Merry Christmas, Viva El Birdos!
I hope your celebration went as well as ours, despite the snow and cold weather. In between shoveling snow off our steep driveway (three times) to keep it clear for all the family that was coming in, and the sub-zero temperatures, my thoughts have drifted toward the Cardinals in 2023.
It’s time to shift my focus away from off-season planning, away from budgets and acquisition options, and toward Oli Marmol and how he might use the players that he has.
The game of baseball is changing as the league implements some new rules to control the pace and style of play. The new pitcher/hitter clock – pitchers aren’t the only ones slowing the game down – will be in place this season and it should have an effect on several Cardinal hurlers. That, to me, is a simple thing. Just stay in the box and stay on the mound. Problem solved.
The new no-shift infield rule, however, is more interesting and might provide the opportunity for some creative loopholes. That’s what today’s article is about. I’m your crazy cousin over at your house, drinking your egg nog, emptying my dumper into your neighborhood storm drains, and offering my half-baked theories on the local 9.
The Rules & Limitations of the Shifts
Let’s look at the new rule and see if we can’t break it. Here’s the language from an article from Anthony Castrovince on MLB.com:
* The four infielders must be within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber.
* Infielders may not switch sides. In other words, a team cannot reposition its best defender on the side of the infield the batter is more likely to hit the ball.
* If the infielders are not aligned properly at the time of the pitch, the offense can choose an automatic ball or the result of the play.
* This rule does not preclude a team from positioning an outfielder in the infield or in the shallow outfield grass in certain situations. But it does prohibit four-outfielder alignments.
The rule is pretty straightforward. Four infielders. Two on either side of the infield. You can’t shift players back and forth across the infield. Three outfielders.
The rule is designed to create more baserunners by eliminating outs from shifted infielders. The result should be more singles, higher batting averages, and (theoretically) more exciting play.
In reality, the rule probably won’t have a huge impact on the game. The effect would probably be limited to extreme pull hitters with high ground ball rates. Take Lars Nootbaar as an example.
Lars had a 46.6% ground ball rate last season. He had a 43.8% pull rate and a 34.4% straight rate. That’s a lot of ground balls going to the right side of second base since he’s a lefty batter. With stats like that, where would you want your defenders positioned, if you were an opposing manager? Shifted, of course! Push your second baseman over, shift your shortstop to the right side of the bag, and push your third baseman over to cover the normal SS spot. From there, you have nearly every ground ball that Lars Nootbaar is going to hit – and nearly half his batted balls are on the ground – covered with a fielder.
Here’s how that plays out with the spray chart. The left image here is the spray chart of Nootbaar’s batted balls (not just hits, but all balls struck). On the right is an overlay of how Lars was likely shifted.
Nootbaar was shifted just 53% of the time. Not a huge percentage for someone with a pretty obvious pull tendency on ground balls. And when he was shifted against, other teams fared a lot better against him.
2022 wOBA with the shift - .312
2022 wOBA with no shift - .378
Why didn’t teams shift against him more? Who knows! I’m glad they didn’t because the Cardinals benefited. And he should benefit even more since the 53% shift rate he faced last season is going to drop down to 0%... at least while the pitcher is set on the rubber.
That benefits batters like Nootbaar. And probably other lefty hitters like Dylan Carlson, Tommy Edman, and Brendan Donovan.
It’s not so good for poor-fielding infielders, like Nolan Gorman.
If we take this rule as it’s intended and apply it to the Cardinals, the club would end up with a likely standard alignment against righties and lefties of Nolan Arenado (3b), Tommy Edman (SS, Brendan Donovan (2b), and Paul Goldschmidt (1b) across the infield.
The need for added range at second base might make it difficult for Nolan Gorman to handle the position without help from the shift. Last season, when teams could still shift, Gorman had a -12 OAA in limited innings at second, placing him in the 1st percentile in the league. (First here is bad, not good.)
