After slugging their way to victory for the better part of the 2014 season, the Orioles continued that trend in their opening playoff game, piling up 12 runs and 3 homers. And while Baltimore piled on a bit once Scherzer left the game, the O’s still managed to tag the 2013 Cy Young Winner with 5 runs in 7.1 innings, which was more than enough for the victory. So how did the O’s do it?
There haven’t been too many bright spots in Chicago Cubs baseball over the past few seasons. Apart from Darwin Barney’s spectacular defense at 2nd, the release of Carlos Marmol and some savvy trades that ultimately led to 1st baseman Anthony Rizzo, the bleacher bums haven’t had too much to cheer about since 2008. Starlin Castro was one of those bright spots.
Over the past 3 seasons the Cubs’ shortstop has managed to hit .298/.336/.425 with averages of 9 homers, 9 triples, and 32 doubles per year. That’s excellent production at the plate out of the shortstop position and all those hits netted Castro a pair of All-Star appearances. Castro’s defense at the position has never been up to snuff, but he made positive strides with both his glove and his arm a year ago, and at 23 the hope was that he still had room to improve.
That hasn’t exactly been the case though. Through the first half of the 2013 season Starlin Castro has seen a noticeable drop-off in every possible offensive and defensive category. He’s hitting more that 50 points below his career average, while simultaneously walking less and striking out more than ever before. His speed, which had been good enough to net 25 steals a year ago, has declined too and his defense is so bad it’s almost sad watching him stumble through routine grounders before failing to make the play. It was just two years ago that a then 21-year-old Castro led the National League in hits while posting a very solid 3.2 wins above replacement. Now he’s competing for the title of “Worst Player in Baseball” along with the likes of Ike Davis, Jeff Francouer, and Jeff Keppinger, so what gives?
A month or so ago I wrote about some of the discrepancies I was seeing between the listed WAR (Wins Above Replacement) totals of some players, in that particular instance Brett Lawrie, with their actual play on the field. To reduce the piece down to it’s simplest form, I made the claim that Baseball-Reference.com’s WAR was overcompensating for Lawrie’s defense and inaccurately rating him as the best player in the American League. An in-season adjustment has been made to the bWAR formula to attempt to correct this issue, and Lawrie has since fallen to 9th overall in the American League at 3.2 WAR, which is more accurate but still lacking in truth for a player who has been around league-average at the plate (OPS+ of 97 exactly at the league average). Lawrie isn’t the only player with a questionable WAR and will I was perusing Baseball-Reference.com I noticed another inconsistency that seemed a little bit severe: Brendan Ryan and his 2.7 WAR ranking him as the 19th best player in the American League. This also puts him above every single other shortstop, including the likes of Asdrubal Cabrera, Elvis Andrus, Derek Jeter, and Alcides Escobar. And that’s just a sample of some of the American League players. Again this post isn’t intended to pick on Brendan Ryan, who is a very, very excellent defender, nor is it designed to pick on Baseball-Reference.com (which is my favorite baseball website, by the way). It is intended to point out some inconsistencies in WAR and an attempt to make the statistical world a safer, more accurate place.
Joe Maddon has employed many different varieties of shifts this season and I’ve tried to watch as much of the Rays as I can so far this season to gain a feel whether the shifts are working or not. From what I am seeing so far, the result tends to be a net positive, because very few hitters actually hit the ball to beat the shift, plays usually result in an out. This is just an early estimation, and because defensive numbers are so unreliable, particularly with a small sample size, we will have to put that judgment off for another day.
First let’s take a look at a few reasons Tampa can use the shift more liberally. One of the big reasons is that Tampa Bay has an excellent, hard-throwing pitching staff that ranks 4th in the American League in strikeouts. A couple of their pitchers, Jeremy Hellickson and James Shields like pitching to the shift, and will even position infielders themselves, based on which pitch sequence they want to throw. This caliber of pitching staff tends to further exaggerate the success of the shift a little bit, but could also play a role in getting inside hitters’ heads.
It is also difficult to weigh the mental effect the shift has on hitters, because when many hitters see the shift they change their approach and get frustrated. After seeing the shift during the Opening Series in Tampa, Nick Swisher said, “Righties, lefties, it doesn’t really matter. It feels like there’s 15 guys on the right side of the infield or the left side of the infield.” Other hitters, such as Albert Pujols, have also appeared frustrated by the shift after seeing a normal base hit go directly toward a fielder.
The numbers are interesting as well so far, with the Rays having shifted 125 recorded times so far this season, according to ESPN. According to baseball prospectus, the Rays rank 2nd in baseball in defensive runs saved. However in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the number of balls put in play that are turned into outs, they only rank 20th. It’s way to early to put stock into any of those numbers, as defensive efficiency and defensive runs saved require very large sample sizes. Tampa used the shift more times than any other Major League team a season ago, and produced a fantastic defense, so Maddon’s decision to use it even more this season isn’t too much of a surprise, just him pushing the envelope.
