The great starting lineup shuffle: Dodgers lead baseball into the age of positional flexibility
You may remember the 1998 New York Yankees. Great team. Won 114 games and the World Series at the height of a stable generational dynasty. And if you remember the team, you probably remember the starting grid.
Derek Jeter was of course the shortstop. Who was the midfielder? Bernie Williams! And the second baseman? Chuck garlic.
The drill is just as smooth for the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won a record 116 games, but not for the World Series. The 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers have surpassed their high winning quotas in a year shortened by a pandemic and still share the quality of that time capsule - a familiar, enduring core of names and faces. What they don't share is the sporcle-enabled round pin and hole method to tick off how the pieces fit together.
Who is the midfielder? Well, usually ... it's mostly Cody Bellinger who is also first base but is on the IL right now. OK, the second baseman? Ugh, it's complicated.
Cody Bellinger, once a top prospect on the first base, has seamlessly added midfield to his defensive repertoire. (Photo by Harry How / Getty Images)
The advantage of flexibility
One of the major changes in baseball of the 2010s and 2020s was the move to forego iron links between names and positions. It harks back most clearly to the Tampa Bay Rays, where current Dodgers president for baseball operations Andrew Friedman was once GM and where Chaim Bloom, now Red Sox chief baseball officer, used to work. In the late 2000s, Ben Zobrist appeared in Tampa as a star utility player - what would once have been an oxymoron - and a stream of similarly amorphous gamblers has risen in his wake.
Increasingly, part of “being good” is “being able to move”. In 1980, 90 percent of position players who earned a Star Level 3 WAR spent more than 80 percent of their games in the same position. By 2010 it had dropped to 85 percent, but by 2019 only 65 percent of star hitters were routinely deployed in the same defensive slot.
Bloom said the emphasis on defensive flexibility that almost every team currently pursues helps "get every advantage out of a limited collection of players."
"I think versatility really goes a long way in how teams do it," Bloom told Yahoo Sports this spring after acquiring longtime Dodgers supplier Kiké Hernández. "It makes you harder to play against, it gives your manager more options, and it effectively extends your squad."
The Major League Baseball teams are run with a ruthless attention to efficiency that rivals the Silicon Valley titans. Unless Apple's version of high-end performance makes you spend money on a new cable plugged into a completely different one-way port, baseball teams never want to buy something new to fill a hole. Since the available players tend to be inferior (that is, winnings above replacements), the ideal way to work is to turn the organization's 10-15 best players into the combinations needed to make 162 viable lineups over the course of a summer .
No matter how good a team is, a full season requires many combinations. Those 1998 Yankees had six different players starting 120 or more games in their main position and still used 82 different orientations of defense (excluding pitchers), but that's a no-brainer by today's standards. The Dodgers used 125 in 2019 and 55 in the 2020 60 game season.
And while Friedman has a terrifying combination of flexibility and resources in Los Angeles, even his competitors have internalized the top-line lesson. Mike Hazen, GM of Arizona Diamondbacks, said his team, on which Ketel Marte broke into an MVP competitor while playing midfield and second base, mimicked the Dodgers' habit of developing multi-position stars.
"If you lose a second baseman to injury, you don't have to bring in a second baseman," said Hazen, disregarding the potential benefits. "You can take your third baseman, make him your second baseman, and get a third baseman if the third baseman is even better."
Between Chris Taylor, Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers have viable cover for every position on the field except the catcher. (Photo by Michael Zagaris / Oakland Athletics / Getty Images)
There is no second baseman
The epicenter of this lineup map shuffle is on the right side of the infield - not coincidentally the same strip of diamonds most often covered by defensive shifts.
Only 17 players, who recorded 400 record appearances in 2019, placed themselves on the second base in more than 80 percent of their games, 24 in 2000. 42 players, who had at least 15 appearances on the second base in 2019, also appeared 15 times another position, from 17 in 2000.
There are two main types of players who will advance into the positional realm. We'll name them the Muncys and the Taylors, after the two Dodgers regulars who fit the archetypes.
Max Muncy came through the miners as the third baseman who everyone thought had to move to first base. When he exploded into a mid-order presence, however, he played a good amount of second base - encouraged by fine-grained position data and relieved of some of the position's previous range requirements. He is the defender whose weaknesses can be documented so strongly that his bat stays in the line-up.
Chris Taylor was a shortstop prospect who broke out after reaching the Dodgers organization. When he came off the top of the defense pyramid, he learned the outfield. He plays all three spots, in addition to second base and occasionally shortstop. He is the defender who takes the open space wherever he is.
The complete oddball is Cody Bellinger, a rookie of the year and MVP who had a top perspective on first base. The Dodgers noticed the outstanding athleticism that made him a defender of superlatives there and tried him out in midfield. It went well.
In its purest distillation, the highest fluidity of skills on the roster can lead to such mad-cap box scores.
Dodgers Box Score as of August 4, 2020.
That happened in an April 2020 game against the up and coming San Diego Padres. The Dodgers' most direct and entertaining challengers also emulate the interchangeable star model. When they compete against each other on Friday night, it is unclear who will play which infield position for the Padres for the first game of their much-anticipated 2021 slate. Jake Cronenworth has started in every infield position with the exception of the third. Jurickson Profar made his best impression of Chris Taylor and played second base and both outer corners of the field. And off-season, Ha-Seong Kim was also used around the diamond.
The result is sort of a Where's Waldo effect when you watch MLB's biggest clashes. Yes, you know Manny Machado is third for San Diego and Corey Seager for LA. But everything goes beyond that.
A sandlot-style future
Any change in the structure of baseball essentially triggers a heated debate about whether that particular piece of evolution is good or whether it should be stopped. This is by and large impeccable. It may subtly reinvigorate our verbal tendencies to talk about players, but it mostly emphasizes positive things like the absurd variety of body types that thrive in the same sport and in the same position.
If we play the cards right, we can even benefit from the knowledge that teams now act differently. Despite the marginal, efficiency-oriented origins of the changes, they give the game the sandlot spirit of a less formal, more improvised affair.
The NBA took a parallel path towards lack of position and changed their all-star game format accordingly. The captains selected teams and played center like the best players would play together.
In this way, switching positions can make players feel less interchangeable. No, Cody Bellinger is not just a midfielder who needs to be swapped out for another midfielder. He's one of the dodgers and he's deeply intertwined with the way the powerhouse team plays in bright white and blue no matter where he stands if he walks out there with a glove on.
-Hannah Keyser contributed to the coverage.
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