When Hernan Perez began his 2015 campaign with the Detroit Tigers, he was thoroughly established as a utility option. The right-handed batting infielder was already playing in his fourth MLB season, although he was quite inexperienced: to that point, 71 plate appearances in 34 games during the 2013 season represented Perez’s largest set of playing time. He was already flexible, having played second base, third base, and shortstop in the minors and MLB, and left field and first base in Venezuelan winter ball. 2015 was immediately different within those first six appearances, as Perez made his MLB debut at 1B in the eighth inning, served as pinch runner and designated hitter, pinch hitter, third baseman and second baseman (his first complete game), second baseman, and shortstop (his second complete game). Perez batted .167 with two strikeouts in six plate appearances during those six games. Brewers President Doug Melvin selected Perez off the waiver wire to open June, and the total infield utility package completed his Milwaukee campaign with 238 PA, a .270 / .281 (!!!) / .365 AVG / OBP / SLG batting line, and questions about a 48 K / 4 BB / 1 HR plate discipline setup.
Incoming GM David Stearns was aggressive with the utilityman entering his 25-year-old season, which seemed justifiable given that the book on Perez seemed to be published in stone: solid defensive glove with great flexibility to move around the diamond, and solid batting average skills rendered empty by a lack of power and discipline. After removing Perez from the 40-Man Roster, Stearns convinced Perez to stick around on a minor league deal, and the utilityman clawed his way back to MLB by the end of April, and a power surge and series of injuries helped Perez find his way to the starting line up on a regular basis. The plate discipline improved somewhat, power jumped off the charts almost seemingly out of nowhere, and Perez’s strong baserunning (10/13 stolen bases by the All Star Break) made him the perfect fit for a rebuilding club slowly finding its identity around speed and aggression.
The opportunity paid off: Perez became one of eleven expansion era players to work at least two games at 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, LF, CF, and RF in 300+ PA with 90 OPS+ or better. Just looking at that .272 / .302 / .428 batting line alone leaves something to desire, but it certainly doesn’t tell the full story; Perez packed a .273 Total Average (TAv) at seven different positions, and a 3.8 FRAA made that flexible glove quite valuable to Milwaukee. Historically, though, Baseball Reference Play Index shows that Perez has quite interesting company:
As an aside, even if 300+ PA, 90+ OPS+ seems like a strict guideline for judging players with at least two games at 1B-2B-3B-SS-LF-CF-RF, Baseball Reference Play Index shows that only 20 seasons have occurred where players worked 300 PA at such positions with any level of OPS+, and 33 such seasons have occurred where players have worked any number of PA and any level of OPS+ while playing at least two 1B-2B-3B-SS-LF-CF-RF games (if you’re wondering, only Shane Halter has played two games at C-1B-2B-3B-SS-LF-CF-RF, for the 2000 Tigers [0.5 WARP before becoming a 5.1 WARP primary 3B-SS in 2001-2002], which is why I excluded C from the search).
Any way you slice it, Perez is part of an elite segment of a rare group of baseball players. Not even Ben Zobrist has reached this level of positional flexibility and production! Moreover, Perez stands out in the group for his Power/Speed Number and Stolen Base prowess, both of which are comfortably the best among this group of players.
Looking at these careers, what one might expect from Perez?
- Jose Oquendo was famously flexible in his early seasons, before a .281 TAv and -1.1 FRAA drove St. Louis to play the utilityman much more exclusively at second base. Oquendo almost immediately dropped off entirely at that point, and he became a bench middle infielder by age 28. It is debatable whether great production forced Oquendo into one position that derailed his intriguing value as a superutilityman.
- Sean Rodriguez is now famous for signing a two-year, $11M deal entering 2017, thanks in large part due to a surging 2.3 WARP season as a SS-2B-RF (in terms of most games started) and fellow 1B-2B-3B-SS-LF-CF-RF club member with Pittsburgh. Prior to that, Rodriguez shifted around as an infield utility and corner utility player (2011-2015), during which time he posted a total of 2.5 WARP. Rodriguez is wildly interesting because (a) an MLB club appears to be cashing in on superflexibility with a strong cash offering, but also (b) Rodriguez struggled during 2011-2015 despite serving as a wildly flexible player, which seems to throw the Oquendo thesis (that Oquendo declined in performance in part because he was tied to fewer positions) into doubt.
