May 7, 1998
Taking a Lesson From Other Sports
Is the defense in baseball as good as it gets?We're getting close to the end of the vile hockey and basketball seasons. Normally, I find both of these sports to be roughly as interesting as a night watching the WB. But I was in a bad mood, having just been blown out in a softball game where no matter what we did, an irritating team of scrawny singles hitters continually found a way to dink hits in front of and around our outfielders, so I started to watch a bit of some NBA game. (I don't want to tip you off about my level of apathy, but I have NO idea what the teams were.) I got bored really quickly, and being too sore and lazy to move the seven feet to the remote control, I started trying to observe the patterns of the players, in terms of the way they move around that funny wooden floor.
The announcers seemed to be just as vapid as in baseball, and they said something about how scoring is down and defense was up in the NBA, at least until the playoffs. (Apparently, 16 teams make the playoffs in the NBA, they play four rounds, and there's only something like 30 teams in the league. Why the Hell do they even have a regular season?) Well, if the game I saw was any indication, there's not really that much the defense can do. Kind of like my softball game, and kind of like outfielders playing behind Kelvim Escobar thus far this season in Toronto. I started to revisit some of my thoughts about baseball defense some years back.
In NBA basketball, teams apparently are forbidden from playing a zone defense. I don't have any idea why. Hamstringing innovation in any field isn't something I'm particularly fond of. I was mentally boasting in my head about the vast superiority of baseball, thinking about what a fantastic game it is, and what a bunch of pablum basketball was. Then I started to think a bit more about defense and baseball, and being the obsessive sort, I sat down and started playing with the graph paper a little bit.
Teams in baseball have far less defensive flexibility than any other sport. They're not largely bound by the rules to position themselves in a particular way, but there's zero variance from team to team in how they choose to try to prevent runs. Why is that? Has any industry, any organization, ever perfected their processes so well that innovation was no longer necessary? Of course not. We'd laugh at any business that went about ANY task in the same way they did 100 years ago. Hell, purveyors of "Children of the Cornhole" and "Pubic Enemy Number 1" have changed the way they approached tasks to stay in business and thrive. So why not defense in baseball?
Think about it. What qualifies as defensive variance in baseball? There are a few mild variations on the basic setup, but they're not THAT big of a deal, and they're so rare that everyone notices when they occur. Try to count them in your head. The Bonds/Williams/McCovey shift. Infielders in to cut off the run at the plate. Shallow outfield with the winning run on 3rd and less than two out. The Wheel Play, which seems to have some sort of mythical standing as innovative, much like the supposedly complicated 'double switch' so often pointed to as strategy by DH-haters. Corner infielders charging when they're expecting a sacrifice bunt. This is variety? This is diversity? Of all the ways to organize seven defenders on the field, there's no better way to do it in every circumstance?
That sounds pretty ludicrous to me. I don't think anyone in 100 years within the game has sat down and taken another look at defense. What is the goal of the defense? To turn batted balls into outs. Working from that premise, it's hard to believe that ideal defensive positioning always breaks down into a 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, and three outfielders. The variance in where hitters tend to hit the ball would lead be to believe that there should be a comparable variance in where defenders should be positioned in order to prevent those balls from becoming hits.
Several sources have been gathering data on where every ball is hit for several years now. I would seem to me that a complete scouting report on a hitter should include the precise frequency with which they hit the ball to a particular location, not just tendencies. Moving outfielders around a little bit and shifting infielders a few feet is a relatively small adjustment. Doesn't it make sense that for at least SOME hitters, the ideal positioning may include forsaking an infielder for an extra outfielder? With runners on 1st and 2nd with two outs and Mark McGwire up, do you really need a traditional first baseman? Probably not.
I'm not advocating abandoning the current defensive status quo. But it seems that such a low level of diversity in the way defense is played would indicate that there's probably room for improvement. If a team can exert another million bucks worth of time and effort to refine their scouting processes and experiment with nontraditional positioning, what kind of defensive improvement would make the effort worth it? 1%? 5%?
It's the nature of people to assume and perceive that if something's been done one way for a long time, that it's probably the best way to do it. Human beings really aren't all that nuts about questioning assumptions and adopting change. But what if innovation on defense can decrease your runs allowed by 1%, ceteris paribus? Probably a win in the standings, maybe more if you're lucky. I can think of a lot of teams that could really use that extra win, and they'll waste a whole lot more time and money on worse ideas -- signing Dennis Martinez or Ozzie Guillen, for example.