Since taking over as Manager and General Manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, the duo of Craig Counsell and David Stearns have emphasized the importance of positional versatility. 15 of the 22 position players who took the field for Milwaukee this season appeared at multiple positions, with Hernan Perez (1B, 2B, 3B, SS, LF, CF, RF) and Jonathan Villar (2B, 3B, SS) perhaps best exemplifying the ability to hold down the fort at numerous areas on the diamond. Craig Counsell told fans at the ‘Inside the Brewers’ town hall event that positional versatility is something he’s “always thinking about” and that emphasis will no doubt continue for as long as he’s the big league manager.
The practice of being able to play multiple positions is something that should be instilled at the minor league level. Earlier this year, Russell Carleton explored the idea of “Growing Zobrists” for the Baseball Prospectus main site: “We’ve gone beyond the days of the utility infielder who was the shortstop who had enough bat to fit on a bench and more than enough glove to fake it at second and third. Teams are starting to recognize that having a player (or five) around who can shift around makes things more interesting for the manager. I’ve estimated that the “Zobrist Effect” could actually be worth a half a win or so in the right circumstances. But first, you need a Ben Zobrist.”
So, is David Stearns making sure that what his manager is preaching at the major league level is being practiced at the minor league level throughout his organization? Using the register at Baseball-Reference, I dug into the positional appearances of Milwaukee’s minor leaguers from 2015, the final season under Doug Melvin, and 2016, the first season under David Stearns. (You can see the complete breakdown of both seasons by name, age, position, and level played at here.)
In 2015, 106 players (average age 22.4 years old) made at least five appearances in the field while playing for a Brewers’ minor league affiliate:
|# of Positions w/ 5+ appearances||1||2||3||4||5|
|# of Players||45||33||19||8||1|
So in 2015, 61 of 106 players (57.55 percent) made at least five appearances at two different positions. 28 players (26.42 percent) played at three or more positions, and nine players at four or more positions.
In 2016, 119 players (average age 21.7 years old) made at least five appearances in the field while playing for a Brewers’ minor league affiliate:
|# of Positions w/ 5+ appearances||1||2||3||4||6|
|# of Players||50||41||22||4||2|
In 2016, 69 players, a very nice amount, made at least five appearances at two or more positions (58 percent). Again, 28 players played at least five games at three or more positions (23.53 percent), and six players at four or more positions.
While the Brewers did see a slight increase in players appearing at multiple positions this season, versatility overall took a small step backwards. Despite 13 more players taking the field this season, the overall number of guys who appeared at three or more position stayed the same at 28, so there was a three percent decrease in that category from Doug Melvin’s final season at the helm to David Stearns’ first.
There may be an explanation for this decrease, however. Carleton’s research suggests that minor leaguers tend to become more flexible on the field as they age. Often times guys are looking to hang on to playing pro ball anyway that they can, and if you’re not going to hit .300 the best way to make sure you can keep finding jobs is to be able to play all over the diamond. In 2015, Pete Orr (age 36), Donnie Murphy (32), Elian Herrera (30), and Matt Long (28) were four or the nine players who appeared at four or more positions. None of those players returned to the organization for David Stearns’ youth movement in 2016.
On an individual level, the organization is working on developing utility profiles in several of their young players. Hernan Perez is the obvious prime example and appears to have carved out a nice niche for himself in the big leagues after twice being designated for assignment in his young career. Jake Gatewood is another player who impressed this season. He may never get on base enough to warrant everyday playing time in the big leagues, but after playing all of 2015 at shortstop he spent time at third base, first base, and even left field in 2016. If he can continue to develop a “true-corner” utility profile as he progresses, that versatility combined with his plus raw power could make him a valuable bench player for the Brewers.
Beyond those two, Garrett Cooper spent a decent amount of time in both corner outfield spots after playing primarily first base for the first few seasons of his career. Recent draftee Ryan Aguilar played first base and all three outfield spots in Helena this year. Michael Reed’s usage went from predominantly right field to more of a utility outfielder role, as did Tyrone Taylor’s. Blake Allemand, Nate Orf, and Yadiel Rivera all profile well as utility infielders, and Luis Aviles served in the “Hernan Perez role” for Class A Wisconsin this season, making five or more appearances at six different positions.
It’s become rare to see the same lineup take the field at Miller Park for two days in a row under the Stearns/Counsell regime, and there’s no reason to expect that to change going forward. The small market Brewers need to find creative ways to be competitive in the National League and one way the club plans on doing that is by fielding a group of positionally flexible personnel, a plan that is already being executed at the minor league level.