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Friday, April 30, 2021

Matt Chapman and the Potential Demise of the Up-the-Middle Hit

This — or something similar — has happened to Chapman on a few different occasions in 2021, but his lack of up-the-middle base hits is not the primary reason why he’s struggling; his overall expected batting average on these events is just .209. Those additional 2.5 hits that Chapman should have expected wouldn’t raise his line back to productivity. There are other issues there. But what’s happening to Chapman so far this season is emblematic of a league-wide trend: The up-the-middle base hit is slowly disappearing thanks to much more pinpointed defensive positioning….

That drop at the end? That’s April 2021. Batters are hitting just .236 on groundballs up the middle so far this year, their worst performance in any month over the last 10 years, and not by a slim margin: The second-lowest, July 2020, was 11 points higher, at .247. That is quite the single-month drop-off, even despite the rather noisy trend overall. If you want more proof of a trend over time, though, consider the batting average on up-the-middle groundballs with no runners on base, when teams are far more likely to shift:

There’s quite the steep fall at the end. Indeed, in August 2018, hitters still posted an average above .300 in these types of situations, but haven’t hit better than .283 in any of the 11 months since. This is not the longest sub-.300 streak within this short dataset; in fact, the first 14 months of these data didn’t have any above-.300 marks. But even within that stretch there are multiple .290s, and before that, the longest stretch hitters experienced with results this poor was just five months, from April to August 2015. All of this is to say that these types of groundball hits are slowly disappearing. But while the rate at which they are falling may only be increasing, it’s too soon to draw firm conclusions on that until we have more data.

 

RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: April 30, 2021 at 09:42 AM | 33 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: shifts

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   1. Rally Posted: April 30, 2021 at 10:52 AM (#6016273)
Batting average on all ground balls

2021 .226
2020 .234
2019 .238
2015 .245
2010 .234
2005 .234

Maybe defensive positioning is starting to pay off. But it's only April, we'll have to see if this keeps up all year.
   2. Never Give an Inge (Dave) Posted: April 30, 2021 at 11:49 AM (#6016296)

The Brewers turned this awesome DP yesterday on what would have been a line drive up the middle without the shift. But it's hard to complain about getting to see plays like that.
   3. The Gary DiSarcina Fan Club (JAHV) Posted: April 30, 2021 at 12:14 PM (#6016305)
Of all the shift's effects, real or imagined, the loss of the up-the-middle single is the one I lament the most. It's been ingrained in my head since I began watching baseball that a hard groundball or line drive up the middle is a base hit. It just is. And playing it, coaches would often tell you to have an "up-the-middle approach." I'm sure some of that was just meaningless coach-speak blather, but the intent was to stay balanced and find the perfect timing. And when the coach said it, it always conjured up images of a hard line drive through the infield for a clean base hit. Now those seem to be much rarer, and it makes me sad.

Edit: I meant to add - despite years of the shift taking this type of hit away, it's still jarring to me when I see a hard groundball right by the pitcher's mound that's fielded routinely for an out. I instinctively rebel against it, as if what I'm seeing it some sort of bad imitation of real baseball.
   4. Walt Davis Posted: April 30, 2021 at 05:54 PM (#6016375)
Maybe defensive positioning is starting to pay off.

Or maybe with the focus on launch angle, the high-ish pitches that produced the hardest-hit GBs (or the closest to LD GBs) are now hit for FBs. Or with the focus on launch angle, the hardest-hitters are hitting fewer GBs while the weaker-hitters are still hitting them at the same rate. Or maybe they've shifted the definition between LDs and GBs. This is from Stathead and whatever source of GB/LD/FB they use.

PAs resulting in GB
2021 51,000 (approx, pro-rated to 2019 # games)
2020 51,000 (approx, pro-rated to 2019 # games)
2019 53,574
2018 54,423
2017 55,990
2016 57,328
2015 59,013 (highest total since 2008)

The number of GBs has been trending downward for several years now. The BA started to come down in 2018. Before you start comparing rates, you need to establish that the populations are similar in any relevant characteristics and adjust if they are not (well, do your best to establish/adjust). I don't want to make too big of a deal of this, it's likely that the change in the distribution of GBs has been small but somebody should check before jumping to conclusions based on rate differences.

