How Defensive Metrics Might’ve Saved Jake Arrieta’s No-Hitter

It’s possible that more has been made of defensive positioning over the last five years than the prior hundred before it. Infield shifts are something we actually track now, and if the early season is any indication, the usage of those infield shifts is on the rise for a fifth consecutive season. Players and managers discuss them openly, television broadcasts take note — some going so far as to display the position of every fielder on the screen — and we see the benefits (and occasional drawbacks) of the shift on a daily basis.

But nearly all the attention we’ve paid to defensive positioning has gone to the infield. There’re more holes in the infield, less margin for error when the shift doesn’t work, and baseball is slow enough to adapt to any sort of change that it should come as no surprise we had to take this one step at a time. But now, slowly but surely, teams have begun shifting more in the outfield, and before long, the outfield shift, just like the infield shift, will become accepted as standard practice, rather than something that demands attention when it happens.

But shifts aren’t confined to lateral movement, the way we most often see. Players are free to move in and out, too, and thanks to new Statcast data, this is the kind of thing we’re starting to see measured and quantified.

Enter Dexter Fowler. Fowler was the center fielder behind Jake Arrieta for Arrieta’s no-hitter last night. Fowler’s been arguably the best player in baseball this year, owing to positive marks in the batter’s box, on the bases, and in the field. Fowler’s long been an above-average hitter, and he’s long been a plus base-runner, but the defensive marks haven’t been so kind. You could make the case the defensive marks are the thing that’s prevented Fowler’s reputation from exceeding “nice little player” to “borderline star.” An above-average hitter who runs the bases well with a reputation as a plus center fielder is a borderline star. But Fowler hasn’t had the reputation as a plus center fielder, because the tools we use to evaluate defense in this day and age have considered Fowler one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball since he entered the league.

Since 2009, Fowler’s first full season, 28 players have registered at least 3,000 innings in center field — the kind of sample we prefer to have before working with defensive metrics. To contextualize Fowler’s place among his defensive peers, I took that pool of 28, weighted Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating equally, and prorated the figures to roughly a year’s worth of playing time. The worst three regular center fielders over the last seven years, by the numbers, are as follows:

  1. Matt Kemp, -11 runs saved per 1,000 innings
  2. Dexter Fowler, -9
  3. Angel Pagan, -4

Fowler stands 6-foot-5, 195, has good speed, and overall looks like an elite athlete, so his consistently league-worst defensive metrics have always been puzzling, the kind of guy the eye-test crowd uses as an example against the metrics by pointing at him and going, “Just look at him!” Which, I can’t blame them. Fowler looks like he should be fine defensively. It’s always puzzled me, too.

Which is why I was immediately captivated by this tweet from Mike Petriello last month:

It shed some light on one way in which Fowler is a defensive outlier in center field, one potential piece of the puzzle toward explaining the differing opinion between scouts and stats on his defense. The pairing with Adam Jones was particularly intriguing, considering Jones is another guy whose athleticism belies the data’s opinion of his range.

It should be noted, as Petriello later pointed out, that Wrigley Field has one of baseball’s smallest outfields, with a particularly shallow center field, and once we adjust for that, Fowler isn’t quite as extreme an outlier. But it’s not like Fowler doesn’t have a history of erring on the side of shallow. When he came up with the Rockies, he was instructed to play shallow, a philosophy that stuck with him even after leaving Colorado.

But the Cubs have different ideas. The Cubs have instructed Fowler to play deeper in center field this year, with manager Joe Maddon citing “defensive metrics” as the reason why. Research done by John Dewan, the owner and chairman of Baseball Info Solutions, showed that the runs saved by center fielders with a tendency to play shallow on balls coming in was far outweighed by the runs lost on balls over their head — Fowler being one of the most extreme examples of this. It’s not hard to hypothesize why. Miss a ball in front of you, you likely give up one base. Miss a ball over your head, you’re likely giving up two or more.

So, back to last night. It was the eighth inning, and Arrieta’s no-hitter was obviously still in tact, considering he still hasn’t given up a hit since. It was the eighth inning, there was one out, Devin Mesoraco was at the plate, and he hit a ball to center field that looked like this:

Can of corn! Certainly nothing that stuck out at the time. Pretty routine catch. Routine for someone positioned where Fowler was positioned. Maybe not so routine for someone who played one of the most extremely shallow center fields of anyone in baseball, like Fowler has in the past:

Granted, no two batted balls are hit the same, and for example, I’m well aware that the bottom-most clip was hit a good 20 feet deeper than the ball from last night. But it’s clear to see the extreme change in Fowler’s positioning from this year to last, and the ball he caught last night was hit to dead-center field. Look at Fowler’s positioning in Cincinnati last night, compared to the first of the three examples from last year:

Fowlerfinal

Just as no two batted balls are alike, no two batters are alike either, and of course Fowler is going to play Mesoraco a bit differently than he plays Billy Hamilton. But I put a little yellow dot where I suspect last year’s Fowler, prior to the coaching staff’s instruction for him to play deeper, might have played Mesoraco. Maybe 10-15 feet more shallow. Now watch the .gif from last night’s no-hitter again, and pretend Fowler’s starting position is 10-15 closer to home plate. Suddenly, he’s going back. Suddenly, he’s going back and trying to catch a ball hit almost directly over his head. Trying to catch a ball hit directly over your head on the fly is one of the toughest catches in baseball to make.

