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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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7 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

danugglasforearm

I vote for use of the word "rover".

May 28, 2014 09:49 AM
rating: 3
 
PeterCollery

Fielding metrics are, as I understand them, based on the frequency with which a fielder makes plays on balls hit into his "zone". How are these metrics adjusted to accommodate the shift?

May 28, 2014 12:20 PM
rating: 0
 
Pat Folz

It's an issue, and a couple of years ago it seemed to be giving some wonky results in DRS. Admittedly I don't keep up with this as much as I should, but DRS was adjusted to fix it. UZR just chucked shift-plays, not sure if that's changed -- it would seem to be increasingly unsatisfactory as some teams shift nearly ever batter these days.
http://www.insidethebook.com/ee/index.php/site/comments/has_brett_lawrie_already_saved_14_runs_so_far_this_year/

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=17685

May 28, 2014 16:25 PM
rating: 0
 
BillSavage

My question about how to score the shift isn't about the box score, it's about my in-game scorecard. I note the shift often done against Anthony Rizzo thusly: if the 5-3 play involves the 3Bman playing between first and second, I mark it as 5s-3 to indicate to myself that the shift was on. On the 3-9 PO above, I'd've done the same thing: 3-9s.

For those of us still in the age of cardboard and pencils. . .

May 28, 2014 14:49 PM
rating: 6
 
Llarry

Thanks for that idea. I haven't been to a game yet where a shift came into play, but I'm sure it will happen.

May 28, 2014 15:59 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

It shouldn't be a big deal. In both hockey and soccer, players move from their normal relative positions with great frequency. When a winger like Ilya Kovalchuk played the point on power plays, no one ever thought to call him a hybrid LW/D. A position is more a starting point for face offs than a definition.

May 28, 2014 19:40 PM
rating: 0
 
50cubs

I'm putting an "s" for shift after the position numbers when a ground ball is hit to a shifted infielder,for example "43s" for a grounder hit to the 2nd baseman playing short right field. If there's any confusion about where the shifted player is actually playing, I put the number of the position shifted to after the "s". Example: "53s4" for a grounder to the third basemen playing to the right of second, but "53s6" for a third baseman shifted into the shortstop hole.

In my experience, confusion doesn't actually occur all that often.

May 28, 2014 22:31 PM
rating: 3
 
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