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Baseball Positions Are Starting To Lose Their Meaning

On Aug. 3, shortly after being acquired by Milwaukee in a deadline deal from Baltimore, Jonathan Schoop found himself in an unusual position on the Miller Park infield. For just the third time in his six-year career, he was starting at shortstop. He wasn’t alone that day. His middle-infield teammate, Travis Shaw, was starting just his fourth game at second base — a position he had never played as a professional before this season.

The Brewers had a surplus of corner bats entering the year, and they added even more at the trade deadline, bringing aboard third baseman Mike Moustakas from Kansas City. At this point, they have more starting-caliber infielders than positions available. This is all part of a grand Brewers experiment as they chase a playoff spot: Trade defense for offense and cram as much power into their infield as possible.

In other major sports, positional labels have become less and less important, so why not baseball? In the NBA, centers and power forwards now routinely shoot threes, in part to increase their offensive efficiency. Defensive versatility, the ability to switch, is more and more valued. In the NFL, teams like the Patriots have valued positional versatility. And position labels are increasingly becoming irrelevant in professional baseball.

“I do think you are seeing a greater willingness by teams to expand the definition of what’s possible and not be as bound by the way things have always been,” Chaim Bloom, the vice president of player development for the Tampa Bay Rays, told FiveThirtyEight.

This is more feasible now in part because of the current baseball landscape. Strikeouts continue to climb: 22.1 percent of plate appearances this season have ended in a K, which would set a new record. Strikeouts are up half a percentage point over last season — equivalent to more than 800 balls taken out of play. Moreover, a record number of home runs were hit last season, and while while home run rates are down, 5,000-plus balls will be hit out of ballparks by the end of this year.

Strikeouts and home runs are putting a considerable damper on the number of batted balls put in play, which were down 14.5 percent last season compared with 1980.1 Since 1998, when the game expanded to 30 teams, there’s been an 8.8 percent decline, and the decline was 7.8 percent since 2008. The trend is expected to continue again this season.

This means that individual defensive efforts are becoming less and less involved in the outcome of games. For example, the combined assists and putouts of shortstops have declined by 13 percent since 2007, from 21,495 in 2007 to a projected mark of around 19,000 this season. Second basemen saw 23,704 combined chances in 2007 compared with 21,057 last season. Center fielders caught 12,829 fly balls in 2007. They grabbed 11,437 last season.

If there are fewer defensive chances available, teams can make the argument that it’s more valuable to chase runs, particularly in an era of launch angle, juiced balls and smaller stadiums.

This season, 68 players have made “primary” position changes, playing the majority of their innings at a different position than they played last season. Thirty of those players graduated to more difficult defensive positions — both of those marks are five-year highs. Players who moved up the defensive spectrum include Manny Machado, who moved from third base to shortstop in Baltimore earlier this season and stayed at short when he was traded to Los Angeles last month. The Cubs at times dispatched Kris Bryant to center field in 2015, ’16 and ’17. The Reds experimented with moving their top prospect, Nick Senzel, from third to shortstop this spring. The Indians, whose pitchers set a record for strikeouts last season, played second baseman Jason Kipnis in center field at the end of the regular season and in the American League Division Series against the Yankees — Kipnis hadn’t played center regularly since he played at Arizona State.

The Indians have also sent Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer to center field over the past two years. “There are always trade-offs between offense and defense,” Bloom said. “When there are trade-offs, you try to take note of all those factors, including the environment, and make the best assessment you can.”

The decline of balls being put in play is not the only leaguewide trend testing the traditional value and labels of defense. This era of specialization has required the erosion of primary positions.

Individual pitchers are absorbing fewer innings. Roles are changing. They Rays introduced “the opener” earlier this season, a new label attached to a relief pitcher who starts a game but only appears for an inning or two. For several seasons, the Rays have rarely let their starting pitchers work through an opposing lineup three or more times. Only 15 pitchers reached 200 innings last season, which tied 2016 for the all-time low mark. More roster spots are being occupied by bullpen arms to absorb innings and seek favorable in-game matchups. Position-player roster spots are further stretched by the popularity of platoons.

