The Perks of a Rangy First Baseman

Last week at Baseball Prospectus, Rob Arthur looked at the rise of advanced defensive positioning since 2015. It turns out that every position has started playing deeper, but — perhaps unsurprisingly — first basemen have moved the least of all. As Arthur writes, “First basemen have barely budged, which makes sense since they are more anchored to the bag.” But this lack of movement feels like a concession that doesn’t necessarily need to be made. The base is fixed, and the defender has to reach it, but a quicker first baseman would be able to stray farther from the anchor. If the lack of an anchor is allowing these other positions to play in more optimal locations, then some of the range that has always been a prerequisite for playing those positions is potentially going to waste. Let’s get some of those more rangy players over to first base, which doesn’t allow for the defender to be so perfectly placed.

The Right-Handed Shift

One of the reasons I’m interested in the positioning of first basemen is how it relates to the current conundrum involving the right-handed shift, about which folks like Tom Tango, Russell Carlton and Ben Lindbergh have written countless words. The short recap is that the publicly available data suggests that the right-handed shift doesn’t really work. And yet, some of the most data-driven teams are the ones that employ the shift the most.

There are a few things that make the right-handed shift different than the more prevalent left-handed one, but what I’m focused on is first base and the existence of that “anchor” that was mentioned earlier. First basemen can only stray off the bag as far as allows them to return safely in time for the throw. Turns out, that isn’t nearly far enough to cover the tendencies of the hitter.

The following are two images of shifts with no one on base. The first shows the right-handed shift, the second shows the left-handed shift, with one little twist: It’s mirrored.

shift positioning

Looking at a mirrored version of the lefty shift can give us an unbiased look at where a first baseman would be playing if they didn’t have to worry about silly little things like covering the bag. Those green dots show the third basemen basically playing shortstop in the shift, meaning that first basemen should ideally be playing second.

I’m going to focus only on these right-handed shifts with no one on base because I think it presents a rare opportunity to strip away some of the unknowns of positioning and assume that these first basemen are trying to get as far into that hole as possible. It’s a clear way for us to see the benefits of having more rangy and athletic first basemen.

Distance from First Base

Thanks to Baseball Savant’s positioning data and my ability to look up things that I’m supposed to remember from eighth grade, I figured out how far from first base, on average, players have been setting up in these right-handed shifts when no one is on base. Here’s the list sorted by distance from first.

First Base Positioning
Player Depth (Ft.) Angle Off First (Deg.) Distance From First (Ft.)
Jared Walsh 110 22 42.9
José Marmolejos 111 21 42
Dominic Smith 120 16 41.7
Brandon Belt 114 19 41.2
Pete Alonso 116 18 41.2
Pavin Smith 119 16 40.9
Bobby Dalbec 115 18 40.5
Edwin Ríos 118 16 40.1
Paul Goldschmidt 110 20 39.9
Max Muncy 116 17 39.9
José Abreu 116 17 39.9
Evan White 109 20 39.3
Yuli Gurriel 117 16 39.3
Josh Bell 114 17 38.4
Carlos Santana 112 18 38.3
Jake Bauers 111 18 37.7
Matt Olson 111 18 37.7
Anthony Rizzo 114 16 37
Freddie Freeman 112 17 36.9
Nate Lowe 113 16 36.3
Miguel Sanó 108 18 35.7
Trey Mancini 112 16 35.6
Rhys Hoskins 112 16 35.6
Jesús Aguilar 101 20 34.9
Joey Votto 109 16 33.5
DJ LeMahieu 111 15 33.5
Yoshi Tsutsugo 97 20 33.2
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 108 16 32.8
Yandy Díaz 106 16 31.5
Colin Moran 108 14 30
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Walsh is getting off the base almost halfway to second base, and there is a nearly 13-foot difference between him and Moran, the least adventurous of the lot.

The following is a nifty shot to help show why Walsh playing further from the bag is beneficial to his team. The Angels employ the shift against Jose Altuve, giving us a way to see how different it looks compared to last season, when Albert Pujols was playing first base. The StatCast overlay is just showing us how much more effectively Walsh is positioned to stop those pesky opposite-field grounders.