Reports on his performance in AA/AAA were significantly more positive than that; we would probably be justified in believing that he would improve upon his first-year performance. That would still leave him as a sketchy second base defender. Just not the worst in the league.
So, either the Cardinals suffer through some pretty bad defense at the position from the developing Gorman, or just stick the consistent and probably average Brendon Donovan there most of the time.
That creates a separate problem. What then does the team do with Gorman, one of the team’s top young hitting prospects? How can you keep his development – fielding and hitting – from stalling out at age 22 because he doesn’t have a position to play?
Playing with the Shift Rules
The rules are changing with the shift. What’s not changing are the spray charts of those players that teams normally shift against. That got me thinking and trying to answer three questions:
1) Would there be a way to follow the letter of the law regarding shifts while still gaining the benefits of shifting defenders?
2) Would there be a way to position your defenders such that your best infielders and outfielders were placed where a batter was most likely to hit the ball?
3) Would there be a way to do this while getting Nolan Gorman on the field in a way that accentuates his skillset and minimizes his weaknesses?
I think there might be a way to solve all three of these questions but you have to go full-on crazy Christmas cousin to get there. It starts with this defensive alignment:
1b: Paul Goldschmidt
2b: Brendan Donovan
SS: Tommy Edman
3b: Nolan Arenado
LF: Nolan Gorman
CF: Dylan Carlson
RF: Lars Nootbaar
I know the first thing you will say. How does playing Nolan Gorman in left field – a position he has rarely played – fit with the “position your defenders such that your best infielders and outfielders were placed where a batter was most likely to hit a ball” question? I have two answers for you.
First, even though Nolan Gorman hasn’t played much left field, there’s no reason he can’t learn to play it as well as or better than Alec Burleson and Juan Yepez. Gorman has a strong arm, decent speed, athleticism, and good-enough hands. I would guess that, if given the proper time to work out at the position during the winter and spring, he would rate out better as an outfielder than as a second baseman this coming season.
Second, I want my best defenders to play where the balls are most likely to go. If the good gloves are playing where the balls go, then just put the bad defenders where the balls don’t go! Simple.
Look back at Lars Nootbaar’s spray chart. If you have to have 4 infielders on the dirt against him, where do you want your best fielders? Where can you hide your worst fielders?
Based on where Nootbaar most frequently hits the ball, opposing managers should place their best fielders anywhere from the shortstop position up the middle to the first base bag. And their worst? There’s a huge gaping hole of empty spray chart right there at third base. Because lefty pull hitters rarely hit hard ground balls toward the third baseman.
Now, apply that. Who is your best infield defender?
Ok, yes. True.
Most of you will say Nolan Arenado, though. That works, too.
Why leave Nolan Arenado reading a book or eating a sandwich at third base every time a lefty with a pull tendency comes to bat? That’s a waste of his substantial defensive talent!
The rule says that you can’t switch infielders. So, with a lefty up, you can’t just switch Arenado with Brendan Donovan to get him onto the right side of the infield.
But no rule says you can’t switch Nolan Arenado with an outfielder and then position that outfielder on the right side of the diamond on the outfield grass.
Who is your worst fielder in the defensive alignment I listed above? Nolan Gorman.
What’s Gorman’s best position?
Ah… maybe now you see.
What if, when facing a lefty that you would shift against comes to bat, you simply switched Nolan Arenado to left field and Nolan Gorman to third base, and then played your left fielder as a softball rover near the second base bag?
This is what I mean:
Crazy, right? This should satisfy all the rules listed above. There are four infielders on the dirt, two on either side of the second base bag (indicated by the semi-transparent yellow line). No infielders shifted places with each other. There are only three outfielders, not four, and there is no prohibition on where the outfielders stand.
By my reckoning, this would be a legal alignment.
Now, is it a good alignment? That’s a tougher question to answer. I believe shifting like this, like all things, has its upsides and downsides.
