SWISS ARMY BALLPLAYERS
With the current emphasis on twelve and thirteen member pitching staffs and stacked bullpens, position player versatility is at more of a premium than ever before. With three and four player benches, we’re seeing more of the “super utilitymen”; players who attain near regular status while playing multiple positions. DJ LeMahieu was signed last winter specifically for this purpose, and it worked out beyond even the most optimistic of Yankee fans’ expectations, as he turned in an MVP caliber season while playing second, third and a bit of first base. Another Yankee, Tyler Wade, has been groomed for that role in the minors, playing shortstop, second and third bases along with the outfield. His glove is ready for the role, the bat hasn’t quite gotten there yet.
The term “utility player” historically isn’t seen as a compliment, but as a player who typically wasn’t good enough to take a regular position. So, he gained value by picking up multiple positions in a backup role, scrapping to stay on a major league roster. In the 1950’s The Old Perfessor, Casey Stengel, thought outside of the box in roster utilization, and was one of the first managers to use “utility” players in more significant roles.
In his ten-year career, McDougald was Rookie of the Year in 1951, a five-time all-star, and garnered MVP votes in five seasons. Truly an important cog to eight pennant winners.
Early in his career, he floated between second and third base, averaging 66 games at second and 78 at third annually during the 1951-1955 seasons. In 1956, he added shortstop to his resume, where he appeared 92 times. During the decade, he appeared in over 120 games at all three positions in at least one season.
Catcher Elston Howard debuted with the Yankees in 1955 and there was a huge roadblock at the position – future Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who was durable along with being immensely skilled. Stengel didn’t use this as an excuse not to utilize Howard’s talents though. He was a three time all-star in the 1950’s, playing in at least four positions – catcher, first base, left field and right field – each season. He finished seventeenth in MVP voting in 1958 while playing 67 games behind the plate, 24 games between right and left field, and five at first base.
Stengel said of Howard “You can substitute, but you rarely can replace”. With Howard, “I have a replacement, not a substitute”.
Kubek was Rookie of the Year in 1957 while playing five positions during the season, an All-Star in 1958 playing five positions, and an All-Star in 1959 while taking six positions on the diamond.
Stengel’s last season as Yankee Manager was 1960, and when he left, his philosophy left as well. In 1961, Howard settled in as primary catcher and Kubek played 145 games at shortstop. Ralph Houk’s lineup was clearly a lot more stable than Stengel’s. It’s hard to fault The Major though, as he won pennants in his first three seasons of managing, and the World Series in his first two.
Coming back to the current day, there has been discussion on expanding the active roster to 26 players, which could add another bench player and give managers a bit more flexibility. That being said, success by LaMahieu and folks like Chris Taylor, Ben Zobrist and Marwin Gonzalez give all indications that the super utility player is here to stay.