June 19, 2012; Washington, D.C., USA; Tampa Bay Rays teammates Sean Rodriguez (1) and Ben Zobrist (18) celebrate after a game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. The Rays defeated the Nationals 5 - 4. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE

Were the Tampa Bay Rays Baseball's Most Versatile Team in 2012?

The Rays have always seemed to place a premium on versatility, featuring players like Ben Zobrist, Aubrey Huff, and Sean Rodriguez in their lineup playing every day, but starting all over the place defensively. This season, that was emphasized even more so because injuries and poor performance forced several Rays players to move into positions they may have been less comfortable playing based on team need and also necessitated the acquisitions of several utility players by the Rays. Amidst such a crazy season, were the Rays the most versatile team in baseball in 2012?

What does it mean to be a versatile team? In order to discern that, I decided on nine categories. Note that the designated hitter position is completely omitted from this because it’s a position but not a defensive position so it doesn’t count for defensive versatility.

1. Number of Players Playing At Least 2 Positions
2. Players Playing At Least 3 Positions
3. Players Playing At Least 4 Positions
4. Players Playing At Least 5 Positions
5. Players Appearing At A Minimum of 2 Infield Positions
6. Players Appearing At A Minimum of 3 Infield Positions
7. Players Playing At Least 10 Games At 2 Different Positions
8. Players Playing At Least 10 Games At 3 Different Positions
9. Players Playing In At Least 10 Games At 4 Different Positions

Why did I choose those nine categories? We’re crediting teams for using players at multiple positions and crediting them more so for using them at more positions. We’re giving two individual categories to the infield and none to the outfield because it is a common practice for even starting outfielders to see time at the other outfield positions while most starting infielders will play only their primary position. We’re assuming that there are about the same number of utility infielders and fourth outfielders with a good amount of crossovers, which seems reasonable. And in order to make sure we credit teams for not just using their players at a variety of positions but only on rare occasions, there are three categories to credit teams who used players at multiple positions in a meaningful amount of games, at least 10.

In each category, I gave teams points based on where they finished among the 30 teams, with a maximum of 30 points and a minimum of 1 awarded in each category. The maximum number of points possible was 270 while the minimum was 9. Let’s see how the teams finished. Here’s the raw results.

And now the rankings.

The Rays finished third in baseball while these rankings and first in the American League with 240 out of 270 possible points. They actually were the only team to at least tie for the lead in four different categories and only didn’t win the overall crown because they didn’t have a single player play five or more positions over the course of the season. The most versatile team in baseball was the Houston Astros, and that wasn’t exactly a good thing as that was a result of the Astros trying different players all over the place as they desperately struggled to win some games. Second place was a much better team in the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were lifted by having both Elian Herrera and Jerry Hairston Jr. on their team in addition to the fact that they made the blockbuster trade with the Red Sox that forced them to shift a bunch of their players to different positions. After the Rays at 3, you have to go down to 7th to find another AL contender in the Baltimore Orioles. After the Orioles, there isn’t another AL contender until all the way down at 19th, where the Tigers and Athletics are tied.

Joe Maddon and the Rays play baseball in an unorthodox way by American League standards. In the National League, having versatile players is so important because of the need to pinch-hit for the pitcher late in games. In the AL, there is still pinch-hitting, but there is not nearly the same emphasis on defensive versatility because pinch-hitting will usually be happening only later in games, negating the importance if where the pinch-hitter will go defensively if the game keeps going, while in the NL you might need to pinch-hit for your pitcher in the 5th inning if he’s struggling and you have a chance for a big inning offensively. But unlike many American League teams offense has never been a strong suit for the Rays. They have need to find ways to maximize the production of their offense and a principal part of that is having players willing to shift around defensively to allow the team to put the best possible offensive lineup on the field. Without versatility, the Rays’ significant offensive problem would only be further exposed. Talking about an American League team’s versatility is usually a frivolous discussion. But that is not the case with the Rays. They see versatility as an inefficiency they can use to their advantage to squeeze everything they can get out of their offense and find a way to win games.

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