19 July 2016

More Home Runs are Being Hit Because of the Middle Infield

Over half the season is in the books and one major story of the summer has been that home run rates have exploded to levels akin to the early 2000s.  Some have suggested that all of a sudden that players, all of them, found a new Performance Enhancing Drug that cannot be detected.  Of course, we can logic that out about how everyone just does not start doing something and that therapy treatments are rarely effectively trailblazed by gym rats and muscleheads.  Others have proposed that millennial pitchers lack control and command, leaving balls up in the air to be clobbered.  We dealt with that last week and it seems to hold no sauce.  And then a few folks proclaimed that the ball, while legally within specs, is more juiced compared to other seasons.

I, on the other hand, will make another argument and then I will offer some conjecture.  My argument is that we are not seeing a rise in home run rates around baseball.  What we are seeing are home run rates exploding for middle infielders.  Gone are the years of Cesar Izturises and now we welcome our Jonathan Schoops.  Below is a table with HR/PA rates and percent change from 2015.

American League
T wo/MI

A paired T-Test with Middle Infield included reaches significance at 0.03 while excluding the Middle Infield balloons it to 0.16.  Meanwhile, a comparison with the National League renders a greater jump with values of 0.0002 and 0.003, respectively.  Group it all together and both wind up as significant with 0.01 and 0.04, respectively.

Below is a graphical representation of how each position league-wide is impacted.  DH (not shown) is tucked into Total and Total without Middle Infielders.

So, the great home run explosion is largely the result of the current crop of middle infielders slugging the ball better than last year's batch.  Roughly, the leagues are seeing a 40% increase in home run hitting from those positions.  That is what is happening.  Now, some conjecture on why it is happening.

While the safe path is to simply call this a remarkable coincidence with so many  young exciting middle infielders this year, such as Jonathan Schoop, Manny Machado, Trevor Story, Marcus Semein, and Roughned Odor.  However, I wonder to what extent defensive shifts come into play here.  For instance, a player like Jonathan Schoop benefits greatly from a shift.  His main detriment is a lack of range while his greatest defensive advantage is his strong arm.  As such, he can play deeper back and utilize a shift to take advantage of his arm and reduce the impact of his limited range.  By doing this, you can get his bat in at second base when before you would need to rely on a more defensive player who likely has a worse bat.

Again, it may just be the ebb and flow of talent has decided to backwell into the middle infield. Or maybe it is a concerted effort to let guys with good bats stick in the middle infield until it is evidenced that they really do not belong there at all.  To a lesser extent, you also see the increase in other shift position like third base and center field.  If you batch position by shift impacted (2B, SS, 3B, and CF) vs. minimally impacted (C, 1B, LF, and RF), you see some stark differences.  Home run rates increased for the shift position by 25% (p=0.006) while minimal shift increased by 2% (p=0.19).

As it stands, it seems untrue to blame millennial pitchers.  It seems highly unlikely that there is some new wonder PED.  It seems curious that a new ball would impact only certain positional hitters.  It seems likely that for one reason or another players who are most employed with defensive shifts are those who also have a much stronger bat than those in years past.


Unknown said...

I wonder if the increase in strikeouts is also having an effect similar to your proposed effect of defensive shifts. More strikeouts means fewer balls in play means less need for rangy infielders. Just speculation ...

Unknown said...

I read an article in Sports Illustrated about the boom in talented middle infield that attributed some of this effect to the maturation of baseball players who grew up with the likes of Jeter and Garciaparra as role models. It's interesting to speculate that there may be a generational effect at work, where a group of young athletes who learned to love baseball 10-15 years a go aspired to play short or 2nd even if their power and stature suggested a better fit at a corner infield position.

Roger said...

Blame it on Curacao. I just heard Palmer espouse the lively ball theory on TV. All the young promising draftees are coming up as SS - 15yo's from Carribean/South American countries. There's still the idea that, if they hit a ton, they'll move to 3B. There have always been hard hitting players up the middle, especially CF. But there are so many athletes from all over the world that there are more than can be played at 3B so some have to stick at 2B/SS. Also, clubs are not playing small ball like they used to. A guy like Aparicio was valuable because he'd get on base and steal 50-60 bases. Moneyball stresses power over speed. People think that losing even one baserunner to a CS is too much. So it makes sense that newer players coming up no matter what position they play will have power emphasized. You're seeing an increase at 2B and SS only because they are not traditional power positions and have room to grow. Plus with pitching being all about speed not control there are a lot more fastballs to hit. Shifting is just coincidental to the trend.

How different was Jeff Kent from Schoop? Craig Biggio? Played 2B and hit HRs. I don't believe that Schoop's range is so poor. I watch him; he doesn't miss much.

OTHOSOS said...

I see lack of range, and he is not that comfortable when he gets to ball. Real strong in pivot and relay. Excellent on Stolen Base attempt. His power is really blossoming. Do these charts list Machado as SS? He seems destined for the position.

Jon Shepherd said...

@Joe - Maybe, but I wonder whether the increase in strikeouts is really a large enough increase in events to decrease the importance of fielding. I doubt it, but I do not know.

@Matthew - I would think that if someone like Garciaparra was inspiring kids, then shouldn't those guys be like 30 now. It has been about 15 years since he was a remarkable player. Also, why did great hitters like Ripken not inspire kids. Maybe that is right, but it seems more like to me that the whole handing down of the torch idea is a forced narrative. I would also suggest that kids typically are pushed into positions by coaches instead of the other way around.

@Roger - First, Moneyball is about exploiting inefficiency. Moneyball is not about hitting home runs. Moneyball is not about ignoring speed. Moneyball is about finding the type of players who are undervalued by the rest of baseball. Moneyball as power not speed is a concept that is about 10 or 12 years deceased. Schoop does have poor range and is something that scouts note. It was the reason why he is thought to inevitably wind up at third base. It is why I am constantly told no when I suggest a move to right field. He has good close body skills, footwork, great arm and he is positioned well. Yes, there is a history of strong bats, but that history is not as concentrated as it is right now.

@OTHOSOS - Machado's home runs are included when he was actually playing SS. I do think Schoop has good footwork and close body skills, but is hampered by poor reflexes and some flexibility issues when reaching down for a ball. With his trunk, he needs to get down lower and that does not seem easy for him.

Roger said...

Jon, how about the strong influx of middle infield bats from Latin America. So many kids being given huge bonuses as SS, specifically. Also, the influx of Cuban players may have something to do with it too. I think it's still more likely that a certain type of talent is being better developed. Pitching and middle infield seem to be the positions of great desire for all teams.

Jon Shepherd said...

@Roger - Latin America has always been a source of middle infield prospects. Well, it has for decades. I would also suggest that most of the big middle infield bats are actually domestic talent. So I don't think that notion accurately reflects what is happening and, beyond that, I have no reasonable mechanism for loud bat LA talent to be unusual.

Re: Cuban Talent. Which Cuban players play shortstop or second base to any successful degree? Very good Cuban talent is in the outfield or first base, right?

Re: Talent development. Development typically has always been play the guy in the hardest position until he cannot do it or if his bat becomes too good. I do not really see that as being the issue here. I could see that the shift is letting some guys stick at more difficult positions, but that is just the conjecture I put forward in the article.