Wins above replacement is a fine measure of value, incorporating offensive, base running and defensive contributions into one number, all while putting players in the proper context of their peers with positional adjustments. But that doesn't necessarily tell the whole story. Certain abilities can be extra valuable if there's an opportunity to deploy them at particularly fitting times, like elite GB% relievers that enter the game in DP situations. It's also what can make platoon players especially valuable in part time roles, and why base running talent or other kinds of "special sauce" set the best fourth outfielders apart from the worst.
But positional flexibility also doesn't show up in WAR, and it seems to be something that should either a positive value or no value -- never a negative value. Beyond the Box Score Managing Editor Bryan Grosnick has done some great work on what kinds and quantities of positional flexibility are worth more than others, and it seems extremely likely that increased flexibility for backup players can be highly useful, perhaps especially in the National League. But what about players who are fully capable of being starting players for most clubs at multiple positions? How much value might their versatility add?
Ultimately, the extent of this extra value will depend on the player, the positions in question, and the situation of the team for which he plays. But we can still zero in on some of the right questions, and on an upper limit for what the extent of that extra value may be.
Martin Prado and Ben Zobrist: Jacks of Some Trades
Consider the case of Martin Prado, who has played around 2,000 innings at three different positions:
Prado's defense at 2B has been at least adequate, and he's spent time there in 8 of his 9 major-league seasons. He was better at the hot corner, and has been above average in left field. For our purposes, let's assume (for Prado and any other player) that where he played had no effect on his hitting.
FanGraphs' positional adjustments for fWAR seem to be a fair way to compare Prado-as-left-fielder to the version of himself that plays second or third base. There's a pretty significant gulf between LF (-7.5) and 2B/3B (+2.5) in those adjustments, which are based on 600 PA. As benchmarks go, "150 games" seems vaguely similar to 600 PA (and both were designed to be comparable to a player season), and comparing the fWAR adjustments to Prado's UZR/150 seems to suggest that because Prado is about ten runs apart on defense between third base and left field, he was about as valuable a third baseman as he was a left fielder. Not so as a second baseman, where he might be worth a full win less.
Ben Zobrist's positional flexibility has also been used routinely by his team, and his defensive statistics tell a similar tale. Like Prado, Zobrist has amassed more than a season's worth of innings at three different positions:
Using the fWAR positional adjustments again, but this time for 2B (+2.5), SS (+7.5) and RF (-7.5), we find that Zobrist is about as valuable a second baseman as a right fielder (8 run UZR/150 gap, versus a 10 run gap in positional adjustments). His value as a shortstop lagged behind, however, because although he has been essentially average there defensively, the 15-run difference in UZR/150 between SS and 2B is not apace with the 5-run difference in positional adjustments.
In Prado and Zobrist, then, we have two players that appear to have the ability to switch between two different positions seamlessly, while also having the ability to play a third position, albeit as a player worth about one win less.
Ways in which positional flexibility may have extra value
The benefit of having multi-position players like Prado and Zobrist on your team is, essentially, that they can play multiple positions. But there are at least five different facets of that benefit which, although they definitely overlap, can work in distinct ways.
1. The platoon advantage. Many platoon arrangements can be productive, and the principal reason why more teams don't use more of them may simply be the limitations of the 25-man. But with players like Prado and Zobrist on the roster, the universe of possible platoons becomes larger. The Diamondbacks are now in a position in which they have two players strong enough at the plate to start, but who can't now be everyday players: Cody Ross (coming back from injury) and Eric Chavez (trying to prevent one). In terms of their careers, Ross has absolutely killed lefties to the tune of a .296/.360/.571 slash line -- and Chavez, already relegated to a part-time/platoon role, does his best work against RHP (.275/.354/.500). In this particular case, it's unlikely that Chavez will start 60% of the time. But the point stands that these two players simply could not be platooned but for Prado's ability to play both 3B and LF. In Tampa Bay, sometime right fielder Matt Joyce sports a tremendous career platoon split (62 wRC+ vs. LHP, 131 wRC+ vs. RHP), and his role is facilitated by Zobrist.
