The Interleague series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on the last two days of July was seemingly unremarkable, save for a nearby lightning strike that resulted in a 20-minute power delay in the first of the two games. Tampa Bay and Arizona split the series, one game apiece.
But look a little deeper, and remarkable isn't too hard to find. This midsummer meeting pitted baseball's two best super utility players against each other, with Martin Prado playing third base for the D-backs and Ben Zobrist playing second for the Rays.
"Super utility" is something of a new term, referring to an embellished form of the utility role that has been used in baseball for decades.
"A utility guy is usually a shortstop or second baseman, or maybe an outfielder, who can also play somewhere else. But a super utility player can play the whole infield and outfield, can hit from both sides of the plate, and can hit for power," explains Rays manager Joe Maddon. "A utility player plays three or four times a week at most, but a super utility player is an everyday player who plays different spots."
Put me in anywhere, coach
Career games played by position by Martin Prado and Ben Zobrist
Of the eight big leaguers who have logged more than 10 games at three positions this season, only Zobrist and Prado have played in more than 100 games, and both are on pace to finish at 155. Each of them has also played in double-digit games at both infield and outfield positions.
When the Rays won the game against the D-backs, 5-2, Zobrist went 3-for-4 with two RBIs. When the Arizona shut out Tampa Bay, 7-0, in the second game, Prado was 2-for-5 with two runs scored. When they do well, their teams do well, which is why Maddon and D-backs manager Kirk Gibson pencil Prado and Zobrist into the lineup every day, even if it means moving them all over the diamond.
This season, Zobrist has played 11 games at shortstop, 40 games in the outfield and 81 games at second base. He is hitting .276 with 56 runs scored and an on-base percentage of .358. Zobrist has also played first base and third base in his career. With proficiency at five positions and the ability to switch-hit, he is like 10 players in one.
Prado is nearly as versatile, despite being a purely right-handed hitter. He has played 28 games at second base, 85 at third, 14 in the outfield and one at shortstop. Last season with the Braves, Prado also saw time at first base. His bat has been hot this month, as he's hitting .375 with nine RBIs in August.
From a personnel perspective, players like Prado and Zobrist are invaluable.
"It opens up possibilities that wouldn't exist otherwise," says Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "We're able to cast a wider net when building our roster, because we can accommodate productive players without being limited to a specific position."
Tony Phillips played seven positions in his 2,161-game career. (AP)
Once on the field, their upsides only increase. Maddon learned this firsthand during the 31 seasons he spent with the Angels organization. There, Mark McLemore, Tony Phillips and Chone Figgins all played multiple positions. Phillips, considered to be the first of the modern super utility players, played second base, third base and shortstop, along with all three outfield positions, for seven teams in his 18-year career.
"Game in progress, there are so many things you can do with a guy like that, where other teams may be restricted," says Maddon, who has a penchant for jockeying his lineup like a hockey coach. "They think, 'We can't do this because we can't cover there defensively.' But if you have a guy who can do all those different things, it actually makes your bench more full."
In today's game, teams typically have 12-man pitching staffs with seven coming out of the bullpen, which means one fewer player on the bench. And in the National League, with the need to pinch-hit for pitchers and make double switches in the lineup, a full bench is even more important.
"In the NL, sometimes you're playing short a man, so you need a guy who can play multiple positions so you don't get backed into a corner," Gibson says. "Prado is very comfortable at a number of positions, understands how to play them and plays them very well."
Most people don't understand how difficult that is. Moving from one position to another requires an incredible amount of knowledge, along with a willingness to put in extra work on the field and do extra homework off it.
Zobrist and Prado often don't know where they will play until they arrive at the ballpark, so it's essential that they keep their skills sharp at every position they play, which means taking ground balls and pop flies and making throws from each position every day. It also means knowing how coverages, cutoffs and pickoffs and bunt plays work all over the field.
"Basically, they have to be mentally ambidextrous," Maddon says.
Physical adjustments can be difficult, too.
"Outfield to infield is the most jarring, because in the outfield, you have much more time to throw," Zobrist says. "In the infield, you use a much shorter arm action. When I move to second after playing right field, I feel like my action has gotten too deliberate, and I have to switch back into that quicker, boom-boom infield mode."