So we have 125 cases over the course of the 1st month of the season. Let’s take a look at a few of the times the shift has worked this year, and a few of the hitters that Maddon has had particular success with, and why.
He has grounded into 2 outs this season on the left side of the infield, and 17 times he has hit a grounder to the left side for an out. This is not a recent trend either, because Granderson has always been a pull hitter, especially on ground balls. Joe Maddon knows this and intelligently deployed his shift, taking away multiple base hits from the Yankee centerfielder. In this particular video, Maddon places Sean Rodriguez, the shortstop, just to the right of 2nd base. He has his 2nd baseman, Elliot Johnson, playing deep in the hole with 1st baseman Carlos Pena holding the runner. The Rays ended up winning the game by 1 run, 7-6, and this double play was a rally killer for the Yankees. Rodriguez also took another hit away from Granderson, in nearly the same spot later in the game as well.
Maddon has also taken his shifts one step further this season, employing them nearly as often on right-handed hitters as lefties. Pujols saw the shift in all the games of a recent series. Maddon placed his 3rd baseman Evan Longoria on the line, his shortstop was planted deep in the hole, and his 2nd baseman was located on the left side of the base, shaded toward the middle. It was the perfect alignment for the struggling slugger because Pujols has been a pull hitting machine this year.
Pujols has 2 total outs to the infield on the right side this season, and is making outs all over the place on the left side of the infield. Maddon’s wisely deployed shifts stole hits from Pujols as well. One rocket line drive down the line was snared by a waiting Evan Longoria, taking away a double, and a sharp hit grounder in the hole was easily handled by Elliot Johnson. Again the Rays played a couple of close games in the series against Los Angeles, and Maddon’s maneuvering could be giving the Rays a slight edge.
The Rays also employ various shifts for switch-hitters as well. Mark Teixeira, the Yankees slugging 1st baseman, saw infield alignments that included 3 players on both sides of the infield, depending on which way he was batting. As you can see from Teixeira’s spray charts, he is a dead pull hitter when he hits the ball on the ground, and Maddon played him that way.
The Rays were able to turn multiple hits into outs on Teixeira as well. Teixeira hit a hard liner that was right at shortstop Sean Rodriguez, who was playing up the middle, and the Rays also took away a grounder in the hole with the shift.
Maddon is particularly adept at calling these shifts against the Yankees, and in the Opening Series of the season, he was able to successfully use the shift on half the New York lineup. This is an encouraging sign for Tampa Bay, because any advantage they can get on their wealthier rivals helps.
Over the course of the season I plan on looking at cases where the shift fails, the Rays pitchers who like the shift (particularly Hellickson), and the variety of shifts which Maddon will employ.
I was looking up numbers for a discussion on teams that typically make the postseason when I noticed an interesting trend. Back in good ole’ year 2000 when runs were plentiful, 17 Major League teams scoring more than 800 runs, with 7 of those teams scoring over 900. The same year 16 players hit 40 or more home runs, led by Sammy Sosa with 50. Pitching in the majors was not for the faint of heart. Hitters were destroying the baseball, and to fans the game seemed like it was entering the future. Parks would be smaller, players would be bigger, scores would be higher, stadiums packed, contracts astronomical. A year later Bonds broke the homerun record with 73, while walking nearly as much intentionally. Baseball was forever a different game.
The steroid scandal rocked the sport shortly after and by 2003, baseball would finally have mandatory drug testing. Testing has greatly improved since 2003 and today’s game looks radically different from baseball at the turn of the century. In the last 3 years combined 13 teams have scored more than 800 and only one, the 2009 Yankees, scored more than 900. Last season two players, Jose Bautista (43) and Curtis Grander son (41), topped 40 homers. What happened? Either today’s pitchers have gotten significantly better (maybe), the sabermetric trend is greatly favoring pitchers (probably somewhat) or steroid testing has significantly affected baseball.
The numbers are backing it up, and it is showing up in the games as well. Apart from a few players, guys like Adam Dunn and Albert Pujols, the average major leaguer is smaller today. Small ball is making a comeback. In 2011 teams stole 3,279 bases, up about 350 from the 2000 season. 400 fewer errors were made last year compared to 2000 as well, which means that the value being placed by front offices everywhere on defense is grading out. Only one team in 2000, Cincinnati, converted over 70% of batted balls into outs while last year we had 10 such teams.
Today’s players are slimmer, faster, and more athletic which means more dynamic defense. Some of this movement has to be related to testing. With fewer players having unlimited power due to steroids, it means that on any given night in ballparks around the country players are flashing the leather. Fewer complete liabilities on defense are getting jobs. Gone are the days when you could go to the park and see Barry Bonds or Gary Sheffield in left, Big Mac or Greg Vaughn at first. You may still have a Prince Fielder or David Ortiz, but these guys are going to be getting DH at-bats, but every year more guys like Sam Fuld and Brett Gardner are stealing hits away.