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Monday, January 23, 2023

Second basemen have been the face of an evolving game. Will MLB’s infield shift limits transform the position again?

In the meantime, younger players with stellar bats and questionable fielding range emerged into full-time roles either as starting second basemen or utility types with frequent stops there, Brandon Lowe and Luis Arraez among them. Arraez, whom the Minnesota Twins traded to the Miami Marlins on Friday, could well be changing teams because his limited fielding abilities no longer fit as well on the Twins with Carlos Correa, Jorge Polanco and prospect Royce Lewis all locked into or jockeying for playing time.

The result, combined with MLB’s growing preference for defensive flexibility, is an upward trend of better-than-average hitters who play at least some second base.

Recently, though, the gap between second basemen and the average MLB hitter has been shrinking….

With infielders required to start each pitch on the dirt and the extreme shift that brought the shortstop across second now banned, second basemen will undeniably have more ground to cover.

Teams employing second basemen whom they’ve papered over defensively will now face the challenge of either shuffling their roster to move those players off second base or locating the best way to cover for them within the new rules. Take the Rays and Lowe. They have a stockpile of middle infielders, most of whom are vastly better defenders than Lowe, but they could really use the thump in his bat and that of a DH in the lineup after finishing 25th in MLB in slugging last year. The Dodgers, on the other hand, could try to use their roster to keep Muncy away from second even more.

At first blush, it would seem that the offense emanating from second basemen, long on the rise, is about to take a tumble. But the ultimate fate of the trendlines isn’t destiny. It’s a product of choices.

RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: January 23, 2023 at 10:25 AM | 10 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: defensive shifts

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   1. DL from MN Posted: January 23, 2023 at 10:39 AM (#6114007)
RF defense should also become more important as 2B moves back toward the infield. OTOH - defensive responsibilities for 3B will decrease.
   2. Cris E Posted: January 23, 2023 at 10:55 AM (#6114009)

The leaguewide ground-ball rate, which stood at 45.1% a decade ago, has come in under 43% in each of the past four seasons. That might not sound like a lot, but it amounts to roughly 2,734 grounders being lifted into the air — or about 91 balls per team per season that are more likely to fall to the outfielders.

The offense might not collapse as badly as some are predicting. For every offense-first Muncy-like second baseman who might not have the defensive chops to handle 2b next year, there are several bomba guys like Max Kepler who have been trying to recapture that 2019 magic and are going to experiment with putting the ball back on the ground and forcing the Muncies to catch it. So we'll haev to see how those two forces offset one another. But way back in the olden days before shifting was a common thing there were hitters standing in all sorts of unlikely spots and doing well enough: Jeter was a bat-forward SS just as Piazza managed to catch and Rob Deer amply filled the CF position. The only difference today is how the advanced analytics react to the new defenses. Chances are good that teams that can afford a Jeter or Piazza will continue to play them and things will be fine, but the template for non-all-star second base play might drift back from hitter-first to a more balanced player.
   3. Cris E Posted: January 23, 2023 at 11:01 AM (#6114011)
I'm not sure the 3b had any burdensome responsibilities laid on them when they were the only guy covering half the field. You can cover what you can cover and the gamble was that no one was hitting over there, so essentially anyone who could handle the job of making the plays on runners at third was good enough. It sounds like a ridiculous risk, but the years of experience proved that with a lot of guys you didn't need tremendous infielders, you could just pile up a wall on one side and leave someone over on the weak side to control runners.
   4. Walt Davis Posted: January 23, 2023 at 02:33 PM (#6114039)
I assume the article presents some conflicting evidence but by tOPS+ for 2B ... and, what the heck, SS

2012 94 91
2013 99 91
2014 96 94
2015 97 91
2016 108 96
2017 102 96
2018 97 101
2019 95 103
2020 88 102
2021 101 102
2022 98 96

That's not exactly a trend of runaway offense for 2B while SS have clearly taken a big step forward (at least prior to 2022).

Arguably, expecially once they started shifting against RHB, SS defensive responsibilities were also reduced. The SS usually had the "near 2B" area against LHB which for the big pull hitters did not require covering a lot of ground or dealing with too many hard-hit GB. Then once the 2B started shifting hard against RHB, the SS had less ground to cover (or the consequences of his limited range were reduced).

Obviously you can't deduce this from aggregate changes but those numbers would be cosistent with leaving a decent hitter better suited to 2B at SS when he would have been moved in the past.

