Is positional versatility underutilized? What does it cost for a player to transition from one position to another? MLB rules state that players currently in the game may switch positions at any dead ball, so why don’t teams shift their stronger fielders around the diamond based on batted ball profiles? Would it be worth it, in terms of runs, to try to have players play multiple positions and shift around the diamond? These are the questions that the following research attempts to answer.
I. The cost of transitioning between positions
The first thing that must be evaluated is what a player gains or loses when moving from one position to another. To do this, I looked at a player’s Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved numbers, on a per inning basis, for each position they played at least 500 innings at. I did this for every player that met this minimum during the years from 2003-2013 (2003 was chosen as the cutoff because that is the first year DRS numbers are available). After data collection, for each position I took the total per inning number, subtracted from the position they were moving to, multiplied by 1200 innings for roughly a full season. I did this for every position, but I will only list the important positions for the purposes of this research. Since teams would most likely be shifting based on handedness and pull rates (though they theoretically could shift based on other things like GB/FB ratio if they had an outfielder who played a fantastic infield position or vice versa), this makes the important transitions ones shifting between the right and left side of the diamond. Those transitions are as follows:
(Note that due to how this was calculated, the inverse transitions, like 2B-SS, are the same number, but negative. This data was all gathered from Baseball Reference.)
SS-2B: 2.32 TZ runs for a season
SS-2B: 1.82 DRS
3B-1B: 4.68 TZ
3B-1B: 4.41 DRS
LF-RF: -1.03 TZ
LF-RF: -2.05 DRS
(Personally, I had thought left field was more difficult, though maybe that is a result of mostly watching games in PNC park. It is also worth mentioning that on an individual basis, LF and RF are where Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved had the largest disagreements)
So, as most people would expect, shortstop came out to be the most difficult position on the field, followed by second base and center field, third base and right field, left field, and first base. So, now that we’ve established that baseline for players transitioning between positions, we can move on to how many runs they would gain or lose in the process.
II. Estimating the number of fielding opportunities
Initially, I could not find detailed batted ball information broken down by handedness. So I attempted several methods of quantifying the impact, using the Cubs fielders as an example, and continually came up with the Cubs gaining 3-6 runs over the course of a season while shifting 20-30% of the time. However, those methods will not be discussed here. This is because Tony Blengino posted this wonderful article yesterday, complete with a batted ball breakdown for left and right handed hitters. So, it was revision time.
Step one was to take the number of fielding opportunities (also from Baseball Reference) for each of the examined positions, so I could get TZ/Fld and DRS/Fld numbers. This was also done with the transitions applied, to get TZ/Fld and DRS/Fld numbers for when they were playing the alternative position. Then, Blengino’s breakdown was combined with the average GB%, FB%, LD%, and IFFB% for left and right handed hitters. This gave a more specific batted ball breakdown for each area of the field. This breakdown is as follows:
With this information, I could get to work on estimating the number of fielding opportunities for each position. The first thing to do was to find the number of balls put in play against the Cubs for their 6149 PAs. For right handed batters I took the 6149 PAs * 58% (percentage of RHH) * 68.77% (percentage of balls put in play by RHH). For left handed hitters it was 6149 * 42% * 67.76%.
Unfortunately, this is where I ran into a small problem. I don’t know which balls hit in an area are attributed to which fielding position. For example, I don’t know what proportion of line drives to right field are caught by the first baseman, and what proportion is considered a ball the right fielder should field. This information is likely available, but I do not have it, and could not find it. If someone does find it, I would love to be able to do this more accurately. As it stands, I made educated guesses. The estimated fielding opportunities for each position, broken down by handedness, are as follows for Cubs fielders:
(Percent chance a ball in play was hit into that position’s area, and actual total number of fielding opportunities from last season in parenthesis)
1B: 93.88R (3.83%), 244.35L (13.96%)
1B Total: 338.23 (333 actual)
2B: 223.67R (9.12%), 273.44L (15.63%)
2B Total: 497.11 (496 actual)
3B: 351.59R (14.34%), 69.12L (3.95%)
3B Total: 420.71 (424 actual)
SS: 415.05R (16.92%), 170.37 (9.74%)
SS Total: 585.42 (584 actual)
LF: 459.42R (18.73%), 217.04L (12.40%)
LF Total: 676.46 (676 actual)
RF: 280.80R (11.45%), 331.27 (18.93%)
RF Total: 612.07 (662 actual)
(Estimations attempted to keep close to the actual number and proportion of fielding opportunities. I could not get it to happen properly for RF. It will have to be ironed out at a later date.)
III. Estimating the number of fielding opportunities and runs when shifting
The first thing worth mentioning is the total number of additional runs saved depends entirely on how often a team chooses to run this particular shift. When estimating for the Cubs, I chose to run this shift 25% of the time against all batters (Normally, one might only shift against left handed hitters, but the data suggests that Darwin Barney may be better off playing shortstop than Starlin Castro, so the Cubs will be shifting 25% of the time against all hitters). The first thing to do is to find out a position’s number of fielding opportunities when it is shifting to cover someone else 25% of the time, and when it is covered 25% of the time.