Jared Walsh Positioning in Shift against Jose Altuve

And right on cue.

That overlay should give you a good idea of how important it can be to have a first baseman that can play further off the base. So far this year, more than three times the amount of right-handed ground balls have gone to the traditional second base location than the traditional first base location.

That overlay in the Houston broadcast gave me an idea for looking at how other first basemen are matching up with the batter’s tendencies. The following image shows the defensive position of first basemen in the right-handed shift; I’ve overlaid it with Ronald Acuña Jr.’s groundball chart. Acuña Jr. has a fairly standard groundball profile and sees a shift on 58.6% of his pitches with no one on base, one of the highest in the league for a righty. The right side is zoomed in, with some notable names highlighted.

first base positioning in the right-handed shift

There are some interesting player positionings to note. Jesús Aguilar and Yoshi Tsutsugo both play quite shallow and therefore are close to the bag (they were both near the bottom on the distance chart from earlier) yet still play off the line further than most. They seem to be sacrificing range in order to get further into the high traffic area. Opposite-field grounders are hit on average 10 mph slower than pulled grounders, so they may be on the right track. It’s important to note that these two first basemen play for two of the most shift-heavy teams in baseball: the Marlins (third most) and Rays (fourth). (Tsutsugo did most of this positioning with the Rays but has since been traded to the Dodgers, the team that shifts the most in baseball.)

DJ LeMahieu is another surprise. As a Gold Glove second baseman, I assumed he’d be playing a more aggressive first base since he has the quickness and skills to play further off the bag. Turns out he plays almost as conservatively as Moran.

Evan White is a name you knew you wouldn’t make it through this article without seeing. He plays nearly as far off of the bag as Walsh. Our Eric Longenhagen viewed White as a “plus-plus” defender at first base when he was a prospect, and he’s proven that scouting report accurate with his position-leading +8 Defensive Runs Saved since his debut.

So far in his short career, White has been five runs better than average when going to his right, including some impressive outs ranging that way — ones that most first basemen won’t make simply because they are positioned closer to the base. Look where he is at when he’s making these plays.

Evan White fielding balls in the shift

Even the Rangers’ broadcaster, Dave Raymond, noted White’s positioning, saying, “White plays way off the line, it seems like, with every hitter.” Who has a better view of this stuff than a broadcaster? Certainly not me, the guy endlessly struggling to find wide-angle shots of first base positioning.

Gauging Quickness

Some of these first basemen are clearly more effectively positioned than others, given where righties hit their grounders. In order to get a better understanding of how some of these first basemen are able to play off the bag, we are going to need to attempt to gauge their speed, or more accurately, their quickness.

Baseball Savant’s Running Splits tool breaks down a player’s speed into splits at five-foot intervals, making it a good way to look at how quickly they can accelerate. These short distance splits are more relevant for the tasks of an infielder than sprint speed is. For this exercise, we’ll look at the 40-foot split, or how quickly they go from zero to 40 feet, since that is about how far the most adventurous first basemen are getting away from the bag.

40 Ft. Splits
Player Time League-Wide Percentile Rank
Max Muncy 2.17 73
Jared Walsh 2.18 68
Nate Lowe 2.19 63
Freddie Freeman 2.20 58
Paul Goldschmidt 2.22 49
Jake Bauers 2.23 42
Pavin Smith 2.23 42
Evan White 2.24 37
Pete Alonso 2.25 32
Bobby Dalbec 2.25 32
DJ LeMahieu 2.26 27
Yuli Gurriel 2.26 27
Miguel Sanó * 2.27 33
Yoshi Tsutsugo 2.28 20
Vlad Guerrero Jr. 2.28 20
Eric Hosmer 2.29 17
Yandy Diaz 2.30 14
Matt Olson 2.30 14
Josh Bell 2.30 14
Trey Mancini 2.30 14
Dominic Smith 2.31 12
Anthony Rizzo 2.31 12
Joey Votto 2.31 12
Brandon Belt * 2.31 19
José Abreu 2.32 10
C.J. Cron 2.32 10
Carlos Santana 2.34 7
Rhys Hoskins 2.34 7
Will Craig 2.35 4
Jesús Aguilar 2.36 2
Colin Moran * 2.37 4
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
* Some players don’t have split data for 2021 yet. For these players, 2020 data was used.