But there was a similar phenomenon with FBs and LDs a few years ago. BA on FBs and LDs both dropped substantially in one season. Meanwhile the HR rates on each changed substantially and the proportion of LDs went up. But if you added up the FB/LD numbers in both years, the results were nearly identical. That almost certainly had to be a definitional change as to the difference between LDs and FBs, turning fliners from FBs in year 1 to LDs in year 2. By FB standards, those fliners were more likely to be hits so removing them from FB stats pulled down the BA. By LD standards, those fliners were less likely to be hits so adding them to LD stats pulled down the BA. (There was also some major change in GBs many years ago.)

All of that said, so far 2021 has the worst fair territory split** since 2015 and the lowest BABIP in forever (283) ... and that's such a huge drop in BABIP, I doubt it's just the jump in FBs.

** the closest thing b-r has to an on-contact split. Why we need a foul territory split is beyond me.
   5. Walt Davis Posted: April 30, 2021 at 05:58 PM (#6016376)
And put me with #3. It does seem GBs up the middle are less likely to be hits these days and it seems wrong. It's one thing when the IF at least has to be on the move to field it but when you get one up the middle and the IF is already standing there, it's just depressing. If they'd had hit placement data in 1980's college intramural slo-pitch softball, I'd have never got a hit.
   6. Pat Rapper's Delight (as quoted on MLB Network) Posted: April 30, 2021 at 09:08 PM (#6016419)
It's one thing when the IF at least has to be on the move to field it but when you get one up the middle and the IF is already standing there, it's just depressing.

You'd think a Major League hitter would be capable of adapting and hitting the ball somewhere in the 70 feet of baseline that an overshifted 3B has vacated and taking the gimme single or even double, but everyone wants to hit every pitch 500 feet at a 24.7 degree launch angle. A couple of weeks of a guy hitting .650 against the shift will stop that kind of exaggerated positioning.
   7. Ron J Posted: April 30, 2021 at 10:18 PM (#6016430)
#6 Ted Williams point about the shift (and the reason he never adjusted to it) was that if he executed, the infielders could stand wherever they please. Wasn't going to matter. And I think you're underestimating how difficult it is to hit major league pitching. Sure Tony Gwynn could hit a ball any place he felt like but he was an extreme outlier in terms of bat control.

I can't think of many players who made successful radical changes in their approach at the plate. I can think of more than a few who made unsuccessful attempts to change things. (Rich Gedman and Gary Pettis off the top of my head)
   8. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: May 01, 2021 at 12:30 PM (#6016462)
When I played in high school and college, my goal in every plate appearance was to make the pitcher duck my line drive. I guess I'd have been doomed in today's Majors, though maybe for more than just that one reason.
   9. Pat Rapper's Delight (as quoted on MLB Network) Posted: May 01, 2021 at 01:07 PM (#6016464)
Ted Williams point about the shift (and the reason he never adjusted to it) was that if he executed, the infielders could stand wherever they please.

I've got no problem with The Best Damn Hitter Who Ever Lived playing by his own rules. It's all that whole parade of godawful .220/12-hr/140-strikeout hitters who should be taking a different approach. Reminds me of the line from Billy Martin.... "Well, you got your mules and you got your racehorses, and you can kick a mule in the ass all you want, and he's still not gonna be a racehorse."

I may well be underestimating how hard it is to hit a 100-mph fastball. My last competitive plate appearance was at the age of 10. But when the closest infielder to third base is standing about 20-30 feet away from second base, I think it doesn't take a whole lot of a bat control to hit it where they ain't. If the batter can just get a bunt down that stays fair, that's a single. That's not a radical remaking of one's approach at the plate. Just enough to keep the defense honest enough to take traditional fielding positions. I don't think it would take much.
   10. sunday silence (again) Posted: May 01, 2021 at 01:52 PM (#6016467)
BA on FBs and LDs both dropped substantially in one season. Meanwhile the HR rates on each changed substantially and the proportion of LDs went up. But if you added up the FB/LD numbers in both years, the results were nearly identical. That almost certainly had to be a definitional change


Yes I remember when you made this pt. perhaps 3 years ago. It was a very astute observation.


