Week of August 10, 2018

Why Baseball’s Shift Actually Hurts the Defense

We’ve written a few times about the increasing use of the defensive shift in baseball, as recently as last month. The concept of the shift is simple: For hitters who pull the ball a lot, put more defenders in that area to increase the likelihood of an out. It makes sense, and teams have gone to extremes to use it over the last few years. The story we featured last month involved hitters who face shifts explaining why they insist on trying to hit into/over the shift instead of just slapping a ball to the vacated spot on the opposite side of the infield. Essentially, it’s not as easy as it sounds and it takes the bat out of the hands out of your power hitters.

But, as the use of the shift has soared, so too have the statistics on the shift’s effect. Surprisingly, the shift is actually hurting the defense and increasing scoring, albeit slightly. While the shift does have the effect of reducing BABIP (batting average on balls in play) by roughly 18 points on the most shifted hitters, scoring actually increases when a shift is employed. Two articles I read this week illustrate this.

The math here is pretty interesting, as laid out by Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus:

I looked at all hitters who had at least 100 plate appearance without The Shift. If a batter had a .300 BABIP without The Shift, then in the 200 plate appearance that he got in front of The Shift–if The Shift was exactly as good a defense against batted balls as a standard two-right/two-left alignment–we would expect 60 hits from him. If The Shift is a better defense, we’d see fewer than 60. If it’s worse, we’d see more. Now, we know that because of small-sample-size weirdness, you can’t always trust the results you’d get from this sort of analysis on an individual level. But if we sum across the league, we can get a good idea on how The Shift is doing in the aggregate.

We see that the Full Shift “took away” 493 singles, but it somehow gave back 574 walks. It seems that the primary effect of The Shift is to change the way that a batter reaches first base, and it seems that he is standing on first base more often. You can’t throw him out if he gets to walk there.

So why is this happening? A summary from Sam Smith of ESPN:

Even though the shift is good at gobbling up ground balls and line drives, it has the secondary effect of making pitchers throw more pitches out of the strike zone. They don’t appear to be pitching to the shift — by throwing more pitches on the inner part of the plate, for instance — but merely pitching away from contact, nibbling more and throwing fewer fastballs. This all means more balls. More balls mean more walks, and they also mean more hitter’s counts, which means more doubles, more triples, more home runs and fewer strikeouts.

Home runs are also up against the full shift, as the hitter attempts to lift the ball up and over the shift more than he would against a normal defense. Carleton suggests that the issue for pitchers nibbling and issuing more walks is mental, and could be fixed – but until then, he suggests defenses utilize the shift only against the most extreme pull hitters

I find this issue most compelling because of the fact some people around the game, including MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, have suggested banning the shift in order to preserve offense. This always seemed like an overreaction to me. But the numbers show, at least right now, that the shift isn’t decreasing scoring, but increasing it. Just another example of why it’s good to collect data before reacting. -TOB

Source: MLB Myth-Buster: The Shift Isn’t Curbing Runs; It’s Creating Them”, Sam Smith, ESPN (08/07/2018); Baseball Therapy: How to Beat the Shift”, Russell A. Carleton, Baseball Prospectus (05/22/2018)

PAL: No rules banning positioning of players. The game will correct itself, because there’s a competitive advantage in the truth. I was listening to the Dan Patrick Show this morning while walking Max, and a guest pointed out that the split finger fastball wasn’t popularized until the 1980s. The game had existed for over 100 years, and then something different came about and revolutionized pitching. Guess what, it happened again in the 90s with the popularization of the cutter. The shift will be worked out. Either it will prove ineffective, or hitters will have to evolve. In the long-term, these are the cat-and-mouse games that make sports interesting.

Summer Internship: Cape Cod League Broadcaster

The Cape Cod Baseball League is a wood bat summer league where some of the best college ball players are invited to play. While to the crowd the games might be, as The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis describes it, “a chance to put a capper on a perfectly Rockwellian day”, The Cape League is a serious nesting area for future big leaguers. According to the CCBL, there were 306 Cape Cod alumni in the Majors in 2017. That’s an incredible 25% of all big leaguers after they expand to the 40-man roster.