- Brock Holt joins Oquendo as the most interesting comparison for Perez, if only because he maintained solid production for two consecutive years at slightly older ages (26-27) than Perez (Oquendo accomplished his productive seasons at 23-24 as a superutility player). A mild concussion derailed Holt’s 2016 season for a month, and after July Holt lost regular starting status to boot (he closed July with a swift 26 plate appearance swoon).
- Jose Hernandez, Scott Brosius, and Joe McEwing are intriguing because they each served as superutility players during their peak prime age-28 seasons. Both Brosius and Hernandez would have a couple of solid seasons after their superutility years, and like Oquendo a successful campaign occurred alongside positional security (Brosius as a 3B, Hernandez as a SS with the 2002 Brewers). The success was fleeting for both Brosius and Hernandez, whereas McEwing would continue as a Mets utilityman without offensive success after his age-28 campaign. Let’s take a moment to appreciate Brosius as a 9.5 WARP player between 1996-1998, even including the 1997 hiccup that caused Oakland to send Brosius as the Player-To-Be-Named-Later in the deal for Kenny Rogers (!!!). By Baseball Reference WAR, Brosius is the third most valuable player on the absolutely stacked 1998 Yankees, which should be a Hall of Fame worthy feat in its own right.
- Cory Snyder was yet another superuility player whose success lead to a solid position (107 starts in right field for the 1993 Dodgers!). A -7.6 FRAA was not what was necessary to dress up a .258 TAv, and Snyder’s career was over shortly after his claim to superutility fame occurred.
- Along with Oquendo, Luis Salazar was the earliest superutility player on this list (1987-1988 for Oquendo, 1988 for Salazar), but both made their respective achievements at opposite ends of their careers. Salazar proved that one could carry useful positional flexibility relatively deep into their 30s, although 4.2 WARP between age-32 and age-36 means that the veteran was no Brosius (but then again, who is?). Denny Hocking dropped off entirely after his 90+ OPS+ / 300+ PA superutility year in 2000, as did Jolbert Cabrera. Hocking ultimately posted -0.4 WARP for the turn-of-the-century Twins, Rockies, and Royals, and Cabrera couldn’t catch on with the Mariners or Reds (although one wonders had fielding metrics been more advanced at that time whether Cabrera would have received another chance in Seattle after his excellent FRAA effort).
Ultimately these comparisons are not necessarily helpful, since (a) Perez is the youngest player apart from Oquendo to accomplish this superutility feat, (b) the MLB attitude toward positional flexibility is changing, and (c) the Brewers are fielding a young rebuilding club with several platoon opportunities and many players that have a couple of strengths waiting to see whether the weaknesses catch up. The long and short is, even if the sense is “Hernan Perez is a bench player,” Perez could be the type of bench player that can hold his own during a relatively extended stretch as a replacement starter, and could create many opportunities to start because of his flexibility. By working as a superutility player, Perez could be a bench player that challenges the team for 300-400 PA in a season: quite a valuable role to fill the slog of 162 games (resting Ryan Braun, Keon Broxton, Domingo Santana, Jonathan Villar, and Orlando Arcia, platooning with Scooter Gennett or Travis Shaw or Eric Thames, and covering for injuries yields many PA opportunities).
A more interesting question is whether Perez is the Oquendo varietal or the Brosius varietal, or something else entirely: if Perez succeeds with the bat once again, and forces his way into one starting position, will he be able to carry that position for an extended period of time (i.e., beyond one season)? Moreover, since Perez is among the youngest in this superutility group, his career also arguable has more potential routes to travel. Most interestingly, as Milwaukee gears up for a development-oriented season in 2017 and begins to field more competitive clubs thereafter, Perez also has a chance to become the first player in the expansion era to reach three consecutive 300+ PA, 90+ OPS+ seasons while serving as a superutility player; he is fighting Brock Holt and Sean Rodriguez for that title.
The most interesting idea is Perez forming a new brand of player all together: he’s not a Ben Zobrist, a consistently better-than-average bat that can also play several positions. Rather, one wonders if this new era of fielding analytical tools will allow Perez’s superutility ability to carry his MLB roster position and overshadow other shortcomings (such as lack of scouted power, or unsavory plate discipline).