The term “utility player” isn’t the most flattering if you are a big-league player. It is a tag that not too many players want to be given.
Yet, having a strong utility player is often important for teams that contend for pennants and World Series trophies. Whether a utility infielder or outfielder, managers need versatile players capable of coming off the bench to play when needed.
A team full of utility baseball players isn’t ideal, but having two to three solid ones on the bench is perfect for any team’s chances of winning a championship.
Oftentimes, a utility player doesn’t get the headlines, at least not consistently. However, from time to time, fans and the media will take notice of the important role they play. So, what is a utility player in baseball?
Defining Utility Baseball Player
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One of the questions a lot of young players have is: Is being a utility player a good thing? This is a difficult question to answer, and before it can be fully answered, the position of a utility baseball player must be defined.
A utility baseball player, also known as a utility man, is a player who can play different defensive positions. Utility players must be adaptable and fit into the position a team needs them to play. A utility player may not play consistently, but when they get onto the diamond, they may play a different position from game to game.
For example, a utility infielder may play second base to give the usual second baseman a day off. The following day, the same utility man may move to third base to fill in due to the regular man at the hot corner being injured.
In addition, the utility man may not start and be called upon to fill in as a defensive replacement late in games. Perhaps the player isn’t strong with the bat but is a Glovesmith with the leather. Furthermore, a utility player may move around to different positions throughout a game. Tactical defensive changes could force the player somewhere else on the diamond.
The Importance of a Utility Man
A team with a strong utility player, or two, provides several possibilities for a baseball manager. A utility man allows for different defensive strategies to occur.
Before both the American and National Leagues used the designated hitter, the role of the utility man was greater on the Senior Circuit. However, the addition of the DH in the National League takes away some of the need for game management and strategy late in ball games.
Still, a strong utility baseball player can be utilized late in games as a replacement to improve a team’s defense. Major League Baseball teams have 26-man rosters. Eight of those players are starters with specific positions. Meanwhile, there is a five-man starting pitching rotation with around seven to eight relief pitchers. That is around 20 players.
Major League Baseball teams will then need to flesh out their rosters with six additional players. These players will need to be capable of playing one or two positions.
For example, the 2022 New York Mets roster has 13 pitchers, with five of those being starters. The team carries two catchers at all times. The roster features five infielders and five outfielders. Some of those infielders and outfielders are capable of playing multiple positions, which adds depth to the squad.
So, what is a utility player in baseball? It is only one of the most important roles on the roster.
How to become a utility player?
The best way to become a utility player is to simply play multiple positions from a young age. By playing multiple positions, players have the chance to become versatile and adaptable.
There is an old cliche that says, “A master of everything is a master of nothing”. This saying isn’t accurate at all, as a strong utility player is extremely valuable to a big-league baseball team. Some big leaguers have made careers being utility players.
A lot of top players even began MLB life as utility players before getting a starting position. Javier Baez was a utility player before becoming the Chicago Cubs shortstop. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bip Roberts was an important player for the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds. His ability to move around the diamond helped those teams win games.
Perhaps the greatest utility man in MLB was Pedro Guerrero. Capable of playing the outfield, third base, or first base, Guerrero was a major part of the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals franchises. Thanks to Guerrero’s ability to play multiple positions, he won a World Series in 1981 and was selected to five All-Star Games. Guerrero was even voted the 1981 World Series Most Valuable Player.
What traits make a good utility man?
Now that we know that being a utility player is a good thing, let us explore some of the traits that make a handy utility man. The most important trait is being able to play multiple defensive positions strongly. A utility man needs to be adaptable and capable of moving around the diamond without there being a drop-off in performance.
Secondly, a utility man needs to be able to carry the bat. He doesn’t need to be a 20-home run-a-season player or have a lot of power, but the player will need to chip in with the wood.
Some managers will favor left-handed utility players. This gives the manager the chance to stack the line-up with left-handed hitters to face right-handed pitchers.
Being a left-handed hitter may improve a utility player’s chances of getting picked up by a big-league club over a right-handed hitter. Managers may select a left-handed hitting platoon player over a right-handed starter if they struggle against certain pitchers.
Along with being adaptable, a good defensive player, and a capable hitter, utility men must be able to come off the bench at a moment’s notice and perform to a high degree. Some players need time to get into the rhythm of a game. Utility baseball players do not have that luxury.
What is a utility player in baseball? Well, a utility player is a key member to any big-league ball club. Plenty of big-leaguers have made a career of it. All Major League Baseball teams need a utility man. It isn’t a glamorous job, but a valuable one nonetheless.