B-2B||2B-3B-SS-LF|
|R. Johnson||6th year||C-P||C-LF-RF||Johnson has pitched with NYM & STL|
|P. Kozma||1st/3rd yr.||SS-LF||2B-3B-SS-RF||Kozma DNP LF in minors|
|Y. Molina||2nd year||C-1B||C||Molina DNP 1B in minors|
|B. Peterson||1st year||LF-1B||1B-2B-3B-LF-RF|
|T. Wigginton||1st year||1B-LF-3B||LF / 1B-2B-3B|
By contrast, the Milwaukee Brewers moved several players around the diamond in 2013, but those moves were mostly due to their first base emergency. In this case, it is evident that although the Brewers have almost as many “multiple-position” players as the Cardinals (Milwaukee boasts eight, the Cardinals ten), Doug Melvin and the organization do not radically use flexible regulars to build their batting order. Indeed, Braun’s move to LF occurred because his bat was too important to the club (and his 3B defense too poor), and his RF move may have occurred due to the organization’s current position of labor strength due to Braun’s suspension in 2013 (which also spurred the emergence of Khris Davis). Otherwise, the Brewers’ multi-position players are mostly bench or depth players, save for Jonathan Lucroy.
|Brewers||Year of Position Switch||2013 Positions||Minors||Note|
|Y. Betancourt||8th year||IF-LF||SS-2B||Betancourt DNP 1B/3B/LF in minors|
|J. Bianchi||1st/2nd yr.||3B-SS-2B-LF||2B-3B-SS-LF||Bianchi began as a SS|
|A. Gonzalez||15th year||SS-1B-3B||SS||Gonzalez DNP 1B/3B in minors|
|S. Halton||1st year||1B-OF-3B||1B-3B-LF-RF|
|B. Lalli||1st year||1B-C||P-C-1B-2B-3B-LF|
|J. Lucroy||4th year||C-1B||C||Lucroy DNP 1B in minors|
|M. Maldonado||2nd year||C-1B||C-1B-3B|
|J. Prince||1st year||LF-3B-RF||2B-3B-SS-OF|
Notably, since the Brewers hired Ron Roenicke, their clubs have been serviceable (or better) in the field (save for 2012). Over this course of time, the Cardinals have had quite a successful club without maintaining an efficient defense. This shouldn’t necessarily be surprising, given the extent to which they move players around the diamond (and train their players to work at different positions); the Cardinals are also typically an offense-first ballclub.
One might add “flexibility” as a virtue to an MLB roster, alongside “depth.” Yet, the recent Cardinals organizational core shows quite a radical example, rather than a norm. One might question whether their approach to finding the most suitable fielding position for their regulars in order to present a strong offense is one of the reasons for their success. Ironically, as the Brewers’ front office, analysts, and fans debate potential 1B options, the Cardinals have five years of oddball 2B and flexible fielding arrangements to build from. Now, one only need to debate whether this flexibility was one of their reasons for success. Similarly, does the Brewers’ fielding rigidity keep the club from fielding its best possible roster?
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.