Peter Gammons wrote an article over at MLB.com that basically says that players that are flexible should be rewarded for their flexibility and that this flexibility should be trained in the minor leagues. The article just doesn't sit right. The obvious examples used were Martin Prado of the Braves, Ben Zobrist of the Bay Rays as well as several other members of the Bay Rays' team. The Fan is fully cognizant that this writer isn't great at coming up with answers. But perhaps there is some value in raising the question for others to answer. Does flexibility really help a team and a player?
Let's take a guy like Martin Prado. The value in Prado's flexibility is not that he can field so many positions. His value lies in the fact that he is a productive hitter. Prado hasn't scored that well in defensive metrics for any of the multiple positions he has played. Baseball-reference.com gave Prado a -0.8 dWAR in 2010. That's not a good score at all. So would Prado's value be the same if he just played one position instead of five? That question will be answered this year if Chipper Jones stays healthy and Prado remains in left field.
Another example Gammons uses is Ben Zobrist. Zobrist played seven different positions in 2010. His defensive metrics were only on the positive side for fielding in right field and first base. All his other positions ended up in negative defensive statistics. And Zobrist did not have near the same kind of offensive season in 2010 that he did in 2009. And so the question has to be asked if Zobrist would be more valuable in one place than in seven?
The Bay Rays as a rule get high marks for their flexibility. But you have to notice that their most valuable players last year stayed in one position: Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria. Both were among the best with the glove in the league for their positions and both were near the top of the league in WAR. All those guys they have that move around so much didn't fare nearly as well.
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about practice. The Fan can't recall the number, but the theories say that you have to take a certain amount of reps at any given task to master it. Can you do that when you are playing 40 games at second, 30 games at third, 20 games at first and the rest of the time in the outfield? And after a while, does all the concentration it takes to play all those positions take away some of the edge when batting? The Fan doesn't know, but again, poses the questions. It just doesn't sit right though.
Reid Brignac is a brilliant shortstop. If you leave him alone at short for 155 games, he's going to come close to leading the league in defensive metrics. Does playing the flexibility card and sitting Brignac in certain situations (against lefties for one) help the team or hurt it? You end up with fifty games with a lessor fielder at short (such as Rodriguez or whomever). Brignac will never learn how to hit against lefties without the reps and so you might not get as much value from him due to the flexibility carte blanche that is given Joe Maddon. It seems to this observer that the most value Brignac can bring is to put him at short every game and take your chances.
It will be interesting to see where this trend goes. The players obviously don't like it. Bill Hall went to Houston because he was tired of playing all over the field. Sean Rodriguez of the Bay Rays has said he wants to play just one position. And who can blame them? There is something to be said for the comfort of staying in one place and getting the reps there every day.
The Fan has raised the questions. Make of it what you will. Hopefully someone with analytic chops will take hold of them and give us an intelligent answer that the Fan can't. The gut--that faultiest of all organs--says that it hurts a team and a player more than it helps them. What say you?