LOS ANGELES — Cody Bellinger, the NL Rookie of the Year as the Dodgers’ first baseman in 2017, moved to centerfield in mid-May and handled it well. Travis Shaw, primarily a first baseman in the minors, moved for the Brewers from third base to second in July and said, “Everything has felt pretty natural, pretty comfortable.” Enrique Hernandez played eight positions (all but catcher) for the Dodgers this year. Christian Yelich, who in his first season in Milwaukee is a favorite to be named NL MVP, played at least 20 games at all three outfield spots.
As teams explore the margins for even the smallest advantages, and as players’ athleticism reaches new heights, the Dodgers and Brewers — facing off in the National League Championship Series — exemplify the game’s move toward rosters with significant positional versatility.
“It's something I take pride in knowing that now I can play kind of all over the place, all over the infield,” Shaw said. “And hopefully that just makes me a little bit more valuable to them in whatever way they want to use me.”
Shaw is a fascinating case study in the usefulness of being able to move a player around to … more or less wherever the team wants. Coming up through the Red Sox’s farm system, Shaw played mostly first and dabbled with third, but became the first-string third baseman — considered a moderately bold idea at the time — at the start of 2016.
“It wasn't ‘out there’ for me, personally,” Shaw said. He played third for the Brewers last season, when he broke out with 31 homers and 101 RBIs, and in this one until Milwaukee acquired Mike Moustakas around the trade deadline.
That meant another move for Shaw, 6-4 and 230 pounds.
“If you would have told me this year coming into spring training that I'd be starting second base in Game 3 of the NLCS, I'd tell you you were crazy,” Shaw said. “It's been an experience. It's been different. It's been fun.”
Why the emphasis on versatility? Dodgers manager Dave Roberts — who has Max Muncy (four positions) and Chris Taylor (four positions) at his disposal, in addition to Hernandez and Bellinger and others — linked it to baseball’s big-data boom and sabermetrics movement.
With more specific information about which hitters have a better chance against a given pitcher, and, again, a search for value in the margins, teams employ their personnel in very specific ways. The Dodgers have taken that to an extreme this season, having one lineup against righthanded pitchers and a mostly different lineup against lefthanded ones.
“For our club to be able to move Chris Taylor, [Hernandez], Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger, it's freed me up to do a lot of different things as far as when a pitcher's spot is coming up, or how I want to get a particular matchup in our favor,” Roberts said.
Brewers manager Craig Counsell’s explanation was similar in that it connected to one of the sport’s data-induced trends. With more teams carrying eight relievers, that means a four-man bench. One of those guys is going to be a backup catcher. “Oftentimes that's not a position of flexibility,” Counsell said. That leaves just three roster spots to back up four infielders and three outfielders.
“So you have three players on the bench, you can understand how a flexible player and multi-positional players are really important,” Counsell said. “It's kind of a function of how rosters are changing and we're using, for the most part, that extra spot as a pitcher really has increased the need for positional versatility.”
Consider it a testament to these teams’ organizational depth, too. Roberts in particular regularly has starting-quality players on the bench — to start, at least — and said he almost always tells players the night before who will play the next day. But “communication is certainly at a premium,” he said. Hence the preference in recent years for managers, usually young ones, who can relate to their players and effectively get a message across.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” Roberts said. “Even 10 years ago I think that there's been a big change in how major-league managers, the job description and what is entailed in this job description.”