The job of a major league utility player is often thankless. Acting as the glue that holds the roster together is a noble task but it’s often filled by players who can’t stick at any one position. Sometimes that’s due to defensive shortcomings but more often it’s because their bat just isn’t good enough to be an everyday player. But every once in a while, a player comes along with the versatility and skills to play anywhere and hold his own at the plate; we call these men Super-Utility Players.
*Title Screen* SUPER-UTILITY MAN
*Epic Music* BWAAAAaaaaaaaah
The quintessential super-utility player is Ben Zobrist. His ability to play above average defense at a variety of positions in the infield and outfield while adding a ton of value with his bat is legendary. It’s no coincidence that Taylor Motter was drafted and developed by Tampa Bay, the same team who also turned Zobrist into the player he is today. Motter was drafted in the 17th round of the 2011 Amateur Draft out of Coastal Carolina University. He played shortstop in college but quickly began playing all over the field in the Rays’ minor league system. In this 2014 article from Baseball America, Motter describes his motivation for switching positions:
“I hadn’t even touched an outfield glove until I got to Low A [in 2012], but I knew that the Rays had a lot of first-round guys who were going to come in and take some spots. I wasn’t naive to the fact that money’s going to talk a little bit.”
His willingness to learn a new position and the drive to play no matter what helped him move quickly through the Rays organization. By 2015, he found himself in Triple-A where he played every position except first base and catcher while putting up an impressive .292/.366/.471 slash line. Motter has learned to fully embrace his role as a super-utility player, as he talks about in this FanGraphs article from early 2016:
“I love to be in the moment and I love to be all over the place. Being able to do everything, everywhere, is awesome. If somebody gets hurt, I’m next in line, because I can do everything. I want to be known as the workhorse, the guy who plays everywhere and runs balls out, dives for balls. I want to be known as the guy who comes off the field dirty.”
At the plate, Motter is able to hit for unexpected power. Much of that is due to his aggressive approach at the plate, where he looks to pull the ball on pitches he can handle. But that aggression is also controlled. He’s able to be patient and take a walk when he isn’t given anything to hit. He also utilizes his athleticism on the basepaths, stealing an average of over 20 bases per season in the minors.
The comparison to Zobrist above wasn’t offhand—he and Motter share a few similarities besides their former organization. Like Zobrist, Motter was rather old when he made the jump to the majors. A late start is pretty common for utility types and it shouldn’t be considered a knock against his pedigree. Zobrist also leveraged a skill set that included unexpected power and patience to make his mark on the Rays. Now, I’m not saying that Motter will be nearly as good as Zobrist. At this point, it’s not even close. But the similarities in terms of organization, physicality, skill set, and timeline bear mentioning. If Motter is able to be a quarter of what Zobrist was for the Rays, the Mariners will have a valuable asset for years to come.
At least one projection system sees Motter as a potential asset in 2017. ZiPS projects a .307 wOBA despite rather diminished power and patience numbers. But a .307 wOBA would put him on par with other super-utility players like Josh Harrison or Marwin Gonzalez. His experience in the majors was limited to just under 100 plate appearances last year so he’s still pretty raw. Motter will compete with Shawn O’Malley and Mike Freeman this spring for a spot on the bench. Considering his versatility and minor league track record, it’s likely he already has a leg up on the competition.