Now, 2021 was extreme (in its sameness) but it's the page I happen to have open so look at these OBP and SLGs:

2B 320 411
3B 323 418
SS 323 413
LF 320 417

The BAs range from 245 (LF) to 260 (SS) so there was still something to LFs have power and walks while SS have BA but, historically speaking, it's not 2B offense that stands out in that comparison. In other years, the SLG differences between 2B/SS and 3B/LF are at least in the 15-20 point range which might keep Ted Williams from spinning in his grave.
   5. DL from MN Posted: January 23, 2023 at 02:45 PM (#6114042)
We've definitely seen pitchers take over more responsibility for run prevention with strikeouts.
   6. Dr. Pooks Posted: January 23, 2023 at 06:49 PM (#6114078)
I'm not sure the 3b had any burdensome responsibilities laid on them when they were the only guy covering half the field.

I agree with your overall premise, but would counter that the old shift made foot speed and defensive IQ more valuable skills to possess as a starting 3B.

3B in the shift may end up having to cover either the second or third base bags on a play, may have to make the turn at second on a double play, has to charge in at oppo field bunts from outlying disadvantaged starting positions and has to recognize early and possess enough footspeed to beat a runner from first rounding second back to the empty third base to avoid embarrassment and a free 90 feet.

Prior to the shift era, the two main skills most prized in 3Bmen were a cannon for an arm and a fast twitch first lateral step (with some power at the plate being a bonus).
   7. Walt Davis Posted: January 23, 2023 at 08:51 PM (#6114107)
Also I know I can't prove this but it seems to me that 3B (and 1B) play much further off the line than they used to even when there's not a shift. That doesn't necessarily require greater range in that maybe teams decided to give up a few more down the line in exchange for cutting off a lot more in the hole.
   8. sunday silence (again) Posted: January 23, 2023 at 09:03 PM (#6114109)
there are a couple of other pts that havent been mentioned in the shift rule discussion. I was in person at the NYY CLE playoff game (my first in several years) and I noticed the SS/2b playing on the grass quite a bit of the time, not necessarily in the shift. Do people think that are going to be more "texas leaguer" hits with the new rules?

ALso has anyone in MLB stated whether "the grass" is going to be strictly defined or is it up to the home team's ground crew to decide on where they want to start the grass?
   9. Karl from NY Posted: January 23, 2023 at 10:13 PM (#6114117)
2021 101 102

If 2B and SS are both hitting over 100 OPS+, then who is hitting under? Just C and CF? Is catcher in particular really cratering for offense lately so that every other position looks better?

ALso has anyone in MLB stated whether "the grass" is going to be strictly defined or is it up to the home team's ground crew to decide on where they want to start the grass?

Yes, this was covered in the rule. I forget the details, but it's a defined range of allowable distances.
   10. Walt Davis Posted: January 25, 2023 at 03:18 PM (#6114453)
If 2B and SS are both hitting over 100 OPS+, then who is hitting under? Just C and CF? Is catcher in particular really cratering for offense lately so that every other position looks better?

Varies from year to year but yes Cs and CFs have become the losers on the OPS+ ladder. But also LFs sometimes don't hit particularly well (or not much better than 2B/SS, worse than 3B); DHs have had some down years, one of those years I think even RF didn't hit very well.

I'd have to dig deeper but my impression from looking at this sort of thing a couple of times a season for the last few years is that, relative to the spectrum we learned as infant saber nerds, in today's game, SS and 3B hit better than they did, LF and CF hit worse and maybe Cs too (which might be about the framing emphasis). The only "hitting first" positions now are 1B and DH and the only "defense first" position is C. The others are pretty much equal offensively.

If memory serves, LF went a decade where the average collective team LF was below-average, sometimes pretty substantially so, in bWAR. In 2022, the "average" SS had 1 WAA (about 3.2 WAR) while the average LF had -0.5 WAA. SS had 1 WAA in 2021, 2019 and 2018 too. And above-average in 2017 and 2016 too. LF haven't been above-average since 2004, coincidentally enough Bonds's last huge year (a few years of 0 WAA in there).

How much of that is a fundamental change in the game and how much is Rpos needing more frequent tweaking I don't know that we can say for certain. But the best LF last year was Cle with a mere 2.3 WAA, the lowest WAA for any position (Hou DH 2.5 ... StL 3B 5.9 at the top). Steven Kwan was their main LF, not exactly a star. #2 was the Cubs (mainly Happ) then Hou (a mix, pulled up by 230 PA from Alvarez). The biggest "star" LFs are a declining Yelich and a solid but limited Schwarber. Only 12 guys had over 350 PA in LF last year. It may be that LF is caught up in a rotation with DH.

Just look at the players. There's nobody major getting substantial time in LF. If there are more than 2-3 CFs who can hit, they aren't playing CF (or the ones who can hit are probably better suited to RF -- Springer, Judge, an aging Trout). Meanwhile we've had 7 (8?) major SS FAs just in the last 2 years (and that doesn't include Tatis, Lindor, Franco) and there are several top 3B. The abundance of SS and 3B and shotage of CF might just be a temporary blip but that LF thing has been going on for a long time, that almost has to be structural.

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