It’s not just a training ground for players. Curtis digs into the broadcasting internships started by the Vegas Knights radio play-by-play announcer, Dan D’Uva. D’Uva started the internship program with a friend when he was in high school back in 2002, and he continues to oversee the internship program to this day.

There’s a lot to like about this story, but I especially enjoyed reading how serious D’Uva and this years interns, Josh Schaefer and Cooper Boardman, take it. This is about teaching a craft. D’Uva and the boys seem to really have a coach-player relationship. When D’Uva’s in town, they go over the game ‘tape’ just like players do, only their classroom is the pressbox. D’Uva asks which of the two pupils wants to go first, then they break down an inning of announcing from the night before. All of this is focused on kicking the habit of mimicry.

When you attend the Cape Cod finishing school for broadcasters, you don’t just submit to daily critiques. D’Uva is waging a war against baseball broadcasting cliché. Young play-by-play announcers’ heads are filled with clichés: “free pass,” “the bump,” “knock,” “new slab of lumber,” “campaign,” “Hi again, everybody,” “Farewell from …” They use these words and phrases because they think that’s how announcers are supposed to sound.

After calling the first inning against Yarmouth-Dennis, Cooper swiveled around in his chair. “I said ‘clubbed’ three times in that inning,” he announced to the press box. “I don’t know why. I don’t say that.”

D’Uva told me: “One thing I’ll say is, ‘Don’t be a pretender. You’re not acting the part of a broadcaster. You are a broadcaster.’”

Other useful notes D’Uva passes onto the boys include:

  • Don’t say ‘just in the nick of time’ when you can say ‘safe’ or ‘out’. Too many words. Your listener is thinking,‘Spit it out.’”
  • Add the detail of how close the play was AFTER you make the outcome clear.
  • When you say ‘big game in the east division’ and tell me Harwich is leading Orleans, I expect you to then tell me what place those two teams are in and how many points separate them from each other and from Chatham.
  • Tell me what happened.

It’s easy for us to sit back, watch games, and make a comment here or there about the defense or the hitter’s recent hot streak, but it is no doubt craft to call a sporting event. Much like the players, the Cape Cod League will be as good as it gets for a few years if Schaefer and Boardman take the next step in their journey to a big league stadium. They will be calling low minor league games in towns like Elizabethton, Tennessee and Pulaski, Virginia. These are a long ways away from the postcard experience that is the Cape Cod Baseball League. – PAL

Source: “The Cape Cod Finishing School for Broadcasters”, Bryan Curtis, The Ringer (8/6/18)

TOB: Good read, and this was a bit of a flashback for me: I was taught many of those same lessons in my first year law school legal writing class: don’t use the passive voice; be thorough but make your point succinctly. Anyways, their summer sounds like a friggin blast.

 The Most New York Times Sports Article Ever Written

Ever wonder where the phrase “out of left field” comes from? Ever wonder why it out of left field and not center field (seemingly furthest “out there”) or right field?

How about “hands down” or “back to square one”? Your lazy wait is over (I mean, you couldn’t looked these phrases up before now if you really wanted to know).

Here are my favorite three idiom explanations, ℅ Victor Mather:

Back to Square One

As with many terms, there is a colorful explanation of the origin and a more prosaic and realistic one, though both originate with competition.

First the colorful one: When soccer was first broadcast on the radio in the 1920s in Britain, there was concern that fans would not be able to visualize the field well. So the field was divided into numbered squares, with charts published in newspapers. That way the announcer could say, “The ball is passed into Square 4, then dribbled into Square 6,” and fans used to watching games in person would understand what was going on. Square 1 was the area with the goalie, so a pass back to Square 1 would be a restarting of an offensive move.

The Oxford English Dictionary deflates that theory though, pointing out that the term’s use really began in the 1950s, some decades after the soccer broadcasting scheme stopped. It suggests the term actually comes from board games like chutes and ladders, in which players can find themselves sent back to the start.

