The great starting lineup shuffle: Dodgers lead baseball into the age of positional flexibility

Zach Crizer
·7-min read

You might remember the 1998 New York Yankees. Great team. Won 114 games and the World Series at the peak of a stable, generational dynasty. And if you remember the team, you probably remember its starting lineup.

Derek Jeter was the shortstop, of course. Who was the center fielder? Bernie Williams! And the second baseman? Chuck Knoblauch.

The exercise is just as frictionless for the 2001 Seattle Mariners, winners of a record 116 games but not the World Series. The 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers exceeded their lofty winning percentages in a pandemic-shortened year, and still share that time capsule quality — a familiar, durable core of names and faces. What they don’t share is the Sporcle-ready, round-peg-round-hole way of ticking off how the pieces fit together.

Who’s the center fielder? Well, so usually … it’s mostly Cody Bellinger, who also plays first base but is on the IL right now. OK, the second baseman? Ugh, it’s complicated.

Once a top prospect at first base, Cody Bellinger has seamlessly added center field to his defensive repertoire.
Once a top prospect at first base, Cody Bellinger has seamlessly added center field to his defensive repertoire. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The advantage of flexibility

One of the major shifts of 2010s and 2020s baseball has been a movement to dispense with ironclad links between names and positions. It traces back most clearly to the Tampa Bay Rays, where now-Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman was once GM and where Chaim Bloom, now Red Sox chief baseball officer, used to work. In the late 2000s, Ben Zobrist emerged in Tampa as a star utility player — which would have once been an oxymoron — and a stream of similarly amorphous players have risen in his wake.

Increasingly, part of “being good” is “being capable of moving around.” In 1980, 90 percent of position players who accumulated a star-level 3 WAR spent more than 80 percent of their games at the same position. It had dropped to 85 percent by 2010, but in 2019, just 65 percent of star-level hitters were routinely posted in the same defensive slot.

Bloom said the emphasis on defensive flexibility, which almost every team is pursuing now, helps “squeeze every advantage” out of a limited collection of players.

“I think versatility has really become a big part of how teams do that,” Bloom told Yahoo Sports this spring, having acquired longtime Dodgers utility man Kiké Hernández. “It makes you tougher to play against, it gives your manager more options, it effectively lengthens your roster.”

Major League Baseball teams are run with a ruthless attention to efficiency that rivals Silicon Valley titans. Except where Apple’s version of peak performance is making you spend money on a new cord that plugs into a totally distinct, one-use port, baseball teams never want to go out and buy something new to fill a hole. Because available players are usually inferior (thus, Wins Above Replacement), the ideal mode of operation involves twisting the 10-15 best hitters in the organization into whatever combinations are necessary to field 162 viable lineups over the course of a summer.

No matter how good a team is, a full season requires a lot of combinations. Those 1998 Yankees had six different players start 120 or more games at their main position, and still used 82 different defensive alignments (not including pitchers), but that is child’s play by today’s standards. The Dodgers used 125 different defensive alignments in 2019 and 55 in 2020’s 60-game season.

And while Friedman has a terrifying combo of flexibility and resources in Los Angeles, even his competitors have internalized the top-line lesson. Arizona Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen said his team — which had Ketel Marte break out into an MVP contender while playing center field and second base — has emulated the Dodgers’ habit of developing multi-positional stars.

“If you lose a second baseman to an injury, you don’t have to go and get a second baseman,” Hazen said, running down the potential benefits. “You can take your third baseman, make him your second baseman and go get a third baseman if the third baseman is even better.”

Between Chris Taylor, Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers have viable coverage for every position on the field except catcher.
Between Chris Taylor, Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers have viable coverage for every position on the field except catcher. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images)

There’s no such thing as a second baseman

The epicenter of this lineup card shuffle can be found on the right side of the infield — not coincidentally the same swath of the diamond most frequently blanketed by defensive shifts.

Only 17 players who logged 400 plate appearances in 2019 lined up at second base in more than 80 percent of their games, where 24 did in 2000. Meanwhile, 42 players who made at least 15 appearances at second base in 2019 also made 15 appearances at a different position, up from 17 in 2000.

There are two main types of players ascending into the positionless realm. We’ll call them the Muncys and the Taylors, after the two Dodgers regulars who fit the archetypes.

Max Muncy came up through the minors as a third baseman who everyone thought would have to move to first base. But when he exploded into a middle-of-the-order presence, he did so while playing a good amount of second base — emboldened by more finely tuned positioning data and unburdened by some of the position’s previous range requirements. He is the defender whose weaknesses can be papered over enough to keep his bat in the lineup.

Chris Taylor was a shortstop prospect who broke out after reaching the Dodgers organization. Coming from the top of the defensive pyramid, his great adjustment was learning the outfield. He plays all three spots, in addition to second base and occasionally shortstop. He is the defender who takes the open spot wherever it is.

The complete oddball is Cody Bellinger, a Rookie of the Year and MVP who was a top prospect at first base. Noting the supreme athleticism that made him a superlative defender there, the Dodgers tried him out in center field. It went well.

In its purest distillation, the supreme fluidity of ability on the roster can lead to mad-cap box scores like this.

Dodgers box score from Aug. 4, 2020.
Dodgers box score from Aug. 4, 2020.

That happened in an August 2020 game against the rising San Diego Padres. The Dodgers’ most direct and entertaining challengers are also emulating the model of interchangeable stars. When they match up Friday night, for the first game of their hotly anticipated 2021 slate, it is unclear who will be playing what infield position for the Padres. Jake Cronenworth has already started at every infield position except third. Jurickson Profar has done his best Chris Taylor impression and played second base plus both outfield corners. And offseason addition Ha-Seong Kim is also being used around the diamond.

The result is a sort of Where’s Waldo effect when tuning in to observe MLB’s biggest clashes. Yes, you know Manny Machado is at third for San Diego, and Corey Seager is at short in L.A. But beyond that, anything goes.

A sandlot-style future

Every change in the fabric of baseball tends to ignite a heated debate over, essentially, whether that particular bit of evolution is good, or whether it should be stopped. This is, on the whole, an unobjectionable one. It might subtly rejigger our verbal tendencies talking about players, but it mostly accentuates positive things like the absurd range of body types that thrive in the same sport and same position.

If we play the cards right, we could even gain from the recognition that teams operate differently now. Despite the margin-measuring, efficiency-courting origins of the changes, they imbue the game with the sandlot spirit of a less formal, more improvisational affair.

Blazing a parallel path toward positionlessness, the NBA altered its All-Star Game format to match — having captains choose teams and play the way the best players would play together, not kowtow to the dated idea of constantly having two guards, two forwards and a center.

In that way, all the position-switching has the potential to make players feel less interchangeable. No, Cody Bellinger isn’t just a center fielder to be swapped out for another center fielder. He’s one of the Dodgers, and he is deeply intertwined with the way that powerhouse team in bright white and blue plays, no matter where he stands when he runs out there with a glove.

Hannah Keyser contributed reporting.

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