Talking Baseball

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Posted by Jon on Monday, April 05, 2004

Shifty Baseball: Opening Day in the USA and Overshifted Infield Defense

After months of anticipation, Red Sox Nation got its first taste of what it's been pining for. Opening Day (Night) was upon us, but unfortunately the taste wasn't as sweet as it could have been. Opening Day, usually the sweetest of sugars, represents to baseball fans all that spring entails for the rest of the population: hope, beginning, and a coming to life of all that has wilted since the cold winds began blowing in November. And suddenly last night, it was here staring me down. When I finally sat down to start watching, my excitement grew. But following Manny's outfield assist early on, there was little for Sox fans to celebrate. A frustrating game, to say the least, in which the Red Sox couldn't hit themselves out of rallies with three inopportune double plays and a host of unproductive and unlucky plays. All in all, they left fourteen men on base, a testiment how frustrating this game bacame.

But it wasn't all bad.

Thankfully, I wasn't forced to add insult to injury by being subjected to the ESPN2 broadcast, in which Joe Morgan probably spent most of the game spouting broad generalizations based upon this one game. Maybe he already has the Orioles penciled in to finish the season ahead of Toronto (and maybe even Boston).

Pedro's pitching was far from dazzling. While he had trouble early, his fastball "frequently" reached 91mph, reports espn.com . After allowing three runs in the second inning, Pedro allowed only three baserunners, two infield singles and a walk. He settled down and pitched well...just not as well as most Sox fans were hoping. It is worth noting that all five of Pedro's K's came after he gave up those runs early on. Overall, Martinez certainly pitched well enough to win, which should be encouraging despite the slower fastball.

By the eighth inning there was little to cheer about, as Boston was already down by five runs. But I couldn't help cracking a smile when I saw Brian Daubach step to the plate, hitting for Pokey Reese in the eigth. While working a five pitch walk (it wasn't much work at all -- he didn't swing once), I was pleasantly reminded of the old Dirt Dog I'd nearly forgotten about. His trademark pre-pitch dance was a sight for sore eyes, reminding me of one of baseball's beauties. More than any other sport, the game of baseball is slow enough to become personal. Seeing him place the bat between his legs and readjust his gloves and helmet before hoisting the bat over his shoulder again brought back memories of summers past.

But Boston fans have some Monday Morning Quarterbacking ahead of them today. Can anybody explain Pokey Reese's two-out bunt attempt with two men in scoring position in the fourth inning? Let's hope Pokey merely forgot how many outs were on the board, which I'm fairly certain was what occurred. After Tony Francona being hired as a stats man and a smart guy, a two-out suicide bunt would be the last play I'd expect him to call.

There's something else from the season opener I hope not to see much of again: the overshift. How many times will the Red Sox be burned by such fielding shifts? It happened against the Yankees last season when they shifted against Giambi and it happened again tonight -- against Rapheal Palmeiro. Looking at the right side of the field, you could mistake the positional alignment for a softball game. With three fielders between first and second base (the second baseman in the outfield, no less), Raphy sliced a grouder to the exact spot Pokey Reece would otherwise have stood.

Essentially, the shift places three fielders in an area usually covered by two (the right side of the infield: first and second basemen), leaving one fielder on the other side in a space generally covered by two fielders (the left side of the infield: shortstop and third baseman). Aside from the fact that Palmeiro, and basically everybody I've seen recieve this shift-treatment (Giambi, Bonds), is a very good hitter and probably has the ability to poke the ball when given a chance on an outside pitch, the Red Sox are making a few bets when the induce this shift.

In 2003, the average team's fielders coverted 73.6% of the ground balls they induced into outs. (For the purposes of this argument, I will assume that while shifting occurs, this percentage can be representative of all non-shifted fielding conversions because the sample size for large shifts is most likely negligable. If you have information about the efficiency of infield or outfield overshifts, or know where to find it, please let me know by emailing me at talkingbaseball@hotmail.com.) If you're curious, fly balls were converted to outs 87.2% of the time. Essentially, the Sox are betting that when Palmeiro hits a grounder, it will end up on the right side of the infield more than three-quarters of the time beacause a ball hit anywhere in the infield has a 73.6% chance of becoming an out.

Following is a list of Palmeiro's groundout splits, depending on the half of the infield the ball was hit into:
			Left Half		Right Half

Angel Stadium 0 13
Safeco Field 0 7
Network Coliseum 3 6
Ballpark at Arlington* 7 36

Kauffman Stadium 0 6
Metrodome 1 1
Jacobs' Field 0 4
Comerica Park 0 2
U.S. Cellular Field 0 1

Fenway Park 0 3
Yankee Stadium 0 2
SkyDome 1 5
Camden Yards 2 5
Tropicana Field 0 5

Turner Field 1 2
Hiram Bithorn Stadium 0 0
Total 15 98

*Approximated from congested hit chart

Of his 72 total groundouts in each of the Western teams' ballparks last season, an astounding 86.7% were hit to the right side. Essentially, Boston was playing this statistic (which I'm assuming holds true for his performance at the rest of the ballparks in which he played last season) against that of the normal percantage of ground balls converted to outs. So it appears that the Red Sox made the right decision. Either they were unlucky, and if repeated, about nine times out of ten they force him to ground out to the right side of the infield, or these statistics, which I assume Boston management has examined, were flawed. I would like to know whether other teams have ever put such a shift on Palmeiro and how he has reacted. When a hitter is given the option of trying to thread the ball through a gigantic hole in the infield, he may change his approach, trying to push the ball through the gap. In fact, this is what Palmeiro appeared to do. Timlin gave threw him away and he pushed the ball through, right where the shortstop is usually positioned.

The next time a team wants to put on the shift, they'd better consider whether the man at the plate has the ability to punch the ball through the gap. Timlin is a groundball pitcher, so expecting a grounder was certainly justifiable. But by having him pitch away to Palmeiro instead of pitching inside allowed the hitter to go with the pitch and slice it into the outfield. In normal situations, that ball is an out, as are about 75% of all groundballs hit. In Rappy's situation, it was a hit -- solely because in normal situations he had less than a 15% chance of doing it. With an overshift on, this was not a normal situation, and Palmeiro reacted accordingly.

Advance Token to Chavez Ravine

Milton already recieved the "Go Directly to Jail; Do not Pass Go; Do not Collect $200" card a few weeks ago. So I guess it was about time he picked this one from the Chance cards. The problem is deciding which is worse. Bradley will now be the second best hitter on the team who put together worse offensive numbers than the lowly Detroit Tigers. Sadly, Milton's numbers will probably drop a bit as a result of playing in the pitchers' haven we like to call Dodger Stadium. But kudos to DePodesta, the new Los Angeles General Manager who, with his first move, acquired a cheap, young, and productive outfielder who didn't cost a lot to get. Will this acquisition put the Dodgers over the hump? Probably not. But it could noticably boost their offensive production. With Dave Roberts on the bench, the Dodgers have a positive net VORP of 37.9 (remember 10 VORP points equals one win), or 10 Win Shares (3 Win Shares equals one win). The center field shuffle could net the Dodgers about four wins. For their sake, let's hope Milton Bradley can stay healthy and help. But sadly, the Dodgers may have passed the point of no return. When the acquisition of Juan Encarnasion is celebrated, Bradley should be revered as a god.

This time, Milton, please don't pick the race car.

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