Ever since Ben Zobrist built a career rotating through multiple defensive positions while starting every day, positional flexibility has become one of the most traits most desired for contenders. This past season, Tyler Wade filled that role for the Yankees once again, playing 19 games at second, 31 at shortstop, 27 at third, and 25 in the outfield. At face value, he provided Aaron Boone with the ability to be aggressive with substitutions through his ability to appear all around the diamond. But where does he stand compared to the league’s other utility players? And should the Yankees attempt to find an upgrade for their bench?
To investigate this question, I went through the lineups for every single American League team and compiled basic stats — wRC+ and Outs Above Average for all four infield positions individually and the outfield collectively — for every single player that I defined as a “utility player.” In this case, that meant anybody who played significant innings at several positions but was not the starter at any (because of this, Boston center fielder Kiké Hernández, who was originally signed to fill a utility role, was excluded). Only AL teams were used due to the possibility that the designated hitter could affect player usage.
Out of the 25 players that made the list, Wade saw some of the least time at the plate, notching only 145 plate appearances despite appearing in 103 games. This was the result of the Yankees’ preference to use Rougned Odor as the primary utility infielder in the starting lineup, instead electing to use Wade as a pinch runner — he pinch-ran 28 times, 11 more than the rest of the team combined — and as a defensive replacement. In spite of this lack of time at the plate — or, perhaps, because of it — Wade had the best offensive season of his young career, as his 92 wRC+ was the highest of his career and more than 20 points higher than his 2020 total; this placed him seventh on the list, behind Oakland’s Tony Kemp and Chad Pinder, Baltimore’s Ramón Urias, Minnesota’s Luis Arraez, Houston’s Aledmys Díaz, and Chicago’s Leury García.
Defensively, Wade was one of the 12 players who appeared at all three non-first base positions and in the outfield. Although he was not among the league leaders in OAA at any of them — Dylan Moore, Michael Chavis, and Marwin González were the only three to have graded positively in all four spots — he was not a disaster at any of them, either, with his worst score a -2 at the shortstop position. Since, in many ways, the utilityman’s primary role is to play adequate defense at a number of positions for roster flexibility reasons, that’s very good, and his defensive abilities, combined with his strong season at the plate relative to other utility infielders, places him, in my opinion, among the upper-third for the 2021 season.
The question is, however, can he maintain that performance? At the plate, the answer is “probably not.” Although Wade’s stat line reflects an uptick in results from 2020, Wade’s Statcast data suggests he was the product of good fortune — his xBA of .194 was more than 70 points lower than his actual batting average, and his xSLG of .242 almost 80 points lower than his slugging percentage; additionally, his already-below-average exit velocity dropped four miles per hour to 82.2, and he barreled up only one ball all season.
Despite the decline that we should anticipate for next season, whether or not the Yankees need to pursue an upgrade depends in many ways on how the team operates in free agency. With at minimum three corner outfielders — Aaron Judge, Joey Gallo, and Giancarlo Stanton — on the roster next season and both Aaron Hicks and Estevan Florial as options for center field, it’s unlikely that the Yankees would anticipate needing Wade in the outfield on a consistent basis, especially if the team signs or trades for a center fielder over the winter. Similarly, if the team adds a shortstop but keeps Odor and Gio Urshela, there isn’t a path to consistent playing time for the speedy left-hander in the infield, either. Should the Yankees subtract from any of these spots, however, Wade’s spot on the roster becomes more secure, as does the potential importance of upgrading the spot.
And so, to answer the original question, “Should the Yankees attempt to find an upgrade for their bench?,” I only have one true answer: Check back after the Yankees make a move or two.