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April 19, 2012

Between The Numbers

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Outfield

by Colin Wyers

There has been something weird going on in baseball over the past few seasons. To wit:

Year 1B_RT 2B_RT 3B_RT SS_RT LF_RT CF_RT RF_RT
2003 0.1713 0.2919 0.2351 0.3017 0.3193 0.3712 0.3095
2004 0.1695 0.2879 0.2368 0.3058 0.311 0.3706 0.3184
2005 0.1711 0.2877 0.2369 0.3043 0.3172 0.3687 0.3141
2006 0.1666 0.2873 0.2402 0.306 0.3186 0.3702 0.3112
2007 0.1686 0.287 0.235 0.3095 0.3232 0.3699 0.3068
2008 0.1706 0.2874 0.2382 0.3037 0.3171 0.3706 0.3123
2009 0.1735 0.2829 0.2374 0.3062 0.3163 0.3735 0.3102
2010 0.1694 0.2855 0.2373 0.3078 0.314 0.3738 0.3122
2011 0.168 0.2903 0.2324 0.3093 0.3162 0.369 0.3148
2012 0.168 0.2935 0.2288 0.3097 0.324 0.3713 0.3047

That's the rate of all BIP fielded by each position, compared to its group (so infielders and outfielders each sum to 1 as a group).

What we see over time is an increase in balls fielded by the shortstop and second basemen, among other things. (This holds true if you ignore this season, which is barely under way.) Third base and first base see corresponding drops. In the outfield, we see left fielders picking up more plays relative to right fielders.

To see what's going on, let's split it out by batter handedness. First, right handers:

YEAR 1B_RT 2B_RT 3B_RT SS_RT LF_RT CF_RT RF_RT
2003 0.1134 0.2275 0.307 0.3521 0.318 0.3717 0.3103
2004 0.1098 0.2258 0.3072 0.3572 0.3166 0.3686 0.3148
2005 0.1116 0.2218 0.309 0.3576 0.3206 0.3693 0.3101
2006 0.1128 0.224 0.307 0.3562 0.3179 0.3712 0.3109
2007 0.112 0.223 0.3022 0.3627 0.3206 0.3722 0.3072
2008 0.1109 0.2212 0.3116 0.3563 0.3131 0.3709 0.316
2009 0.1111 0.2156 0.3102 0.3631 0.3099 0.3773 0.3128
2010 0.111 0.2186 0.3083 0.3621 0.3056 0.3778 0.3166
2011 0.1074 0.2188 0.3045 0.3693 0.3104 0.3752 0.3143
2012 0.1051 0.2172 0.3001 0.3776 0.3149 0.3824 0.3027

Balls hit to the shortstop is on the uptick, with a corresponding decline in the number of balls hit to the second baseman. In the outfield, things get really weird, with the ball seeming to shift more to left and center, and right field declining.

On to left-handers:

YEAR 1B_RT 2B_RT 3B_RT SS_RT LF_RT CF_RT RF_RT
2003 0.2521 0.3818 0.1348 0.2313 0.321 0.3705 0.3085
2004 0.2522 0.3739 0.1393 0.2345 0.3035 0.3732 0.3233
2005 0.253 0.3785 0.1376 0.2308 0.3126 0.368 0.3195
2006 0.249 0.3842 0.1377 0.2291 0.3197 0.3686 0.3117
2007 0.252 0.3814 0.1357 0.2308 0.327 0.3667 0.3063
2008 0.2544 0.3804 0.1353 0.2299 0.3226 0.3702 0.3072
2009 0.2563 0.3721 0.1407 0.2309 0.3246 0.3687 0.3068
2010 0.2548 0.3835 0.1334 0.2283 0.326 0.3681 0.3059
2011 0.2511 0.3882 0.1336 0.2271 0.3237 0.3609 0.3154
2012 0.2492 0.3919 0.1368 0.2222 0.3353 0.3576

0.3072

This time we see more balls to second and fewer balls to short, the opposite of what we saw above. The outfield looks similar, albeit more pronounced—more balls to left, fewer balls to right (but with a decrease in balls to center, unlike the right-handed hitters).

What to make of it? Maybe it's nothing, but it feels like something is going on. It could have to do with how hitters are pulling the ball, or how teams are positioning or assigning fielders. (In the outfield I feel like there's some of each going on, actually.) I don't know what it all means, exactly, but I think it's worth investigating in more detail.

Colin Wyers is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Colin's other articles. You can contact Colin by clicking here

Related Content:  Defense,  Fielding

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

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BillPetti

I don't have the data, but my guess would be it's a positioning thing. The Rays are extreme in their use, but I would think the overall use of the shift has increased over the past decade. As teams get more sophisticated about tracking batted ball data they probably are increasing the amount of shifts they employ, which means middle infielders are going to see balls fielded increase.

Apr 19, 2012 10:35 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

But why the relative decrease in the corners, then?