Hands Down

It sounds like it might be from a card game, but it actually comes from horse racing. When a jockey has a race in the bag, he can relax his hold on the reins and stop urging the horse so hard.

Out of Left Field

In 1961, William Safire devoted a Times column to the topic and put forth numerous ideas, including that left field was often deeper than right in early baseball stadiums, that weaker fielders were put in left and that left fielders tended to play farther back.

A more colorful explanation is that behind the left-field wall at the Cubs’ West Side Grounds, in use from 1893 to 1915, was a mental hospital whose patients could sometimes be heard making bizarre remarks during the game.

One other note of importance: don’t sleep Bill Shakespeare when it comes to sports idioms. He’s responsible for two that made the article – there’s the rub and Wild-goose chase. As you go into the weekend and are wondering what the hell to talk about at tonight’s happy hour or cocktail party, casually bring up that you read this delightful little article in The Times about sports phrases. Just make sure you do so with an old fashioned or Manhattan in your hand. Keep it classy. -PAL

Source: We Use Sports Terms All The Time. But Where Do They Come From?”, Victor Mather, The New York Times (8/6/18)

How One of the World’s Best Sherpas Ended Up Working Retail in Manhattan

This is an interesting look into the life of Serap Jangbu Sherpa, one of the world’s best sherpas, who scaled 11 of the 14 highest peaks in the world, including the most dangerous, K2, twice in one year. Serap retired a few years back, and now works unassumingly in a sporting goods store in Manhattan. The story looks at his young life, how he became a “Sherpa” (which is actually the name of the ethnic group), how and why he ended up working retail in Manhattan, still only aged 49, and tells of some of his most harrowing treks. For a taste, here’s one such story:

Just before midnight on May 11, with four other Sherpas and two Koreans, they started up the North Col from the third camp and arrived at the summit at 11 a.m. They remained on the summit for 90 minutes, then Park and Serap started into Nepal. They climbed down in alpine style, connected to each other only by a thin lightweight rope, seven millimeters thick and 50 meters long.

Serap led, even though he’d never come this way before; he’d only ever reached the summit from the north face. They were climbing blind at 29,000 feet. Coming down the Hillary Step at 12:30 p.m., one of Park’s crampons caught an old rope, and he slid to the edge of the exposed rock face. His headlamp flew off, dropping 8,000 feet to Camp Two.

Serap slammed down his ice axe and tied their rope to the handle. If Park fell, Serap would be pulled off with him.

Serap held the rope tightly; anything more than walking at that altitude felt impossible. After half an hour of wriggling to push himself up, an exhausted Park managed to grab onto a rock for support and with his other hand free his crampon.

A good read! -TOB

Source: The Sherpa of New York”, Ryan Goldberg, Deadspin (07/25/2018)

Imagine Being So Rich You Wouldn’t Miss a $150k Deposit

Tommy Fleetwood is a British Golfer. There’s another Tommy Fleetwood who also plays professional golf, and lives in Florida. British Tommy recently earned $150,000 in the British Open. But the European Tour accidentally sent the winnings to Florida Tommy, who had played in some European events in the past. Oops. Here’s a screenshot of Florida Tommy’s banking app.

Florida Tommy was honest, and alerted the proper people of the error (though it is a crime to spend money accidentally deposited into your account), and British Tommy got his winnings.

This is a bit of an unremarkable story that I normally wouldn’t bother writing about, except for this quote from British Tommy:

“I honestly didn’t know anything about it. I wouldn’t even know if I’d been paid or not because I don’t really look.

Oh, goddamnit. What a rich bastard. “Ohh, I’m sooooo rich that I wouldn’t notice not getting paid $150,000.” Screw you, pal. -TOB

Source: European Tour Sent Tommy Fleetwood’s $150K To The Wrong Tommy Fleetwood”, Patrick Redford, Deadspin (08/09/2018)

PAL: Send the money my way. I’ll notice it everyday.

Video of the Week: 121 MPH exit velocity. Holy crap.

PAL Song of the Week: The Avalanches – “Because I’m Me”

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And she is a woman. She is a strong, soft, thoughtful, SEXY woman.

-M. Scott

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