“You see teams using more platoons, defensive replacements late in games,” Kipnis said this spring. “You put in the offensive guy early, you get the lead … and he comes out for a better defensive player. It’s kind of the reverse of having a pinch-hitter come in late, basically.”

The Cubs’ Ben Zobrist is the 21st-century poster child of defensive versatility. He wasn’t just a glove-first utility player asked to fill in around the diamond earlier in his career in Tampa Bay; he was a star-level bat who could play about anywhere on the field.

“I think one of the things that made Ben so successful here was his willingness and selflessness to go do it and be an upper-echelon player,” Bloom said. “It set an example for a lot of guys in the league.”

This season has seen a record number of Zobrists. Six players have appeared in at least one game this season at every position other than pitcher and catcher: Marwin Gonzalez, Enrique Hernandez, Yadiel Rivera, Sean Rodriguez, Andrew Romine and Hernan Perez.

Last year, 25 players played at least 10 games in left, right and center field, an MLB record. The number of players to play at least 10 games at second, third and shortstop in a given season is on the rise, too, with a record 20 players doing so in 2016. The top 12 such seasons have all occurred since 2000. A record 27 players played at least 10 games at third and shortstop in 2016, and the 24 players to do so in 2017 tied for second all-time.

Oakland infielder Jed Lowrie has played every infield position in his career and both second and third this season. “You are still going to want your elite defenders in the middle of the field,” he told FiveThirtyEight. “That’s where the majority of the action happens. But versatility allows a team to match up in more favorable ways.”

Also warping the traditional idea of positions and labels is alignment.

Defensive shifts have become a common part of the game and changed the meaning of what it is to play second base or shortstop. This trend began when the Brewers and Rays ushered regular infield shifts into the game in the early 2010s. When shortstops are routinely playing on the right side of second base and second basemen are sometimes playing shallow right field, they cease to become traditional shortstops and second basemen. And alignment has only become more extreme, creative and aggressive. In April, Seattle second baseman Robinson Cano began a pitch 221 feet away from home plate against Texas slugger Joey Gallo, which was the farthest back an infielder had aligned in the Statcast era, according to Daren Willman of Baseball Savant.2

In 2015, MLB teams played four-man outfields on 17 occasions, according to Statcast data. There were nine instances of four-man outfields in 2016 and seven last season. This year? The number has jumped to 194. The Rockies, Cubs, Twins, Dodgers, Orioles, Mariners and Astros have all experimented with this tactic.

There are limits to versatility and stretching labels. Russell Carleton found for Baseball Prospects earlier this month that the defensive spectrum might need rethinking, arguing that positions are skill-specific and that the penalty of moving some players to more challenging positions is greater. “Each position is its own box and the boxes are a lot less similar to each other than we might have thought,” Carleton wrote. Carleton found that over a 162-game season, sliding an “emergency” shortstop up the spectrum cost a club about 26 runs — more severe than the generally accepted penalty of 20 runs surrendered between position leaps on the spectrum.

Certain positions require certain skills and physical traits. Second baseman and shortstops require quick and capable hands to turn double-plays and react to line drives and grounders hit in excess of 110 mph off the bat. To competently man the position, shortstops should be able to make a throw to first from the deep hole between shortstop and third. Still, given the right strikeout and ballpark environment, and with enough offensive production, moving certain players up the spectrum can add value.

“I don’t think we’ll get to the point where those elite skill sets and athleticism won’t be prized,” Bloom said. “It think that’s always going to be something teams look for.”

But where those players play, and what we label them, will likely continue to evolve. The game is changing more quickly than ever, and so are positions as teams attempt to adapt. Just as the Brewers brought defensive shifts to the NL earlier in the decade, they now have the game thinking about the nature of positions, labels and trade-offs once again.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Adjusted for the number of teams in the majors.

  2. The average second baseman stands 151 feet from home plate.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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