Do we know that my yellow dot is a perfect indicator of where Fowler would’ve played Mesoraco last year, when he still played a shallow center field? Of course not. And even if he had started at the yellow dot, is it possible that he could’ve made the play anyway? Sure. But it would’ve been a hell of a lot more difficult. Last night, it wasn’t difficult. Last night, it was routine, because Fowler was playing deep and didn’t have to worry about the ball going over his head.

It’s not a guarantee that playing deeper will make Dexter Fowler a better center fielder. But Joe Maddon and the Chicago Cubs seem to think it will, and at the very least, it might’ve saved Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Beel418
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Beel418

Forgive me if there’s an obvious answer to this, but with so much more shifting going on these days, why has the league-wide BABIP not decreased? In fact, it’s gone up since every team started using shifts regularly. Isn’t this the opposite of what we should expect?

hangten187
Member
Member
hangten187

Interesting, I guess one thought is there’s more of an emphasis on all-or-nothing swingers, like Miguel Sano and George Springer. Maybe being less likely to just “put it in play” with two strikes is leading to less cheap contact (and therefore higher BABIPs than there otherwise would be). I do feel like teams being more tolerant of strikeouts is leading to more guys who can just plain crush the ball (when they make contact) getting a chance.

Another theory is that teams are selecting more for ground-ball pitchers, rather than fly-ball pitchers, and we know that BABIPs are higher on ground balls. Maybe it’s having a macro effect on BABIPs?

Just throwing it out there.

nottarts21
Member
nottarts21

Along the same lines, it could be the use of exit velocity that’s powered a wave of ball crushers. Shifting could still be preventing an even higher increase relative to normal positioning in BABIP if we see a league-wide increase in average exit velocities.

JediHoyer
Member
JediHoyer

In regards to this particular article, it seems like the cubs are giving in to allowing more singles to decrease slugging. More singles in front, less doubles and triples in the gaps.

fredfotch
Member
fredfotch

The goal of shifting is to reduce runs scored not the percentage of hits for balls in play. This could be done by giving up more singles but fewer doubles. For example, the extreme infield shifts seem to give up fewer doubles down the line, but perhaps they allow more singles the other way. The same thing would be true of outfielders playing deeper (they give up more hits overall but fewer doubles/triples and therefore fewer runs).

Go Rockies
Member
Go Rockies

http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=0&type=2&season=2016&month=0&season1=2007&ind=0&team=0,ss&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=2,d

Of the last ten years, this season definitely has the lowest BABIP so far, though I would assume at least some of that is weather related. 2007-2009 have the three highest BABIP. Yet, the GB% is highest in three of the last four years, which should imply higher BABIPs. So even with the tug of more groundball pitchers inflating BABIP rates, the actual rates are continuing to drop, presumably because of better defensive positioning.

Bryz
Member
Member

After working at Inside Edge and actually having to record shifts and their impacts, I learned a few things upon realizing I hit the “no shift impact” button far more often than “shift impact.”

1) Most shifts end up with only one player “out of position”
This seems counterintuitive, but the next time you see an infield shift, take note of where they all shifted. The 1B probably is a little closer to the line and maybe deeper. The 2B is typically a few steps over to his left, but usually retreats to the short outfield. The SS moves to somewhere behind 2B, and the 3B takes over where the SS used to be positioned (or 3B moves and SS stays put). The only part of the field that used to be uncovered is up the middle, so the majority of grounders still go to a fielder that would be in the same vicinity if the defense was playing straight up. The same is true for the righty shift. 3B stays put, SS moves a little to his right, but it’s the 2B (and 1B sometimes) that moves the most.

2) Shifts don’t affect fly balls
This is pretty easy to understand. Hit it high enough and someone will be able to get under it. Or, you hit it to the outfield where they don’t shift side-to-side as much.

3) Shifted batters often hit fly balls too
These are the guys looking to drive the ball to the pull side. Well, when they mishit the ball, you do get that coveted grounder into the shift, but if they still get that line drive or fly ball, the shift didn’t affect the ball in play.

Jetsy Extrano
Member
Jetsy Extrano

And wOBA on contact has also not been decreasing with shifts, at least through 2014:
http://www.hardballtimes.com/scapegoating-the-shift-for-the-decline-in-offense/
The decrease in offense has been coming in HR-K-BB.

It’s conceivable that wOBAcon would have increased if it weren’t for the shifting… I wish we had access to those years of HITf/x data to see if balls are being struck better.

delv213
Member
delv213

The league wide BABIP is at .293 right now which is 0.06 below last year’s .299. Also the league has had a steady trend of more people hitting GBs which tend to go for hits more often than FBs. Offense was down in previous years because the lack of FBs usually means less chances for homers but last year homers were up to previous 2012 levels.