#6 Ted Williams point about the shift (and the reason he never adjusted to it) was that if he executed, the infielders could stand wherever they please. Wasn't going to matter


I've read this sentence 10 times now and I have no idea what you (or Ted) is/was saying here.
   11. Dr. Chaleeko Posted: May 01, 2021 at 02:05 PM (#6016468)
And we are absolutely certain this has nothing to do with Jeter being out of the league?

[Ducks]
   12. The Yankee Clapper Posted: May 01, 2021 at 03:46 PM (#6016472)
But when the closest infielder to third base is standing about 20-30 feet away from second base, I think it doesn't take a whole lot of a bat control to hit it where they ain't. If the batter can just get a bunt down that stays fair, that's a single.
Some shifts are more difficult to counteract than others, but the radical shift against left-handed hitters that essentially removes the 3rd baseman & shades the shortstop close to 2nd base shouldn’t be that difficult to beat. How many of these guys practice bunting or slap-hitting down the undefended 3rd base line? Just putting the ball in play past the pitcher is a hit, with some being doubles if the batter can run a bit. Doing that successfully would at least cause teams to leave someone is the 3rd base area, opening the shortstop hole a bit. If the batter refuses fry to to ‘beat the shift’, I don’t see how one can blame anyone other than the batter (and perhaps his manager & batting coach).
   13. Jay Seaver Posted: May 01, 2021 at 04:35 PM (#6016476)
I think it doesn't take a whole lot of a bat control to hit it where they ain't. If the batter can just get a bunt down that stays fair, that's a single.


That's also, barring something going haywire, the best-case situation, given that a lot of shifts will put their rangiest infielder on that side of second, even if that means the third baseman playing 100 feet out of position. Most of the time, you don't see a shift in a situation where a single would be a game-changer, but when getting someone to voluntarily limit themselves to just one base is itself a good outcome for the defense.
   14. Ron J Posted: May 01, 2021 at 06:52 PM (#6016487)
#10 Williams was really a launch angle guy before anybody knew what that meant. He viewed any groundball as a mistake and an almost certain out (though on seeing a young Mantle he said something like I'd hit .600 if I could run like that kid) and his hard hit balls were meant to go over the infielder's head.

Don't have his autobiography hand but he talked about this in fair detail. Specifically after somebody arranged a meeting between him and Ty Cobb. Uncharacteristically for Williams he kept his thoughts about Cobb's advice to himself. (Cobb didn't and called Williams stupid for failing to adapt. Williams position was that changing his swing would screw him up in plate appearances when they played him straight up)

One thing he did do against the more extreme shifts was just move a bit further off the plate. Didn't change anything with his swing though.
   15. a bebop a rebop Posted: May 02, 2021 at 06:51 AM (#6016512)
Joey Gallo has 5 base hits, 1 reached-on-error, and 2 foul balls on bunt attempts since 2020. Maybe he should be bunting more often! Although before 2019, the breakdown was 5 hits, 1 groundout, 1 sac bunt, 9 foul bunts, and 1 missed bunt. It's not clear whether that's above the breakeven point -- someone else can do the linear weights.

Watching the games, I get the sense that most of these bunt attempts are attempts at breaking out of a slump moreso than a tactical weapon. And I never see him try to slap a base hit against the shift.

I'm using the Statcast search tool to find these, not 100% confident I'm finding all of them.
   16. sunday silence (again) Posted: May 02, 2021 at 01:09 PM (#6016527)
but when getting someone to voluntarily limit themselves to just one base is itself a good outcome for the defense.


this cant be emphasized enuf, at best its like an intentional walk. The only runner who moves up is if there's a guy on second. Last time I tried to figure out the cost benefit, I think you need to be able to bat .500 or so by bunting to make this worthwhile. Im sure Ichiro could have done that, but he's still better by swinging away.
   17. Pat Rapper's Delight (as quoted on MLB Network) Posted: May 03, 2021 at 10:39 AM (#6016640)
when getting someone to voluntarily limit themselves to just one base is itself a good outcome for the defense.
someone else can do the linear weights.
I think you need to be able to bat .500 or so by bunting to make this worthwhile.


