When Gold Glove shortstop J.J. Hardy broke his foot on May 1, it seemed like a huge blow for the Orioles, who at the time were 14-10 (.583) and in first place in the American League East. But the Birds haven’t skipped a beat. They’re still in first, and in the five weeks since the Hardy injury, they’ve kept on keeping on by going 19-13 (.594). Being able to plug a Platinum-Glove winner (Manny Machado) in at short sure doesn’t hurt, but in order to do that, Buck Showalter needed someone to fill Machado’s clown-sized shoes at third.
Enter Ryan Flaherty.
Since Hardy went down, the 29-year-old super-utility man -- a shortstop by trade who swings lefty and plays primarily against righties -- has made 20 starts at the hot corner. In those 20 games, the O’s have an impressive 14-6 record. Coincidence? Maybe. Then again, since May 3 (Baltimore’s first game sans Hardy), Flaherty leads all American League third basemen with four defensive runs saved. Which is a good thing, because it’s not like Showalter keeps him around for his bat.
A career .215 hitter, Flaherty’s calling card is his glove. Or gloves, as the case may be. During the course of his five-year career, the former first-rounder (Cubs, 2008) has played every position on the field except for pitcher, catcher and center field. I recently caught up with the artist currently known as Flash so that we could play a serious game of pepper -- I peppered him with questions on all things super-utility, and he answered.
How does a guy go from being a stud shortstop and Mr. Maine Baseball to being this guy who plays a thousand different positions?
You get stuck behind Starlin Castro. He’s the second baseman for the Yankees now, but he used to be a shortstop for the Cubs. Me and him played together in Double-A. I was a shortstop until then, but they came to me my third year in pro ball and asked me how I felt about becoming a utility guy and starting to move around. A lot of guys use it as a way to break through to the big leagues, and that was kind of the case with me.
Who came to you with the idea?
It was the farm director at the time, Oneri Fleita. ... I played in the Arizona Fall League the year before, and they mentioned it to me there about starting to move around and stuff like that. Obviously, I was a little hesitant at first. When they drafted me, they said they wanted me to play shortstop. But I looked at a guy who was with the Cubs at that time, Mark DeRosa, and he was a super-utility guy who could play every position. I thought that was cool. It started with second and third, and then that year in the fall league, I played some left field and right field, too. And then the next season I started to do that more, where it seemed like every night I played a different position. Except first base -- I don't think I played much first at that point.
Prior to then, when was the last time you played a position other than short?
I played for the USA team after my sophomore year in college. Danny Espinosa was on the team, and he was a shortstop, so I played a little second base that summer. But prior to that, it was when I was 9 years old as a catcher.
How many different types of gloves do you have?
Well, I use an outfielders glove obviously. I use the same glove at second base and shortstop, so that's two. At third I use a different glove, and at first I use a different glove. That's four. And I have my own catcher's equipment that they gave me in case of a big emergency. Big, big, big emergency. Let's cross our fingers that never happens. So five if you're counting the catcher's mitt. But I gotta be honest, I use Matt Wieters' glove when I'm warming up the pitcher. There's no way I'm taking mine into a game. His is more broken-in than mine. Plus, he has gold in his glove, so at least I'll look the part with a gold glove behind the plate.
Does Wieters mind you using his mitt?
No, he hasn't said it at least. But he got ejected from a game earlier this season and I hit the panic button a little bit. I started to catch off the Iron Mike machine, which is in the batting cage, just in case. I was just sitting here on the bench kinda bored, so I took his game glove because he wouldn't know. I hope it does happen at some point and I get a chance to get behind there. I haven't done it in so long. Kinda nerve-racking, but one of those things that would be cool.
So what's the prep like to be ready for all those positions?
If the roster's outfield-heavy, you don't bother taking many fly balls because there's not a good chance you're going to end up there. Sometimes it's infield-heavy where they're short outfielders so you try to take more fly balls. Generally speaking, if I’m not playing that day, I go to shortstop and take ground balls, because if you're taking ground balls at shortstop, every other position is easier than that one. So if I'm not in there, I'm taking ground balls at shortstop, and then the last group of batting practice, I'll go out and shag fly balls off the bat. Left or right -- wherever the extra outfielder isn't taking fly balls, wherever the open spot is. But if I am playing, I'm obviously working on whatever position I'm playing that night.
