The day before this year’s Major League Baseball trade deadline, the Milwaukee Brewers acquired Eduardo Escobar from the Arizona Diamondbacks. An All-Star for the first time in 2021, the 32-year old Escobar had appeared in 1,080 games in eleven seasons for the White Sox, Twins, and Diamondbacks. A versatile player, Escobar had played in 567 games at third base, 329 games at shortstop, 137 games at second base, and 45 games as an outfielder. He had even appeared in one game as a pitcher and another as a catcher.
The one defensive position Escobar had not yet played? First base. He hadn’t even played there in the minor leagues. But in just his second game for the Brewers — and with only a short pre-game practice session to help him prepare — that’s where manager Craig Counsell penciled Escobar into the lineup.
This was an admittedly unorthodox move for a first-place team, but Escobar seemed unfazed. “The most important thing for me is to help the team win,” he said. “I’ve never played first base but for this team to compete for the playoffs or make the World Series, you want to be out there all the time. I will come early and work at first base. I’ll be ready when they need me. I’ll try to make the manager’s job easier.”
Counsell downplayed concerns about Escobar’s ability to handle the transition to a new position: “He’s a baseball player. We’re not sending a baseball player into a basketball game here.”
The Brewers’ decision to acquire Escobar and play him “out of position” was a good example of a significant, recent trend across many professional team sports: positionlessness. Whether positionless baseball, positionless basketball, positionless football, positionless soccer, positionless hockey, or positionless lacrosse, the concept is similar. Instead of accepting pre-defined positions and assigning players to play them, coaches in positionless systems assess their players’ individual skills and design strategies to maximize their chances of success.
This philosophy focuses on what players can do well rather than what they can’t do well. Each player still has a role based on their particular skillset, but those roles don’t correspond to pre-defined positions. In basketball, for example, this approach has allowed atypically skilled and sized players like Draymond Green, Zion Williamson, and Ben Simmons to thrive even though they don’t fit the traditional standards used to distinguish between guards, forwards, and centers. Across all sports, this makes teams more versatile because it allows coaches to define roles based on each player’s skills rather than to define the skills that each player needs based on their assigned role.
It is my contention that the philosophy of positionless sports can and should be applied to debate. The rest of this article will make the case for that conclusion.