1) Nolan Arenado isn’t wasted against left-handed pull hitters. 40% of the league hits left-handed. Only 25% of batted balls go to the opposite field, meaning 75% of balls hit by 40% of the league don’t go anywhere near Nolan Arenado’s Platinum Glove. Why not position him to make some plays on those balls?
2) Tommy Edman’s range is maximized. You might argue, why not do the same thing with Tommy Edman? I’ve heard some people argue for playing Tommy Edman – who might be the league’s best defensive shortstop – in the outfield regularly so he can shift to play the rover position. That’s full Cousin Eddy stuff. The shift rules are designed to increase the range that fielders have to cover. You still want your infielder with the most range to play shortstop. Your rover doesn’t need that much range; the more they have to run, the more likely the baserunner will be safe. The rangy, sure-handed Edman is the perfect type of defender to start left of the 2b bag at the shortstop position and still cover a significant amount of real estate to the right side of second on up the middle grounders.
3) You can hide Nolan Gorman wherever you want. Teams don’t do this, but there is no rule about shifting your outfielders based on the batter. Lefty batters with a pull tendency? Keep Lars Nootbaar and his solid glove in right. Righty batter with a pull tendency? Kick Gorman over to right and move Noot over to left. When you shift Arenado into the rover-like position I’m suggesting, Gorman goes to 3rd, his natural position, and is perfectly equipped to cover the infrequent weak ground ball that’s kicked over toward third.
1) It’s weird and teams don’t do weird things. See point three above. Have you ever seen a team with a weak outfielder shift their right and left fielders based on the batter? I don’t think I have. Shifting the best defensive third baseman of all time to a rover outfield position so a weak fielder can play third 5-8 times per game? That’s weird. Admittedly. But it would probably lead to more outs.
You could also just slide Gorman into the slot where I’m positioning Arenado in shallow right. That would be fine. But Arenado has better range, better hands, better confidence, a better arm… I could go on. It’s weird. Because it hasn’t been done. But it’s not weird at all to want your best fielder in position to make the best defensive plays where those plays need to be made.
2) It only works against lefty pull hitters. I suppose you could do something similar with right-handed pull hitters, but you already have your two best infielders on the left side of the diamond, and you can drop your second baseman right by the bag. Plus, the throw distance is so much longer that you don’t gain anything by putting a rover in shallow left center; he can’t throw the runner out. Is it really worth it to bother with the shift I’m suggesting for a small percentage of plays? More outs are more outs! A defensive advantage is always better than a defensive liability.
3) It pushes Tyler O’Neill into a platoon situation. Like most batters, Tyler O’Neill has career splits that favor starting him against lefties – a 127 wRC+. He’s still been very productive against righties, though, with a career 112 wRC+. That’s not the kind of player that you need to platoon. Especially with his defensive ability and All-Star-caliber offensive upside. This all becomes moot if O’Neill doesn’t allow Gorman into the field because he’s hitting so well.
Could you do the same thing with O’Neill playing the rover position? I guess but you would really want an infielder over there, in my opinion.
4) It creates a weak outfield. Is it better to have a rover outfield/infielder against lefties with pull tendencies or to have a full complement of outfielders? A ball hit hard the other way means a lot of running for Dylan Carlson and probably some runs scored. That could be bad. It’s certainly a risk, but you would play the spray chart odds and odds and accept the risks that go along with it. If you look at Nootbaar’s chart, you probably wouldn’t want to use this alignment against him. He hits too many balls in the air to the opposite field. My gut feeling is that true lefty pull hitters will hit into the shift more often than they’ll be able to generate extra-base power down the left-field line. You wouldn’t shift against batters who could do that routinely (like Lars).
Yes, this scenario I’m describing is awkward. Yes, it’s a bit crazy. Yes, it’s only about half thought through. But that’s the best part about your crazy cousin!
It’s probably also never going to happen.
Forget about that, though. My challenge for you all, fine readers, is to play with this idea and fix it if you can. Got a better way to do it? Let me know in the comments. I’ve got you started, got you thinking and playing, you all can take it from there.