(Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons, thanks to Keith Allison)
With the Angels signing of Shohei Ohtani, attention has been brought to the idea of positional versatility more than ever. Baseball executives are beginning to seriously explore the idea of finding players who can pitch, hit, and play the field on a regular basis. It’s not just Ohtani clamoring to be used in this type of role. Recent draft pick, Brendan McKay, who pitched and played first at Louisville, expects to do the same while in the minors for the Rays. Hunter Greene a pitcher/shortstop drafted by the Reds, is regarded by scouts as a tremendous talent at the plate and also has a fastball that can reach 100 mph. Despite the reservations about cultivating these types of players in the majors, position versatility has always been a key component throughout all levels of baseball. While college tends to be where positioning becomes more specialized, there are many examples of players who have either changed positions or learned a new one in order to increase their overall value and lifespan in the major leagues.
One example that comes to mind is Rick Ankiel. The story of Ankiel is intriguing in that he started his professional career as a starting pitcher with the Cardinals. His career as a pitcher seemed promising as he finished 2nd in ROY voting in 1999. However, Ankiel soon lost his control to reasons unknown and by 2001 Ankiel was done as a pitcher. While that would normally be the end for most players, Ankiel was able to reinvent himself as an outfielder with a good bat and rocket for an arm. As a result, he found himself back up with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2007. The story of Rick Ankiel shows how versatility can prolong careers and increase a players value has he was able to remain productive in the majors through the 2013 season.
Brock Holt of the Boston Red Sox is another example that comes to mind when emphasizing the importance of versatility. Holt was primarily a shortstop at Rice but during his tenure with Boston, started at every position other than pitcher and catcher. His defensive ability, as well as the flexibility he provides in the Red Sox’s lineup has prolonged his career. There are even less drastic examples including players like Cal Ripken and Alex Rodriguez moving from shortstop to third base due to age or positional needs. There is no doubt that Ripken and A-Rod prolonged their careers and allowed the Orioles and Yankees to capitalize on their positional versatility.
Ohtani possesses a versatile skill set, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Babe Ruth. At the same time, he could very well be the last of his kind if he succumbs to injuries or poor performance as baseball might be hesitant to use a player in this manner again. However, I don’t believe this should hinder the development of players such as Rick Ankiel and Brock Holt because versatility not only benefits the player themselves, but also coaches and teams as a whole. Having a versatile skill set can be a players way of getting a college scholarship or even a chance at the major league level. Some players, on the other hand, are adamant about only being used as a pitcher. However, many of these same players, who in reality might be only the 4th or 5th best pitcher on a team, would be surprised how far it might take them to simply request to their coach to try playing another position. At the end of the day, hard work, as well as the willingness to be flexible and learn another position, could be all it takes to get an opportunity at the next level.