I think you're thinking about it wrong. It's not "voluntarily limiting to one base" at the expense of doubles and homers. It's gaining one base at the expense of outs. It's like the argument Bill James was making in the 80's. Walks don't come at the expense of hits; they come at the expense of outs.

So I did run the linear weights and this is what I've got (using Palmer's originial batting weights):

I started with Joey Gallo 2017-2021, non-IBB PA's. Through last night's games, that's 1737 PA of 78.08 batting runs.

To pick a nice round number, I removed 100 PA's for "keep the defense honest" bunt attempts against overshifted defenses. 5.8% of total PAs. Removing an amount of each offensive event at the percent frequency they occur for Gallo gave me 1637 PA's and 77.33 batting runs.

So the remaining 100 PA have to make up 4.75 batting runs to break even. Assume 15 of those PA's are walks and 1 is HBP to match his career frequency, leaving 84 PA's in question. For simplicity, I'm also assuming all bunt hits are singles for the most conservative case.

The break-even point is 29 singles in 84 bunt at-bats (34.5% success rate) to yield 78.2 batting runs from 2017-2021 vs the 78.08 actual batting runs. What's left as speculation is how much additional gain Gallo would receive by getting defenses to take a more traditional alignment against him. Might be worthwhile to do the math for a less-extreme flyball hitter who still gets shifted for.
   18. Jay Seaver Posted: May 03, 2021 at 02:05 PM (#6016669)
I think you're thinking about it wrong. It's not "voluntarily limiting to one base" at the expense of doubles and homers. It's gaining one base at the expense of outs.


It's both, though, which makes it a trade-off - someone bunting against the shift is basically giving up the chance for an extra-base hit for a higher chance of a single. And they're most likely doing it in situations where the value of a single is minimized - either no-one on or maybe a runner at first, although those shifts are probably less extreme (or at least, I figure they became that was after management watched Mookie Betts pull the "slide into second, pop up, take third" maneuver a few times when batting ahead of David Ortiz). It's certainly possible that you'll get more value out of that over time, but I'm not sure that presuming someone will hit .345 when bunting is a good bet.

I also idly wonder if the explosion of folks throwing 95mph has made bunting well is even harder now, even more than just hitting well normally. Intuitively, it seems like more balls would just die in front of the catcher than scoot up the third base line, although I don't really know the physics of it at all.
   19. SoSH U at work Posted: May 03, 2021 at 02:20 PM (#6016673)
And they're most likely doing it in situations where the value of a single is minimized - either no-one on or maybe a runner at first,


Aren't all offensive events minimized in those situations (at least the first one)?
   20. Pat Rapper's Delight (as quoted on MLB Network) Posted: May 03, 2021 at 02:43 PM (#6016678)
On further review, the breakeven point is going to be less than .345 because some of those bunts with no 3B could go for doubles, but the other factor is throwing errors by pitchers and catchers trying to retire Gallo at first. I don't have my Retrosheet events database handy right now, but I would guess the frequency of errors by pitchers and catchers on bunt plays is higher than the frequency of other infield errors (and since there's no 3B so they will be having to range farther than normal to even attempt the play) and in these cases, Gallo's going to wind up on 2nd or even 3rd base deriving additional value that doesn't show up in linear weights.
   21. Jay Seaver Posted: May 03, 2021 at 03:31 PM (#6016687)
Aren't all offensive events minimized in those situations (at least the first one)?


Sure, but the general point is that when you've got the opportunity to bunt against the shift, doing so is increasing the chance of the positive outcome with the smallest magnitude while reducing the chance of positive outcomes of any other magnitude to near-zero. To put it crudely, if someone can bunt .345 against the shift, that's an OPS of 690, maybe the low 700s if a few roll a while. Whereas a hitter worth shifting against is probably going to do better than that by just doing their regular thing.

It's easy to say "just bunt one down the third base line", but I'm guessing that this is much easier said than done, and the most likely end result even if it works - a man on first - isn't that catastrophic. Especially if the batters you're shifting against are the Ortiz types who might be easier-than-average to double off.