2. More player acquisition options. Many teams can face a glut of players at a single position when a position player prospect is clearly ready for the majors, especially given the unpredictability of player development and most teams' preference to draft on value rather than need. Multi-position players can help.
Instead of trading for Mark Trumbo last offseason, the D-backs were able to avoid trading Tyler Skaggs and Adam Eaton by promoting Matt Davidson and moving Martin Prado to left field Such was the case when Wil Myers passed the likely Super-Two deadline last season. Before Myers played his first game on June 18, Zobrist had played 34 games in right field -- after that point, Zobrist played just 5 games in right. The same principles can apply when adding a player from outside an organization, as well. Be it via trade or free agency, when a team looks outside its organization for help, it is likely to have a greater number of options if it can look at players at multiple positions; this was the case when the D-backs picked up Mark Trumbo, which relegated Prado to third base.
Visualizing OF defense and positional adjustments
Positional adjustments are one of the least understood components of modern baseball analysis.
3. Filling in for injured players. After being traded to Arizona in the Justin Upton deal before the 2013 season, Prado's fWAR total took a dive from the 5.6 mark he put up with Atlanta in 2012, all the way to 2.3. A bad first half at the plate was mainly to blame, but Prado's total may also have taken a hit from starting 27 games at second base, mostly when Aaron Hill was down with a hand injury. Nonetheless, the D-backs benefited greatly from starting Prado at second and Chavez at third for most of the Hill-less games, the offensive gap between Chavez and Cliff Pennington being pretty steep. Something similar could potentially be said for Tampa Bay in the event of a Yunel Escobar injury or eyeblack-related suspension.
4. In-game switches. What if one of those injuries or platoon opportunities referred to above happened during a game? Being able to move a starting-caliber multi-position player around the field enlarges the number of options for a manager. This advantage may be greater in the National League, with better or more frequent double-switches a distinct possibility if a player at one of our multi-position heroes' positions is eminently replaceable, or if his spot in the order has just passed. But this is not strictly an NL possibility -- by my count, Zobrist played multiple positions in the course of the 2013 season in a whopping 36 games. This benefit may be extremely difficult to quantify, but it's hard to believe Joe Maddon would do it if it wasn't helping him win.
5. Limiting plate appearances for true backups. With multi-position players can come complicated time shares, and with time shares can come value. Maddon's kitchen sink mix of players like Sean Rodriguez may be a good example of this, but the Cardinals' excellent 2013 time share was better. For three positions, St. Louis had Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig, all very good players -- and Matt Adams, who, in the right time share, proved to be a very useful player. Thanks to Craig's ability to play left and right in addition to first, Adams was, in effect, the Cards' backup corner outfielder. Some good potential plate appearances may have been lost with Holliday, Beltran and Craig getting a bit more rest than they may have needed -- but being able to sit all four of those players at optimal times probably more than made up for that. The only infield position implicated was first base, and while perhaps right field should be treated as a skill position in the future, it's not considered one now. Still, it stands to reason that players like Zobrist and Prado -- who can play positions a bit harder to fill -- could be deployed in a time share that severely limited the plate appearances of backup players who most teams would rather not start. I would also lump in the benefit of super-utility types here, citing what the Angels used to do with Chone Figgins, and what the Rangers tried to do with Jurickson Profar last season.
All five of these possibilities could be their own benefits, but as difficult as they may be to value, they're even harder to value en masse, and I leave that to my betters. Martin Prado and Ben Zobrist can each play three positions reasonably well, but neither of them can play three positions at the same time. One cannot simply value all five of these possibilities and add them together -- yet, the fact that all five are possibilities for getting extra value out of multi-position players is yet another benefit. Since several of these possibilities are likely to occur for any team in any season, the chances of deriving some value from the multi-position-ness of a player like Prado or Zobrist are almost certain, even if the quantity of that value is not.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Ryan P. Morrison is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a site on the Arizona Diamondbacks with a sabermetrics slant. You can follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.