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Positional versatility is overrated

Defensive specialization is where it’s at

Aug 9, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals left fielder MJ Melendez (1) fields a long pop up fly against the Chicago White Sox in the sixth inning at Kauffman Stadium.
Aug 9, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals left fielder MJ Melendez (1) fields a long pop up fly against the Chicago White Sox in the sixth inning at Kauffman Stadium.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Playing professional baseball is hard. This may seem like a very silly statement, and to an extent it is, but it is important to consider just how difficult it is to stick as a Major League Baseball player and just how razor thin the margins are.

Last year, 27 players accrued at least 800 innings at shortstop, one of the most difficult defensive positions on the diamond. Kevin Newman led the league in shortstop fielding percentage at .993. Coming in at last place was Fernando Tatis Jr., whose fielding percentage was .940. The entire difference between the least mistake prone player and the most mistake prone player among everyday shortstops was five errors per 100 chances. That’s it.

Now, fielding percentage is not the best way to evaluate defense, as we all know. But this exercise here is to make a point, which is this: with such thin margin for error, it takes a lot of work and dedication, so much so that defensive specialization is almost a necessity in order to be a great defender.

The most recent successful Kansas City Royals teams from 2013 through 2015 were full of defensive specialists. During that time, five different players logged 3,500 or more innings at a single position. And when the Royals won the 2015 World series, five players accrued over 1,150 innings at a single position, eight players logged over 850 innings at a single position, and only nine players logged over 300 innings at a single position.

There are a lot of differences between the 2015 team and the Royals as currently constructed, but one such difference is one of defensive specialization—or the lack thereof on this current team. With over a month to go, the 2022 Royals already have 12 players with at least 300 innings defended at one position and won’t have anybody hit 1,150 innings played at a single position.

And while, again, there are a lot of differences between that 2015 team and the 2022 team, the difference in defensive performance between the two squads is enormous. That 2015 team was a defensive powerhouse, leading the league in Ultimate Zone Rating and coming in second at Defensive Runs Saved. And though the Royals rank sixth in UZR this year, they are all the way down at 27th in DRS.

It can be rather persuasively argued that comparing a 95-win squad to a 95-loss squad is not a good idea. However, that’s not all of it. The 2022 team has defensive talent: it featured or currently features 2021 Gold Glove winners Andrew Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor, multi-Gold Glove winner Salvador Perez, and Minor League Gold Glove winners Michael Massey and Nick Pratto.

But, as I said at the top, it is hard to play one position well. Playing multiple positions well is even harder. The Ben Zobrists and Whit Merrifields of the world are not common, and even they were clearly better at second base than they were anywhere else.

That MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto, and Bobby Witt Jr. can play multiple positions is nice in theory. In practice, though, what’s the point? In baseball, the idea is to have good defenders everywhere on the diamond. This isn’t basketball, where positional versatility is integral to the game. Left field is not catcher which is not shortstop. So what if you can play multiple positions if you can play them all poorly? That’s Hunter Dozier’s music right there, and that’s a dirge if there ever was one.

Positional versatility helps you squeeze onto a roster. But defensive specialization provides the most value to the team. Alex Gordon’s shift to the outfield is constantly touted as an example that players can become flexible defenders, but the opposite is the truth: it took an immense amount of work for Gordon to convert to one position. When you’re throwing Melendez, Pratto, and Witt at two positions each while exposing them to big league pitching for the first time, that’s just not a recipe for success.

If you need versatility, fine. The Royals don’t need that. They need good players. Pick a position for them and let them work through it.