Last month Statcast unveiled their new defensive metric Outs Above Average. With that came some interesting numbers on the Blue Jays infield. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to no one’s surprise was at the very bottom of the list. What did surprise was how well Cavan Biggio ranked coming in among the top 30 and top five at second base. What intrigued me about this was player positioning, where did infielders typically line up and what does that say about the other players around them?
What follows is a leaderboard, courtesy of Baseball Savant, of the average start position of shortstops last season, sorted by angle.
The angle is based on home plate, whereas the third base line is -45°, up the middle is 0°, and the first base line is 45°. For a shortstop the lower their angle is the closer they are to second base. This leaderboard is showing the 15 shortstops that started the closest to second base last season. The 11th ranked player is blacked out for now, I am quite certain you know who that is given the title of this post, but we will get to that later.
There is a lot to be made of this list. The Astros start their shortstops closer to second base than any team in the league. That makes sense when you have a player with Alex Bregman’s range playing third. Even when Bregman was at short he has the range and the arm strength to get to balls in the hole. Same goes for Oakland, where Matt Chapman gets to everything. This is the theme of this list. The White Sox were able to shift some players over as Yoán Moncada is solid defensively. They didn’t shift with their regular short stop Tim Anderson, as Anderson is strong moving laterally towards first base.
The Reds had a couple great defensive shortstops with Freddy Galvis and José Iglesias, but they shaded over because of the range of Eugenio Suárez. Suárez tied for third among third basemen with six outs above average on balls where he had to move toward first. Ranking second among third basemen was the Red Sox Rafael Devers, which explains the placement of Brock Holt. Regular Boston shortstop Xander Bogaerts just missed the top 15 with an average angle of -10° which placed him 22nd. The Tigers had Castro at 13, and then Jordy Mercer and Gordon Beckham at 19, and 20, each with average angles of -10°. Jeimer Candelario again has great range to his glove side. Hernán Pérez stands out as the slight exception, but that may be more because of his inexperience at the position than anything his third basemen were doing. Mike Moustakas and Travis Shaw are both decent defensively, but not near the other third basemen that have been discussed. Orlando Arcia played a much more traditional shortstop.
The theory here based off this initial look is that shortstops play more up the middle if the third baseman playing beside them, has strong range to the glove side, covering that space. On the flip side the opposite should be true; shortstops that play more in the hole closer to third base should hypothetically play beside third basemen that are below average to their glove side. Or in the case of Tim Anderson they themselves have good range going up the middle.
To test this theory I looked at the outs above average on balls to the third base side and balls to the first base side for all 16 of the shortstops who played closest to the bag (an angle of -9° or higher). Then I looked at the same thing for the corresponding third basemen from those teams. I did the same with the 20 shortstops who played furthest from second base (an angle of -14° or lower) and their third basemen.
|Total Players||3B Line||Toward 1B|
UTM is those shortstops who played more up the middle and ITH is for the ones who played more in the hole.
This supports the original hypothesis. Up the middle third basemen are strong towards the first base side covering for their shifted shortstops. What was interesting is that the up the middle shortstops fared better than the in the hole shortstops when ranging towards first. I would have expected the opposite. Players like Anderson seem like the exception more than the rule. We do see that in the hole shortstops were positioned there to cover for the lack of range from their third basemen. In the hole third basemen where slightly better to the backhand but far worse to the glove side.
Given this information let’s revisit our chart from earlier and reveal who the blacked out player was.
Of course the player in question was Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette. It’s pretty remarkable at first thought to see this. Vlad was one of the worst defenders in baseball last year; you would think the Blue Jays would position Bo closer to third to cover him. This wasn’t just a Bichette thing either. Bo was the most extreme but Freddy Galvis played at -11°, which is only slightly below the MLB average of -12°, but again is not an indication he was trying to cover for Vlad. Even Brandon Drury and Richard Urena in their limited time at shortstop stated at angles of -10° and -11°, respectively. The only exception was the 29.0 innings Eric Sogard played at short. He started at an extreme -15°. However his games at shortstop came in Vladdy’s first three games in the big leagues, before we realized that Vlad can do things like this:
or even this:
Here is the thing, sure Vlad was -16 outs above average but he was only a -2 when going towards first base. That includes a +1, in both May and September. Given his age, his arm strength, and his off-season training, Vlad has some real upside defensively. He may not go full Rafael Devers, but that isn’t necessary for him to make a big impact defensively.
As a prospect, Bichette was always mentioned as a below average defender and one who would likely move off shortstop to either second or third. He made improvements to prevent that position change however he still isn’t a great defender. Here is what Baseball America had to say about his defence prior to last season.
Bichette has worked diligently on his conditioning and fielding and now projects as an average shortstop. He has good body control, quick footwork and ranges well up the middle. He has a tick above-average arm, though he gets tested on balls to his right. With a game built around aggression, Bichette carried that mentality onto the field and often would charge in on groundballs, but in 2018 he did a better job of staying back and making plays under control.
This really helps to explain why the Blue Jays staff positioned Bichette the way they did. Bo showed in his short time in the big leagues, he has good range up the middle or towards first base.
Bo in 361.2 innings last season was -4 outs above average. The culprit for that being -3 on balls where he had to move in a -2 on balls to the third base side. He was fine moving to his left. Moving to his right, we saw some of those concerns BA had.
When you put everything together we understand what happened last year and why we should expect to see that again this season. Vlad is never going to be confused for Matt Chapman but he has shown that he can range to his glove side and make some good plays. It was thought that Bichette would have to cover for Vlad at third, but that isn’t the case. Bo isn’t as strong on the backhand and thus we have the opposite of what many expected. Bo isn’t covering for Vlad, Vlad is covering for Bo.