Anyway, I'm sort of taking it on faith that the analytics-heavy teams have simmed and crunched and done a lot with these hypotheticals, and found basically the same sort of counter-intuitive asymmetrical conclusions as with strikeouts: Shifting is a net positive for the defense, but changing tactics to counter the shift is not especially good for the offense.
   22. SoSH U at work Posted: May 03, 2021 at 03:52 PM (#6016689)
Whereas a hitter worth shifting against is probably going to do better than that by just doing their regular thing.


That better OPS is going to include PAs that end in walks, which the batter trying to bunt can still manage if he lets the bad ones go or fouls off an attempt. I don't think that's a proper comparison.
   23. Walt Davis Posted: May 03, 2021 at 09:00 PM (#6016728)
It's a trickier question than that. It's more the game theory question of "how often does Gallo have to bunt to get other teams to stop shifting." It's surely a lot more than 7 and nobody who's being shifted on is doing anything close to bunting 25% of the time (or whatever) as far as I know. If NOBODY is following that strategy, it seems occam's razor tells us that it's not such a great idea -- I suspect more in the "it will completely screw the guy up."

Gallo has 1,902 PA ... of those, 261 are coded as GBs. That's 13.7% or less than 1 out of 7. He hits 203 on GBS, the AL 2019 hit 240 so he's only 8 singles below average. The shift is not doing any significant harm to Gallo.

You wouldn't want Gallo to bunt more to save him from the dreaded shift; you would want Gallo to bunt more to save him from the K. If the defense is going to "give you a free base" that's a lot better than the K. Having him bunt (fairly) 200 times a year would in theory save him from 75 Ks but also 28 walks and 97 contacts. Unfortunately for this strategy, Gallo is one of the greatest on-contact hitters of all-time to date at 376/880. So call it 37 hits and 48 extra bases lost (85 total bases). He'd need to bunt successfully 32% of the time to break even on OBP -- seems reasonable enough -- but (given a bunt likely advances runners only one base) maybe as much as another 24% to reproduce the value of the extra bases. Granted, given he has a good eye, maybe he wouldn't lose as many as 28 walks and maybe he bunts mainly against high-K pitchers, etc. so I'm sure you could tweak the approach to produce a more reasonable outcome.

But that's to break even. Why take that risk just to break even? He needs to top that by some significant amount not to just leave things be. Of course Gallo is an extreme case and other batters might have more sensible break-even points ... or might not given they won't be reducing their Ks so radically.

I can't think of many players who made successful radical changes in their approach at the plate.

Mike Schmidt of all people. At age 36 of all times. His K-rate dropped from 18% to 13% and at 36-37, he had the 2nd and 3rd highest BAs of his career at 290 and 293. I suppose that depends on your definition of "radical" -- he didn't really sacrifice power to do it. I happened to stumble across him talking about it on some broadcast a few years ago in response to this topic and he seemed in the "if I can do it, anybody can" school. (I don't believe that's true.)

But no, I can't think of a high-K slugger who turned himself into a successful singles hitter. Unfortunately Stathead doesn't allow us to save searches to limit future searches (PI did) so I can't do something like look for guys who hit under 250 in their 20s then over 280 in their 30s. McGwire was a much better average hitter in his 30s but that's not what we're looking for. Clemente went from a pretty empty BA hitter in his early 20s into Clemente but, if anything, that was adding Ks (and I assume less bunting).
   24. Walt Davis Posted: May 03, 2021 at 09:20 PM (#6016738)
And to be kinda pedantic, Jason Heyward is a guy who "changed his approach" constantly. As a kid, he K'd over 20% but hit for decent power. At 23, he might have found the sweet spot with a 17% K-rate and decent power. Then the K-rate dropped a bit then all the way down to 12-13% but the BABIP and ISO bounced around. Then the K-rate was back up to 20% and this season 25% but this year's walk rate is way down. Statcast only goes back to 2015 but you see it there too. In 2015 in StL, he had a avg EV over 90 and a hard hit at 45%. With the Cubs, the EV dropped to 87 and the HH% to 37. Then the EV and HH went up, then the EV went down but the HH held steady. Then this year, the EV is all the way up at 91.5 (3 MPH over average) and the HH% all the way up to 52% (39%) ... which has somehow resulted in just 2 HR and a 242 BABIP. Over his first 4 seasons, his HR/FB was 12%; over the next 5 seasons, it was 5.6%; over 2019-21, it's back to 11%.
   25. McCoy Posted: May 04, 2021 at 06:33 AM (#6016781)
Ted Williams said a lot of things. A lot of it was contradictory or just pure BS.

