How the Utility Player Role has Changed in Today’s Game

Utility player changed
(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The utility player has changed in major league baseball since the 1980’s and even the 1970’s, but nothing has been as dramatic as what we have seen over the past five to seven years. With the way the game has transformed recently, baseball’s latest emphasis is to have more pitchers on the roster. Teams find they can no longer can rely on the “utility” player but now seek the “multi-position” or “super utility” player.

Old Utility Player

Originally, utility players of the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s were veteran players who could play all the infield positions except first base. These players were never considered top-level hitters, but were late-inning defensive replacements used in extra innings or as pinch runners. The utility player might get a spot start on occasion if there was a day game that followed a night game, or when a double-header occurred.

Utility Players to Remember

The utility player role has changed since then. Some popular utility players from the 70’s through the 90’s include Rick Auerbach, Alan Bannister, Hubie Brooks, Vic Harris, Rance Mulliniks, Jose Offerman, Jose Oquendo and Cesar Tovar. While not considered power threats, the utility players were popular with their teammates. Although their names normally did not get the top billing, they did get acknowledgement for their contributions to a team’s success from their teammates.

Position Evolves

Baseball in the 2000’s became more about power hitting and scoring runs. Teams had to add more pitching, and the utility player role had to evolve. Some teams have 12 or even 13 pitchers. That smaller bench means more significance is now placed on position flexibility and even durability.

Teams now need players who can play multiple positions—both infield and outfield—and play each of them well. They are now more than “utility” players; they now provide the flexibility teams need by being able to take most any position at any time. They need to be able to start at one position one day and then start at another the next. Utility players even need to be able to move from position to position when they start a game.

Now Popular

The utility player role has changed into a multi-use or super utility player situation as well. They are as popular as some of the teams’ big-name stars. Guys like Brendan Donovan, Brandon Drury, Wilmer Flores, Whit Merrifield, and Chris Taylor are utilized in this position. Even fans are beginning to realize what the super-utility player means to a team. With the ability to play multiple positions, these valuable players can fill any number of voids a team may have.

Some can even play catcher as part of their collection of positions. All 30 clubs now have at least one “super-utility” player who can provide good-to-great defense at a handful of positions.

Moving Guys Around

Having the super-utility player around keeps everyone fresh over the 162-game season. It allows the manager more flexibility when deciding on his daily game plan. This is what has made these players so important in the new reshaping of baseball. A team striving for a playoff spot needs their star players to take the field every day. A team also needs guys who can play like the stars on an as-needed basis in any position at a moment’s notice.

Important Part

The utility player role is as crucial as ever, and those players are an important part of any team because they provide valuable depth and versatility. Guys who can play any position have always been valuable, but perhaps no more valuable than they are in today’s game.

They provide a team great options. Since these players frequently can play a variety of positions, and play them well, managers can put them in different scenarios. When teams are given this type of unique player, they are able to win games in a variety of ways.

While multi-use and super-utility player’s contributions can be essential to a team’s success, these tend to be selfless guys. They may not be super stars, but their contributions can be invaluable. Having a couple of these players on a team can could make the difference come playoff time. They deserve all the accolades that the manager, coaches, and even fans give them.

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James Marshall

James Marshall

Jim Marshall has lived in Phoenix, AZ for 50 years. He is an avid baseball fan, but enjoys all of Arizona's local sports teams, including Diamondbacks, Suns, Cardinals and Coyotes. In addition to the four major sports, he closely follows the Phoenix Mercury, Arizona Rattlers and Arizona State Sun Devils. Jim's passion for baseball continues beyond the field as he is an avid collector of baseball memorabilia. His favorite athlete of all time is Baseball Hall of Fame member Harmon Killebrew. In addition to watching, reading and talking about sports, he takes time to travel and appreciate the great state of Arizona with his lovely wife, Patti.

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