Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Futility Infielders

Over at SB Nation, Grant Brisbee wrote a humorous piece analyzing the Major League teams based on "how closely their utility infielder matches the Platonic ideal of a utility infielder."  He described a utility infielder as the following:

He's short, scrappy, and probably a switch-hitter, although he can't actually hit. He can field just enough to get by, but not enough to force his way into a starting role. He's not exactly slow, but his SB/CS ratio is often bad and lopsided.

I'd have to disagree slightly with some of that description, but the 'short, scrappy, and probably a switch-hitter, although he can't actually hit' is right on the money.  The Cardinals, thanks to old friend Nick Punto, ranked first on Brisbee's list, while Minnesota came in fourth.  In ranking Minnesota, Brisbee wrote this:

[R]ight now the factory of utility infielder is based in Minneapolis. The factories usually shift every few years because of tax codes and cheap labor and things like that, but right now the Twins are spitting them out. The Twins don't even have scouts for the last half of the draft, they just have experts in utility infielder names. "Go with Tony Mason in the 42nd ... ooh, Andy Rando in the 43rd ... Skip Stansilus in the 44th ..."

It would be funnier if it weren't so true.  Ron Gardenhire, a prototypical utility infielder himself in his playing days, loved no one more than Nick Punto, and has continued that infatuation with Matt Tolbert and others.  Those players who actually have hitting skill and/or potential, such as Danny Valencia, quickly find their way into his doghouse upon making mistakes, while lesser utility players have praise heaped on them.

Brisbee does get it wrong, though, when he also lists Luke Hughes and Trevor Plouffe along with Matt Tolbert as utility infielders.  Tolbert fields well enough, is a switch-hitter, and can't hit a lick, while, despite average speed, also being a sub-par base-stealer.  Meanwhile, both Hughes' and Plouffe's best attribute is their power.  No utility infielder should be able to make that claim.  In addition, both have experienced many doubters in terms of their defensive ability, Hughes especially.

Plouffe has played all over the diamond since his call-up, from outfield to first base to shortstop, but his skill set is simply not that of a utility player, and he's got a good chance to start in a middle infield spot for Minnesota  Meanwhile, Hughes' defense isn't nearly good enough at any position for him to be considered for a spot as a utility infielder.  He much better fits the profile of a bench bat, although he'd obviously have to hit better than he has this year to successfully fill that position.

To sum it up: Matt Tolbert is the very definition of a utility infielder.  Luke Hughes and Trevor Plouffe are not.

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