Ted was always working on his hitting approach and learning and adjusting to new styles and his body changing. Despite what is often claimed Ted did go the other way against the shift and even occasionally bunted. A long time ago I compiled a bunch of old newspaper articles on Ted and the shift. His words had him as being stubborn and refusing to adjust to the shift but his actions had him doing otherwise.
   26. sunday silence (again) Posted: May 04, 2021 at 03:59 PM (#6016916)

But no, I can't think of a high-K slugger who turned himself into a successful singles hitter.


Jose Cardenal? I dont really disagree with your overall pt. here just tossing out some names.

   27. sunday silence (again) Posted: May 04, 2021 at 04:05 PM (#6016918)

The break-even point is 29 singles in 84 bunt at-bats (34.5% success rate) to yield 78.2 batting runs from 2017-2021 vs the 78.08 actual batting runs.


I cant understand what you're doing mathematically here, can you elaborate on what you're doing.

It sounds like your conclusion is: if JOey Gallo can bat .345 via bunting against the shift this is the break even point.

I am completely sure that's incorrect but I dont know what you're saying...
   28. sunday silence (again) Posted: May 04, 2021 at 04:33 PM (#6016928)
EDIT: Well doing the math again, maybe you are correct. I dont know what Gallo's power numbers are off the top of my head, by vs the avg MLB hitter, bunting .350 might be break even vs the avg hitter. Seems counter intuitive but...
   29. BDC Posted: May 04, 2021 at 05:03 PM (#6016937)
I also idly wonder if the explosion of folks throwing 95mph has made bunting well is even harder now

Indeed, just hard to get the bat predictably in the way of a 90+ pitch with a lot of movement on it.

Plus as I often figure, if they're shifting on the batter they're also pitching him inside. Pitchers don't have pinpoint control, but this effectively means that a batter sitting on a pitch to bunt the other way is hoping the pitcher will serve up a mistake on the outside half of the plate or even outside a little - and 90+ with movement - and trying to react to that improvisationally. I don't think that's the typical "any pro batter can lay down a good bunt" situation.
   30. Zach Posted: May 04, 2021 at 08:29 PM (#6016979)
Just from watching, the point where young pull heavy LHBs start to have success against the shift is when they learn to drive the high outside pitch to left instead of rolling over it for a ground ball.
   31. a bebop a rebop Posted: May 08, 2021 at 06:32 AM (#6017731)
One other point to consider is that in the plate appearances with a missed bunt attempt, the pitcher is starting with a free strike. Thus all other positive outcomes for Gallo will be reduced, including walks. Don't remember the exact numbers now but the outcomes of these "missed bunt" PAs were pretty pitiful for Gallo.
   32. SoSH U at work Posted: May 08, 2021 at 12:29 PM (#6017772)
One other point to consider is that in the plate appearances with a missed bunt attempt, the pitcher is starting with a free strike.


As long as he's not bunting at balls out of the zone, he was probably going to have a strike on him anyway.
   33. Brian White Posted: May 08, 2021 at 01:09 PM (#6017780)
If NOBODY is following that strategy, it seems occam's razor tells us that it's not such a great idea -- I suspect more in the "it will completely screw the guy up."


There are many examples of sports teams pursuing suboptimal strategies for a very, very long time just because that's the way things were done - both at the player level and the managerial level. Nobody swung for the fences before Ruth did, managers called for too many sacrifice bunts for a very long time, NFL teams used to make horrible decisions in regards to punting on 4th down, and so on and so forth. This sort of thing has happened often enough that I don't think the Occam's razor argument holds a lot of water here.

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