I think we now know why Moran plays so close to first base: He’s quite slow. Walsh, meanwhile, shows some impressive quickness for a first baseman; it’s clearly a skill that allows him to play further off the bag. He’s not the fastest first basemen though; as it turns out, Muncy might be the secret weapon in all of this.

Muncy’s Sprint Speed is pedestrian, ranking in the 56th percentile, yet he’s much more impressive at short distances. His quick acceleration but low top speed is like a baseball version of the sprinter that gets out ahead of Usain Bolt after about 20 yards only to lose by a full second. Baseball is rarely a 100-yard dash, though, and quick acceleration, especially for an infielder, is the attribute to have. That’s helped Muncy record above-average Defensive Runs Saved numbers at second, third and first base over the course of his career.

The bobble on this play — a 109-mph grounder hit to his right — actually gives us multiple opportunities to see Muncy’s quickness in action. That allows him to play about 40 feet away from first base, which is in the upper tier, but based on his split times compared to other first basemen, it seems like he should be able to go even further and make his positioning an outlier. When someone like Brandon Belt, with his 19th percentile 40-foot split, is playing about 41 feet off the bag, I think Muncy could stretch it out to 45 feet.

This is all still based around the idea, though, that first basemen should be playing off the bag as far as possible in these situations, and maybe teams don’t actually want that. Perhaps the anchor of first base isn’t changing where the Dodgers would be positioning Muncy all that much. As stated earlier, nobody shifts against righties more than them. Our own Justin Choi wrote about the Dodgers’ plan of pitching down-and-in to righties, which limits contact the other way. Based on the work of Russell Eassom, another writer who has heavily explored the right-handed shift, the Dodgers might be better at positioning their first basemen than any other team.

The Dodgers have spent a lot of time and money planning out how this shift will benefit them, and it’s hard to argue with the results. They’re allowing a stingy .272 wOBA on opposite-field grounders in their shift since the beginning of 2020; the league on the whole is at .386. Two other teams that have good numbers in this split? Unsurprisingly, it’s the Mariners (.265 wOBA) and the Angels (.294), whose first basemen just happen to play way off the line. In the other direction, I hate to keep slamming the Pirates (especially after Moran’s injury replacement, Will Craig, committed the biggest brain cramp since Ruben Rivera’s Wild Ride), but they are giving up a .486 wOBA on opposite-field grounders in their shift, and they are shifting about 20% of the time, 11th most in baseball.

Pittsburgh is hardly the only team struggling on opposite-field grounders, though, and while right-handed shifts are quite common, opposite-field grounders are not, making it hard to draw conclusions on the more limited batted ball results. But regardless of what the results are right now, I expect teams like the Mariners, Dodgers and Angels to perform better than average moving forward, based on the range of their first basemen and the groundball tendencies of righties.

In an era where defensive positioning has started to lessen the required range for infielders, first base seems to be the exception, as the right-handed shift is requiring them to cover more ground while still staying near the bag. Shortstops, second basemen and third basemen aren’t intentionally out of position the way first basemen are. Having a first baseman that is able to play closer to the hitter’s tendencies while still having the quickness to get back and undertake the more traditional first base duties is a valuable asset, but one that not all teams are able to employ.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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2 years ago

Cool stuff! Wish I could’ve watched Keith Hernandez play. They say he was the best at first base.

2 years ago
Reply to  kylerkelton

If you haven’t seen it before, this is what Hernandez was capable of at 1B: It’s the best fielded bunt I’ve ever seen.

2 years ago

Great clip!