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May 28, 2014

Overthinking It

Defining Positions in the Age of the Shift

by Ben Lindbergh


At its core, baseball’s defensive revolution has been about positioning fielders in places where the ball is most likely to be hit, an idea so simple and sensible that it seems incredible that teams didn’t adopt it earlier. As the Astros’ Sig Mejdal says, “Why weren't teams positioning their infielders different half a decade ago? I don't know. The data was all there.”

Part of it the answer is risk aversion, as Mejdal also suggests. But repositioning fielders based on batter tendencies was considered so risky only because the standard alignment was ascendant for so long. Why wasn’t it obvious to everyone—players, coaches, executives, authors—ages ago that more mobile fielders could be a big help? Maybe because embracing the shift requires all of us to do something difficult: to redefine—or at least loosen our deeply ingrained definitions of—what it means to play a position.

On a basic level, we distinguish between most defenders based on their physical locations on the field. If a baseball novice asked you to explain what a shortstop does, you might start by saying that he’s “the fielder who stands between the second baseman and third baseman, to the third-base side of the second-base bag.” That explanation would have worked well a decade ago, but today there are too many exceptions to the classic alignment. Many shortstops move to the right side of second with a pull hitter at the plate, ceding their previous spot to the third baseman. In those cases, the novice could be excused for assuming that a change in positioning corresponds with a change in position.

Baseball’s box score has no patience for philosophical questions about the nature of positionhood. As far as the box score is concerned, the original shortstop’s inherent shortstop-ness travels with him wherever he roams. Aside from shrinking hit totals and batting averages, then, the venerable medium through which many fans follow games offers no indication of a fundamental (don’t say shift don’t say shift) development in the way those games are played. As author and longtime Yankees PR Director Marty Appel observed in a recent Facebook discussion thread,

Shifting so regularly is an enormous change for baseball. It also challenges our future readings of box scores, where a 5-3 putout no longer tells us with certainty approximately where the ball was hit.

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article What You Need to Know:... (05/28)
<< Previous Column
Overthinking It: The 1... (05/23)
Next Column >>
Overthinking It: This ... (05/30)
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