What qualifies a player to be a Gritty Utility Player? The best utility players have the ability to play multiple positions, but they also have an inability to force their way into the lineup every day. There's more to it than that, though. For example:
No, wait, that's it. The best utility players start all over the place because they can, but the purest utility players are usually on the bench if the team has eight healthy starters and a choice. It's a fine line. Remember when Matt Duffy was shagging balls in left field? If he hit .270 with a .330 slugging percentage, he would have been out in left field for extended stretches this season. Instead, he became a starter and doubles machine. He spits on the idea that he's a utility player.
True utility players are usually covered in that kind of spit. They roll around in it. They mix it with their pheromones and sell it on the black market. But we're concerned with their play, mostly. Here are the five utilitiest players to play for the Giants since I've been following the team.
5. Eugenio Velez
Oh, you're scoffing. You're thinking that I'm using this spot just so I can write about one of my favorite subjects.
Yeah, pretty much. But Velez stands out as a gritty utility player because he couldn't really play any of the positions he was told to. Imagine that. You're a, I don't know, firefighter, and your boss tells you, "Hey, climb that ladder and juggle these nozzles. Also, 40,000 people will be watching you, so don't screw up." Imagine the pressure. He did it, though, because gritty utility player is a state of mind.
Velez was basically poor Roger here:
He didn't deserve it. He seemed nice, well-liked, and jovial, too. And he had his moments! Players who stick around long enough usually do, and Velez was the winning run and walk-off hero in a couple different games.
Here's the first time he played center in a major league game. Look at all the moving parts! Fred Lewis to left then center. Ivan Ochoa in for Omar Vizquel. Jose Castillo moving from second to third. What a luxury to have all those different moving parts! If only they weren't from an Ikea dresser and being thrown at Bruce Bochy while he was trying to build a helicopter.
Still, you want grit? Try being a DH playing second base and all three outfield positions. I almost miss the guy, just for his plucky spirit.
4. Kevin Frandsen
I promise, this is the last one from the post-Bonds era, mostly because Ryan Theriot only played two positions for the Giants. Frandsen was the local kid with the exciting debut and a chance to stick with the Giants, but right when he finally had a chance to start in a post-Durham era, he got hurt and was passed over by ... well, I'm not sure. Emmanuel Burriss, I guess.
Once the Giants traded for Freddy Sanchez, the dream was over, really. But during the Durham years, in 2007, the Giants got creative with him, putting him in left, right, second, third, and shortstop. He started in right field once, and made a throwing error on a play where Theriot scored for the Cubs while Mike Fontenot was in the hole. It was the vortex of utility, and you didn't even realize it.
Frandsen also makes this list because he's back, and there's a fair chance you'll see him again in September, doing utility things. He's walking more than he strikes out in Sacramento, you know.
3. Ernie Riles
If people remember Riles at all, it's because he hit the dinger that gave the Giants their 10,000th home runs a franchise, which was apparently a big deal back then. That's a shame, though, because he should be remembered for being a fine, fine utility player. When the Giants won the pennant in 1989, Riles played all four infield positions and right field, racking up 302 at-bats with a 115 OPS+. He was worth a cool two wins, which means that if you replaced him with, oh, Velez up there, the Giants might not have even won the division.
The 10,000th homer came in a 21-2 game against the stupid Cardinals, so he gets bonus points there. He also had one of the more memorable home runs of the '89 season, hitting a grand slam with two outs in the ninth, with the Giants down by one.
The only reason the Giants had him was because he couldn't stay healthy for the Brewers, and injuries forced him into retirement early. When he was healthy, though, he was one of the better utility players around. And you can't be one of the better utility players around if you aren't gritty. It's in the by-laws.
2. Joel Youngblood
The last two players are cheating, in that I've already written about them, but maybe there's something that draws us to the utilitiest utility players. Youngblood was a switch-hitting, pinch-hitting menace who played every position but catcher in his six seasons with the Giants. He was also my favorite player as a kid, mostly because he had "blood" in his name.
He could hit a little bit, with an above-average OPS in three out of his six years, but defensive metrics don't care much for his glove work. Still, he's almost the prototype: a switch-hitter who had just enough speed to steal, just enough power to hit a dinger, and just enough glove to float around the diamond ... without every being good enough at any of them to force his way into a lineup.
Also, Youngblood hit a home run that made my parents fanatics about staying until the end of every game. We left early and heard it win the game on the radio when we were about a mile from home. My dad still brings it up to win arguments with my mom, 30 years later.
1. F.P. Santangelo
He was short. He was gritty. He played six positions. He would catch a ball with his teeth if it meant getting on-base. He's ... possibly the reason you would watch to the White Sox telecast for a White Sox/Nationals game, but I actually enjoy his commentary through the bro-ness. He was the most utility player on the Giants in the last 30 years.
When he was on the Giants, he was fun to watch.
He wanted to crouch down, Rickey-style, and work a walk in every at-bat. Every bench should have a guy like that. Every minor league system should have ten non-prospects trying to be that one guy.
Then Santangelo left for the Dodgers, and his soul molded up like a four-month-old orange. Because his decision made God hate him, Santangelo never hit above .200 again, and he was out of the league just two years later
Whoops, not sure how that second paragraph snuck in there. For a year, though, the Giants literally had a .400 OBP to slip in the lineup whenever a starter needed a day off. Can you imagine what a luxury that would be? His OBP as a pinch-hitter in '99 is just under the Giants' collective OPS as pinch-hitters in 2015 (.464 to .584).
Come baaaaack, F.P.. Come baaaaaaaaack. (In the metaphorical form of another player, that is.)
Kelby Tomlinson has a chance to be on a list like this in the future. So do other Giants in the minors, from Austin Slater to Hunter Cole. But it takes the right kind of middle ground in the right situation to be a true utility player without playing your way out of, or into, a job. These five had a memorable run as designated gritters.
Now please yell at me for the players I overlooked. I encourage it!
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