It's also interesting to note that this shift seems to have almost no relationship to BABIP - correlation between "MID_RT" (2B_RT+SS_RT) is -0.09, totally insignificant in this sample size.

Apr 19, 2012 10:45 AM
 
BillPetti

It is weird, I agree. That might be related to pulling the ball less.

Apr 19, 2012 10:48 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

Interesting, but not statistically significant (and remember, correlation doesn't mean causation) - there IS some correlation (.25) between MID_RT and strikeout rate.

Apr 19, 2012 10:55 AM
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

Best correlation I've found so far with MID_RT is HR_CON, at -0.43.

Apr 19, 2012 11:15 AM
 
BillPetti

So even with increase in K's, fewer home runs mean more balls in play. What does the correlation look like for other positions/groups?

Apr 19, 2012 11:28 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

I mean, it could follow if you think that increased use of the shift changes WHO fields the ball but not how many balls they field as a team, necessarily. But then you have to think that the shifts are largely ineffectual.

Apr 19, 2012 11:00 AM
 
Ken Arneson

The act of measuring defense could lead to not just changes in positioning, but also changes in personnel. Seems to me that we've seen a lot more defense-first shortstops in recent years than we did a decade ago.

Apr 19, 2012 10:53 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

Wouldn't that show up in BABIP, though?

Apr 19, 2012 10:54 AM
 
BillPetti

Actually, it looks like league-wide hitters having been pulling the ball less. Pulled_BIP/BIP was 43% (44% with HR) in 2003 down to 39% (40% with HR) last year and it's a pretty linear trend in between.

Apr 19, 2012 10:44 AM
rating: 0
 
ttt

I wonder how that matches up with pulled homers v all homers. Are fewer players pulling homers? That would be interested to match up with the increase in TTO.

Apr 19, 2012 10:51 AM
rating: 0
 
BillPetti

Sort of, but it's not that drastic or as linear as the BIP.

Here's the league-wide pull rate for HR starting in 2003 through this year:

71%, 72%, 73%, 69%, 70%, 71%, 69%, 70%, 71%, 69%

Apr 19, 2012 10:54 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

Hrm. What's your source on this, BTW?

Apr 19, 2012 10:57 AM
 
ttt

Thanks for the response!

Apr 19, 2012 11:07 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

One thing is for sure: this proves Derek Jeter is a great fielder. I'm just not quite sure how.

Apr 19, 2012 10:50 AM
 
ttt

You needed more proof? The way he jumps while turning and throwing. No one could make that play without jumping like that.

Apr 19, 2012 11:06 AM
rating: 2
 
BarryR

The first question is whether this season's numbers are meaningful. If we say they aren't, that the sample size is too small, then the data becomes a bit more consistent.
Let's look at the pre-2012 data and let me postulate two things: 1) the increased use of shifts, both IF and OF has a significant effect on who makes plays and 2) that effect is reinforced by pitchers pitching to the shift, which includes a greater willingness to come inside to hitters in general because of the decline in HR.
If we look at the 2011 numbers for RH, we see an increase in plays for the SS at the expense of the corner IF. This makes perfect sense, as the 3B is pushed further toward the line and if the pitcher is pitching inside more, there is less likelihood of the ball going to wherever the 1B is. As for the OF, the strange number is 2010 in LF, which is way out of line with recent history. LF seems to be returning to earlier levels.
Against LH we see 2B getting more plays at the expense of the left side of the IF, which makes sense. The 1B has less ground to cover since balls hit to hi right are easily handled by the 2B, who is out in RF. In the OF, leaving 2012 out, the RF is taking balls from the CF, which makes sense if the LF is in left center and the pitcher is pitching inside more. Those crappy flies to left center now belong to the LF, while the CF has less area of responsibility. Again, we may not be talking about a huge number of plays here.
Now research could be used to verify or disprove this theory. Pitch f/x could be used to see if more inside pitches have been thrown the last few years. More importantly, these numbers should be run for the teams that are more aggressive with shifts (TB and Milwakee, say) vs. those who rarely do, to see if there is a difference, both in how pitchers attack hitters and whether they have a different out distribution than the less-frequent shifters.

Apr 19, 2012 14:03 PM
rating: 0
 
OonBoon

Is MLB unusually short of LH power hitters these days? I blame Adam Dunn, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Adam Lind for last year's data.

Apr 19, 2012 15:02 PM
rating: 2
 
Richard Bergstrom

I think this is interesting... just from eyeballing the outfield numbers, it almost seems like right handers are becoming more like spray hitters (with higher CF percentages) and left handers are taking it to the opposite field...but it might be informative to see a similar split for LHB and RHB based on GB/FB% and maybe line drives.

Also, if you think about things from a defensive shift and left handed hitters are hitting the ball to left field, then some of those balls to the left fielder might've hit a "5.5 hole" that was created by a 3B and SS shift towards second base.

Apr 20, 2012 01:06 AM
rating: 0
 
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