The super-cool, super-modern, super-fun strategy that might not be doing anything.
Last week, we looked into The Shift and whether it was actually doing what we said it was supposed to do, which is to be a better way of getting hitters, especially pull-happy hitters (and double especially groundball-heavy, pull-happy, left-handed hitters) to make more outs. The traditional story of The Shift is that because those hitters are going to be sending most of their ground balls to one side of the field, why not put more fielders over that way?
Here’s a cheeky question that I ask in complete sincerity: How many home runs were hit against The Shift last year? I’m sure someone out there knows the answer to the question, but there are probably more people wondering why I even bothered to ask it. If the ball was hit over the wall, what does it matter whether The Shift was on or not? Either way, the fielders weren’t going to be able to get to it.
The Chicago Cubs’ April was insane, frankly. Through 22 games, they went 17-5 (first team since the 2010 Rays to be that good or better, and before those Rays, it had been since 2003), outscored their opponents by 79 runs (second-best run differential over the first 22 in over 100 years, trailing only the 2003 Yankees; the fourth team in the last decade to outscore opponents by so much over any 22-game stretch), and were on pace to cruise past the all-time record for team walks. Oh, and at 6.18 runs per game, they were on pace to score over 1,000 runs, which would put them in the company of the 1999 Indians, the only team to score that many since MLB became fully integrated.
You probably knew all of that, though, and more to the point, we know none of that will keep up. The Cubs played a very weak April schedule. They got some key hits and strong overall performance from the likes of Matt Szczur and David Ross. They lost Kyle Schwarber for the season and Miguel Montero for at least a couple weeks. Jason Heyward has not made the hoped-for changes to his offensive game, remaining instead a patient hitter capable of hitting the ball hard, but not of getting it off the ground often enough to tap into the full power of that contact. Dexter Fowler played out of his mind for two weeks, but while he’s a better player than the (ahem) market decided he was this winter, he’s still Dexter Fowler. The Cubs aren’t a 110-win team. I’m not sure I would peg their final record any higher today than I would have on Opening Day, all things weighed and accounted for.
Three years ago, Michael was dead wrong about the shift. He still is, but now he has a powerful ally.
I love Joe Girardi, in large part because he looks like a Serious Dad. He’s got the kind of stern face that makes you believe that you were actually wrong to play Indoor Softball in front of the new TV.
By virtue of his Serious Dad Face, among other skills and virtues, Girardi has navigated two tricky ownership groups, become the only manager ever to win Manager of the Year with a losing record and—most importantly—won the 2009 World Series.
What really happens when we try to compare players across positions empirically.
I’m guessing that many of the people reading this will have come to appreciate the game of baseball the way I did, through the magic of baseball cards. When I was growing up, a baseball card told you three things on the front of the card: the player’s name, the player’s team, and the position that he played. It’s something that’s deeply ingrained in how we understand baseball. Players have their positions. And we know all nine of them. Well, of course, there were the utility infielders. I remember when I was 7 that I called them “switch-position” guys. They got little dashes in the little circle where it showed their position. SS-2B. 3B-1B. In baseball, it’s perfectly legal to shift around the park, but the good players, they had a regular spot to hang out in.
Single-year outfield defense might be an intractable problem.
Remember a few weeks ago when Alex Gordon was leading the American League in WAR? No one questions that Gordon is having a(nother) really good season and should rightly get some down-ballot MVP votes, but the best player in the American League? People quickly noticed that a good chunk of Gordon’s WAR came from his defensive ratings, where, at the time, he was picking up roughly two wins worth of value in left field. Gordon’s regarded as a good left fielder, but “good left fielder” is also the “great personality” of fielding aficionados.
Should WAR(P) systems adjust their defensive measures? Okay. Now, which direction?
We heard the first blows in the nascent MVP debate of 2014 unfold just last week. At the time, Alex Gordon led all players in fWAR (by a narrow margin), largely on the basis of his extraordinary defense in left field (15 fielding runs above average, fifth highest in MLB). In response, Jeff Passan wrote that the idea of Alex Gordon as the best player in baseball was absurd.
Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued. To some of the doubters of sabermetrics, Gordon’s triumph on the leaderboards was yet more proof of the uselessness of WAR(P). To others, arguments against Gordon may have seemed ill-formed.
A shift-happy Baltimore squad unveils a new approach against the Athletics' switch-hitting leadoff hitter.
At the end of May, I introduced the idea that some teams were going from playing nearly straightaway to using a full overshift once they got two strikes on certain pull-heavy, bunt-threat lefties. The idea was that teams would probably prefer to implement a full overshift earlier in the count, but were hindered by the hitter’s ability to bunt for a base hit. This was inspired by the Orioles using a two-strike overshift numerous times against Michael Bourn, and the Pirates doing it a couple of times against both Denard Span and Danny Espinosa.
How have the Rays outfielder's opponents shifted against him with the bunt in mind?
At the end of May, I introduced the idea that some teams were going from playing nearly straightaway to using a full overshift once the count went to two strikes against certain pull-heavy lefties whom they deemed threats to bunt. The idea was that teams would probably prefer to implement a full overshift earlier in the count, but were hindered by the hitter’s ability to bunt for a base hit. This was inspired by the Orioles using a two-strike overshift numerous times against Michael Bourn, and the Pirates doing it a couple of times against both Denard Span and Danny Espinosa.