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Zobrist, 32, and Prado, 29, are more than willing to do the extra work required to play their hybrid position. Both became super utility players for the same reason: they got desperate. Both were shortstops in the Minors, and their respective big league clubs had logjams at that position.
Braves coach Terry Pendleton took Prado aside.
"He told me I'd better start moving around, especially since I wasn't hitting for a lot of power," Prado says. "I knew if I wanted to play every day in the big leagues, I needed to play different positions. So I started taking ground balls at first, second, short and third, and shagging flies in the outfield. It caught their attention."
Ben Zobrist earned his second All-Star selection this year. (Getty)
Zobrist got a similar talk from Maddon.
"I played a decent shortstop, but I wasn't hitting," Zobrist says. "In order to get more big league at-bats and get more comfortable, Joe wanted me to have options. I wanted to get out of Triple-A and stick in the big leagues, so it was a no-brainer for me."
Of the countless players trying to make it into the big leagues, the same qualities attracted Maddon and Pendleton to Zobrist and Prado: athleticism, versatility and, above all, amenability. Both were willing to shelve the ego that binds most players to their natural positions.
"It matters that a guy will accept all of those different roles and not say, 'No, I need to play in one spot or I'm not going to be as good,'" Maddon says. "Zobrist has only ever been about winning. If he goes through a tough time, the fact that we're moving him around too much is never an excuse."
Rather, Zobrist claims being moved from spot to spot sharpens his focus.
"Of course, you want to be comfortable, but it's also good to stay on your toes, especially in the midst of a long season," he says. "When you get moved around, it can be jarring, but it helps to fine-tune your focus in the middle of the season, when other guys are getting a little lackadaisical."
"Moving around keeps you more focused, for sure," he says. "In 2011, I played five different positions. If you play second on Tuesday, you can't just think about playing second on Wednesday. You have to come to the field ready for absolutely anything, with an open mind."
"The game has changed. Managers are seeing players as athletes rather than as a position, and they're recognizing the importance of that to winning a game. With all the changes being made late in games, the utility role has become more and more legitimate."
-- Ben Zobrist
And a whole bunch of gloves. Prado has four: a 12 1/4-inch outfielder's glove, a 12-inch glove for third base, an 11 3/4-inch glove for second and short and a first-baseman's mitt. Zobrist has two: a 12 3/4-inch outfielders' glove and an 11 3/4-inch glove for the infield. If he plays first base, he borrows a mitt from teammate Luke Scott
In July, American League All-Star manager Jim Leyland invited Zobrist and his gloves to New York, despite popular opinion that Evan Longoria was the Rays player who should have been picked for the team. Longoria, though, only plays third base, and Leyland already had Tigers star Miguel Cabrera and Orioles youngster Manny Machado holding down that fort. With World Series home-field advantage on the line, Leyland wanted the same late-game options Maddon gets every day.
"The game has changed," Zobrist said. "Managers are seeing players as athletes rather than as a position, and they're recognizing the importance of that to winning a game. With all the changes being made late in games, the utility role has become more and more legitimate."
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While Leyland's invite shows the value of the super utility player to a ballclub, it's hard to quantify, because it's difficult to use stats to accurately represent a player's defensive talents. However, Wins Above Replacement can be used to calculate a player's overall contribution to his team as WAR represents the number of wins a player added to his team above what a replacement player would add.
Martin Prado has played six positions in his career. (Getty)
To understand how valuable Prado is, consider this: He landed in Arizona because he was an integral piece of the trade that sent slugger Justin Upton to Atlanta. Why? Because despite Upton's obvious skills, he had a WAR of 2.3 in 2012. Prado's was a 5.5. Since 2010, Prado has accumulated a WAR of 14.2, to Upton's 12.0. And Zobrist blows them both out of the water, with an accumulated WAR of 21.9 since 2010.
The Rays are so impressed with Zobrist that on July 5, they masterminded the first game-night giveaway dedicated to a super utility player, delivering a "Super Zo" Utility Belt to fans aged 14 and under.
Next year, though, perhaps it would be more fitting if the giveaway were a cape.