When covering, this is done by taking the number of fielding opportunities when the ball is more likely to be hit at them (like when a 1B is facing a LHH) + 25% of the position being switched to (3B against RHH) + 75% of opportunities when the ball is less likely to be hit at them (1B against RHH). So, a 1B would be playing 1B against every LHH, 3B against 25% of RHH, and 1B against the other 75% of RHH. For being covered, it is the opposite. All fielding opportunities when it is less likely to be hit at them (1B against RHH) + 25% of the alternative position (3B against LHH) + 75% of their original opportunities (1B against LHH). The new total number of estimated fielding opportunities for covering and being covered is as follows:
Essentially, this would get your strongest fielders more fielding opportunities, provided they are still strong after making the transition. Converting the previous formula to runs is simple, since we took both the regular and alternative position’s TZ and DRS runs per fielding opportunity. So for covering this becomes the more likely side * TZ(or DRS)/Fld + 25% of the alternative position’s strong side * AltTZ(or AltDRS)/Fld + 75% of the original weaker side * TZ/Fld. For being covered, the runs per fielding opportunity are added into that previous formula in the same way. That gives us the total number of runs for covering and being covered as follows:
When optimizing the lineup, since one of each pairing (1B-3B, 2B-SS, LF-RF) must be covered, both Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved agree that 1B should cover for 3B (due to a love of Rizzo’s defense. TZ would disagree if Valbuena had played the whole year) and 2B should cover for SS (both metrics love Barney and dislike Castro). They disagree on RF and LF, where TZ thinks LF should cover, and DRS thinks RF should cover.
If optimized for Total Zone runs, shifting 1B-3B, 2B-SS, and LF-RF 25% of the time results in a total TZ runs for these positions of 7.81, which is a 2.81 run improvement over the original lineup.
If optimized for Defensive Runs Saved, shifting 1B-3B, 2B-SS, and RF-LF 25% of the time results in a total DRS of 22.31, which is a 2.31 run improvement over the original lineup.
Running this shift for the Cubs 25% of the time resulted in a gain of 2-3 runs over the course of the season. This is not an insignificant amount of runs, but there are some things that need to be mentioned.
1. This shift is run 25% of the time against the average for left and right handed hitters. If a team is really going to shift 25% of the time in this method, they will do it against the 25% most extreme pull hitters for each handedness. I do not know the batted ball profiles of the most extreme pull hitters, but it would result in more fielding opportunities when covering, and fewer when being covered. This would likely increase the total number of optimal runs gained significantly. Since I do not have those profiles, I am unsure by what specific margin, but I would love to be able to know.
2. This enables you to somewhat “hide” a poor fielder, particularly at first base. The greatest difference in the odds of a ball being hit at them is between first and third base. If one fielder was particularly poor, you could make sure the odds of a ball being hit to him were always low. The greater the difference between the positions being switched, the greater the overall runs gained are for the season.
3. The Cubs were a terrible team to choose. I initially thought of this idea as I was speaking with a member of their front office, so I did this work on their team specifically. The reason the Cubs are a poor team to choose is because the disparity between the positions being switched is relatively small, except for 2B-SS which has a smaller impact. As mentioned above, this results in a smaller amount of runs gained. A team with a large disparity between first and third would see a far greater impact, particularly with a very good third baseman and poor first baseman due to the transition between positions. I will likely do this with additional teams in the future.
4. As mentioned, this was only run 25% of the time. The more often it is run, the more total runs will be gained.
5. This could be done far more accurately. I do not have all the information I would like available to me right now. I know that an entity like Baseball Info Solutions already records batted ball data to a large number of vectors on the field, as that is how DRS is calculated. That information could be used to come up with far more accurate results in terms of the exact likelihood a batted ball will be fielded by a specific position.
6. The transitions between various positions vary widely on an individual basis. I used the average numbers over a very large sample, so it should be a decent approximation, but every player is different. For every player that went from a very poor shortstop to an excellent second baseman, there is one who performed worse in the same transition. However, due to the transition values roughly lining up well with the positions that are generally known as being difficult, I have no issue with using them.
7. I did not look into whether shifting defensive positions could come with a reduction offensively. Theoretically, a player may slide a bit if he has to focus more attention on fielding multiple positions. I have not yet looked into this. If such a reduction exists, it could possibly be neutralized by an organizational philosophy embracing positional flexibility as players develop.
Overall, the Cubs could likely gain around 3 runs by shifting 25% of the time. If a team has a greater difference between fielders, and shifts with greater frequency, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that team to improve by 1-2 wins over the course of the season. Shifting has grown far more popular lately, and it has been demonstrated to improve overall defense. I believe this is an extension of shifting. It makes sense to shift your fielders to where the other team hits the ball most. It also makes sense to shift players in this manner, and give your better fielders more opportunities to field the ball while giving your poorer fielders fewer opportunities. If you’re going to put a fielder where they hit the ball most, you might as well make it the fielder that is most likely to make a play.
V. A more extreme example
When I wrote this article a few days ago (but hadn’t decided to post it yet) I mentioned that the Cubs were not the greatest choice of team. So, I ran it on a more extreme example, and with greater frequency. As far as frequency is concerned, I upped it from 25% of the time to 50% of the time. For the team, I needed a team with an excellent third baseman, and below average first baseman. The first team that I thought of was the Orioles, so that is the team I used. Considering this is just a quick example to demonstrate the top end of the spectrum rather than the bottom, and the process was not changed, I will not walk through the process in detail again and will just provide the total runs.
If optimized for Total Zone runs, shifting 3B-1B, 2B-SS, and RF-LF 50% of the time results in a total TZ runs for these positions of 49.34, which is a 15.34 run improvement over the original lineup.
If optimized for Defensive Runs Saved, shifting 3B-1B, SS-2B, and LF-RF 50% of the time results in a total DRS of 44.65, which is a 14.65 run improvement over the original lineup.
(For reference, the Orioles when run 25% of the time were approximately an 8-9 run improvement)
With the same potential improvements and diminishments as mentioned in the first example, this is more of an idea of the top end of the spectrum. The Orioles, already a strong defensive team, could potentially gain about 1.5 wins by shifting in this manner 50% of the time. There are definite caveats to consider and improvements to make, but shifting like this could have an extreme defensive impact.