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November 26, 2013
Extrapolating the Breakdown of Traditional Defense
One of the most interesting things about extreme infield shifts is how unextreme they are. They are like some lame grownup’s idea of extreme, a little bit of flash and inconvenience but ultimately very safe. The shift was invented by sane people. Real extreme comes from insanity, and it makes us deeply uncomfortable.
Everybody’s talking about the football coach who never punts—4th and 15 at his own five-yard line, he’s going for it. That’s fearless. It’s hard to think of a baseball equivalent, one that would work or even one that might work. Russell Carleton this week explored the listener-suggested idea of having the left and right fielders swap, depending on batter handedness, to make sure the better defender gets more attempts to field the ball. The gory math supports the use of the relatively conservative proposal, but Carleton concludes what we can't help but conclude:
In United States culture, it’s not nice to look like you’re trying too hard, especially for such a small reward and when you look weird doing it. As the infield shift has become more and more popular, I find it interesting to hear some of the reactions from teams that don’t shift. Usually, they have moralistic underpinnings. We’re gentlemen here. We don’t shift. We could, but that’s for the riff-raff to do. Brian McCann would totally shoot this down. Still, they’re leaving runs on the table. I have to wonder at what price come pride and tradition.
Meanwhile, Grantland/Crashburn Alley writer Michael Baumann recently came out against defensive shifts. Baumann’s rationale is a bit complex: He thinks it’s actually too easy to beat, and considers hitters’ refusal to beat it a self-destructive act of stubbornness that requires paternalistic intervention. More simply, though, we might say he considers the whole business annoying.
So Baumann is against shifts. Let’s say I’m for them. This is not an inconsequential divide. We’re each likely to live about 50 years more, and in those 50 years the shifts quite possibly will get more extreme. When they do, there will be people who want them outlawed, particularly if they work. It’s time to choose a side, people.
I’m on the side of disruption. The key to disruption: small steps.
Step 1. Corner outfielders swap positions in sacrifice fly situations. There might not be a lot of teams with substantial mismatches between their left and right fielders’ overall defense, but it’s not hard to find three-grade differences in throwing arms—Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford in Los Angeles might be a five-grade difference. Batters go the other way two-thirds of the time on fly balls, Russell found, and one might hypothesize that batters trying to hit a fly ball in a sacrifice situation would go the other way even more often, since pulling the ball is a good way to roll over it. The unambiguousness of throwing ability, and the ease of implementing this tweak—one switch per game isn’t nearly the time burden of eight—makes this a very low-stakes strategy. It’s also unlikely that a manager would have to worry about being second-guessed.