Second Base in a post-shift world

The other night in the FromThe108 podcast, I made a resolution to “embrace the Chicago White Sox’s zero second basemen strategy.” Now, I was half joking as the Sox had recently passed on Jean Segura, a former shortstop who will likely do just fine without the shift. I did, however, start to think about what effect this rule change might have on MLB’s keystone. If you’re not familiar with the rule change, let me summarize it below:

  1. A minimum of 4 infielders must be within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber.
  2. Infielders cannot switch sides. You can’t have your really good SS run over and play 2B against left handed hitters.
  3. An outfielder can be re-positioned and even play on the infield boundary. But no 4 outfielder sets are allowed
  4. If violated, the hitting team can take the result of the play or a ball. Think offsides in the NFL.

As you can probably tell from the rule and having watched baseball in the past 5 years, this will benefit left handed hitters the most. Which based on Baseball Savant’s numbers, is 39.5% of all plate appearances. But who does that negatively impact the most? While you could say pitchers, it is most likely second basemen. And here is where we have our biggest problem: it is very difficult to gauge how impactful it will be for them. When we would typically look to metrics for something like this, I am forced to assume that the metrics we have are flawed.

Now why on earth would I say something like that? Why would I go against the metrics? Well, I’m not really going against the metrics. I am simply saying that they were measuring a position that will no longer exist. For most of the metrics we use to measure fielding, there requires some sort of baseline. Let’s look at RngR from Fangraphs defined below:

RngR (range runs): The number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity.

Pretty straightforward and easy to understand. The problem is that “his vicinity” is going to inherently change this season as everyone will now have roughly the same vicinity. There won’t be a re-positioned SS eating up half of that vicinity and you won’t have 2B positioned 15 feet into the outfield. So while the metric was accurately measuring a player’s range in the past 5 or so years when the shift has become prevalent, they will not be displaying their range in the same area that they did previously. Think about it this way, if you break the field up into zones and say here is where the most difficult plays would be for a second basemen and here’s where the easiest are, the easiest zones of 2022 will likely not exist for them in 2023. Since they cannot back up into the outfield grass to make plays. So the 2023 baseline has to be different than 2022, providing a bit of an unknown for us. Let’s look at 3 examples:

Minimal Shifting

If you were to ask me which team confounds me the most in the MLB, I’d probably answer the Colorado Rockies. Typically it is their roster construction and unwillingness to trade. But today it is the total lack of shifting that this team does. Now, this is probably some credit to their strong infielders and some to the fact that the ball is generally launched out of the infield in their park. But it is noticeable that specifically against LHH, the Rockies shifted 27.8% of the time. The league average was 55%. So while Brendan Rodgers is definitely a very good infielder, it’s surprising to see his defensive runs saved at 22 while the next 2B on the list is at 16. And that’s Andres Gimenez whose team is also low on the list of shifting at 45.6% against LHH. They’re also the top 2 in Ultimate Zone Rating. While I think they’ll continue to be at or near the top, it seems plausible that as 2B are moved back into the more difficult zones on the field all the time, the gap will narrow. However, there are some where it may widen.

From Sporting News. Yes, this guy seems to have range.

Middle of the Pack

Jonathan India is a player that I like, but there are some concerning things when looking at his performance in the field last year. I do realize there are leg injuries involved here, but the Reds were around the league average in shifting against LHH at 55.3% and ranked 15th in the MLB at that. However, even with that, India posted bad numbers in range (RngR -2.4) and defensive runs saved (DRS -14). If there is a positive effect on your stats from not constantly shifting, it did not show for India. Could a combination of leg injuries and an increasingly difficult position be cause for concern among Reds fans? Or should they assume that improved health plus a more leveled baseline for performance would flip his metrics? In other words, his numbers are bad from a combo of injury and metrics disliking 2B that are sometimes part of a shift. Well, let’s go to the team that shifts the most.

Great flow. Good range?

Whole Lotta Shifting

Now to be fair, the Dodgers employed shifts more than the Astros overall. However, the Astros used the shift a whopping 82.1% of the time against LHH. That’s a lot. And Jose Altuve’s numbers are bad in a similar fashion to India’s: range (RngR -.9) and defensive runs saved (DRS -15). But was he really playing 2B most of the time? Are his metrics being punished for playing in easier zones and for having some of the balls in his vicinity be scooped up by his SS or 3B? With Altuve, he has enough of a body of work that we’d probably be able to look back and see how he does without the shift. Unfortunately, the Astros were pioneers in this, so as far back as Savant is giving me this broken down data, the Stros have been over 50% shifted against LHH. Interestingly, the last time Altuve had a positive RngR was in 2017 when they shifted the least against LHH since 2016, but is that enough to prove it’s the cause? Based on previous metrics, he’s never had much range.

This could be problematic for the Astros, but they should be a team to watch here. As mentioned, they’re one of them teams that started this trend, so it will be interesting to see what they do with their positioning to counter this rule change. Not to mention, they now have Jose Abreu to help cover some of that area.

What did I learn?

Sometimes you learn that you know less than you did when you started. There is probably a correlation between shifting and how range metrics get generated. Though there is almost assuredly a correlation between having a really good second basemen and feeling the need to shift or not. Leaving us with a question of: Is shifting a function of 2B performance or is 2B performance a function of shifting? At this point, that is unclear.

There will likely be some players exposed by this rule change and possibly moved away from 2B. White Sox fans that have dreamed of Jake Burger at the keystone should probably stop it with that. But more likely to be worried about are guys like Nolan Gorman or Kolten Wong who posted sub-par metrics with their teams shifting a moderate amount. That may very well get worse.

There are also some players that may see their value rise as they are allowed to show their defensive skills more prominently. Some of them are already high in the ranks like Marcus Semien and Gleyber Torres, but I’d expect we see some more guys close in on Gimenez and Rodgers.

It’s also interesting to see what the White Sox do with Romy Gonzalez who is a fast, athletic player and Lenyn Sosa who due to the levels he played at in ’21 and ’22 has experience with the shiftless world. I would have liked them to go out and get a free agent like Segura, but it’s possible that the unknowns around these rookies felt safer than the unknowns around the position itself.

Regardless of what I think will happen, we should all pay attention to second base play across the league because, at this point, it is basically a new position.

-Chorizy-E

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