What about all the playbook stuff, knowing all the relays and coverages -- that's the hard part, right?
The transition of playing all those positions, [Orioles third base coach] Bobby Dickerson, the infield guy, has helped me more than I could even try to explain. I usually sit next to him on the bench and talk positioning and footwork. It's all footwork. It's kind of like playing defense in basketball. If you put your feet in the right position, you're going to give yourself a better chance.
People always seem so impressed with guys that can play multiple positions. But most major leaguers are ridiculous athletes. Is it really that hard?
I don't think so. In Little League, if you were playing shortstop the first two innings and then your coach told you to go to left field, nobody would've been impressed. You're the best player on your team. The common denominator is that guys who play shortstop at a young age, every position is easier than that. If you can play shortstop, you can play any position on the field.
What's your best position?
I've probably played the most shortstop, but second's probably the easiest. Third always gave me the most difficulty, until I really started working with Bobby Dickerson. You don't field ground balls there -- you're more like a goalie there. You get weird hops, you get balls that are bastard hops.
So can I assume you didn't play goalie in hockey?
Ha. No. Left wing. I'm a lefty stick.
Of the six positions you’ve played in the big leagues, which is your worst?
It's sad I have to admit this, but probably first base. And it should be the easiest. It's the small stuff. Sometimes just running to the base, putting your foot on the base, and finding the throw, it's more challenging than you would think sitting here in the dugout and watching someone else do it who's played first base their whole life.
Would you rather play catcher or first?
Ooh ... I wanna catch at some point. I know that, but I don't want the game to be close. I don't want the responsibility if I screw up. I haven't caught since Little League. You could be back there just warming up a pitcher, and some of the relievers down there, the ball's moving so much. You watch it and it looks easy. Then you go back there and it's tough to catch. You got [Zach] Britton or [Darren] O'Day or [Brad] Brach, one of those relievers where that ball's moving ridiculous.
Of the three positions you haven’t played -- pitcher, catcher and center -- which one have you come the closest to playing in a big-league game?
Center is the most reasonable one I would play. There was a point in 2012 where we had a ton of injuries in the outfield. [Nick] Markakis was hurt, [Adam] Jones was hurt. At one point, I was taking some fly balls out there because there was a chance I might play center, but it didn’t happen. As for pitching, I don't know who else would pitch for a position player on our team. Chris Davis did it in 2013, but he's making too much money now to go out and pitch.
Is there some sort of secret fraternity between all the super-utility guys?
No, but Ben Zobrist is someone I talked to a lot when he was at Tampa. Earlier in the season we were playing Kansas City, and I talked to Christian Colon about the challenges of moving around. It's a weird time in baseball because there's a lot of good super-utility players. Brock Holt with [the] Red Sox had a really good year last year. Zobrist. Mike Aviles has moved around. Seems like every team has one guy that does that.
Have you ever sought out Jose Oquendo to get advice?
You’ve never heard of Jose Oquendo?
He was with the Cardinals in the 80’s and 90’s, and he played every position in one season.
Really? That's embarrassing. I should know that.
So, safe to say, you haven’t talked to him?
No. I haven't talked to him.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten from a fellow utility guy?
This spring training, I talked to Mark DeRosa for a while. He said, whatever position you're playing that night, try to outplay the guy from their team that's playing that position. I thought that was kind of interesting. You try to be the best left fielder that night, or you try to be the best second baseman that night, or the best shortstop that night. You take pride in it.
As someone who plays all those positions, and who played four sports in high school, what’s your take on kids who specialize in one sport?
Don't. When you play every sport, your body learns to move in different positions. You compete year-round. I always wanted to be doing something competitive, and playing a meaningful game rather than being stuck in some batting cage in December and hitting off a tee. So if it was football season, I was all-in on football. If it was basketball season, I was all-in on basketball. Baseball, all-in on baseball. I kinda left each sport when that time of the year was over.
Where did the nickname Flash come from?
It's definitely not because I'm fast. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, people used to call me Flats. I knew another kid named Flaherty, they called him Flats, too -- I think it’s a common nickname. Then one day in middle school, one of my teammates called me Flash, and it just kinda stuck.
What’s the one thing that people don’t know about being a utility man?
It's not as hard as people make it out to be.