This post is about Carlos Pena, speed demon, spray hitter. Now, if you follow MLB at all you might be checking, shortly, to see if there is a hot young prospect named Carlos Pena, tearing it up in the minor leagues somewhere. Don’t worry, I’m talking about the Tampa Bay Ray’s, (and one time Cub’s), first baseman, with whom you are most likely familiar. Having seen Pena in action, you would be quick to argue with me about his status as a speed threat. Also, he pulls the baseball on the ground most of the time. He does, after all, have only 25 stolen bases in almost 5,000 career plate appearances. But, let us imagine that you and I have never seen Pena play, and we have only scoresheet data to refer to. Are you imagining it? Good, let’s look at the last couple of games for Carlos Pena, real quick like.
This Monday, April 17th, Pena began the game with a line drive deep to right, and was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double. In his second at-bat, he reached by bunting for a base hit to the third base side. In his third at bat he struck out swinging. In his fourth at-bat, he reached on a bunt base hit to the third base side.
On Tuesay, April 18th, Pena recorded a flyout in each of his first 2 AB, to centre and left. Then grounded out to the third baseman. Struck out while fouling a bunt off with two strikes with the bases empty, and walked in his final plate appearance.
Three attempts to bunt for a base hit, thrown out trying to take an extra base, and a groundout to the third baseman. This makes it look like Pena is blessed with a great set of wheels, and can willingly spray the ball around the park. And it is completely wrong. It is all smoke and mirrors, created by the convention we call ‘scorekeeping’.
Even if you have never kept score in a baseball game, you have seen the numbers. On a lineup card, sometimes on a TV broadcast. The pitcher is assigned number 1 as his position. The sequence continues around the diamond, ending with the right fielder assigned number 9. The numbers are a shorthand, and were developed in the 1870’s as the game itself was taking shape. These simple numbers are like a baseball alphabet, and tell a story about every play in the game. When we see 1-3 on the scoresheet of a game, we know the pitcher fielder the ball himself and threw it to the first baseman to record the out. It draws a simple picture that anyone can use to help reconstruct a game later on.
It seems that this year, though, that simple picture is being manipulated by the latest fad in baseball defense. A fad started in the 1940’s that’s making a comeback, the infield shift.
Don’t think its a thing? Well everybody seems to be writing about it right now. There’s the Blue Jays, the Cubbies, and the standard bearers for this technique, Joe Maddon and Company, also known as the Tampa Bay Rays. Scattering defenders around the diamond changes a lot of things. If the fad turns into something more than a one year blip, it won’t just be Carlos Pena’s stats that will be affected in unusual ways.
So, let’s look at why the infield shift has turned Pena’s results on their heads. First, Pena is bunting for a base hit because the third baseman is 150 feet away, in right field. Standard scorekeeping maintains that any ball to the player ‘at third’ is assigned to whoever was placed ‘at third’ when the lineup was written. So Pena’s bunting is a reflection of a big hole in the field, not of his speed. When Pena was thrown out stretching the single, his line drive was fielded by a right fielder playing almost on the warning track. He could afford to play that deep because his ‘shallow’ territory was being occupied by the third baseman. Pena’s groundout to 3B was not another attempt to ‘take the ball the other way’. It was pulled, on the ground, between first and second. Again, the third baseman playing on the wrong side of the diamond.
Beyond these types of effects are the effects on fielding statistics. For example, Ultimate Zone Rating is a newer fielding statistic. It divides the field into zones, and assigns each fielder responsibility for those zones. I can only assume that the unmodified data from UZR would penalize the third baseman for not fielding the bunt attempts, and reward him for a play that’s miles out of his zone behind first base. Later in the game, Yunel Escobar, the shortstop, was playing shallow, and had a shot a fielding a Pena bunt. How often does a shortstop make a play on a bunt in normal alignment? Never.
Will all this peter out in a few months? Will it go the way of the split fingered fastball, or the steal of home? I’m not sure. It will depend on whether or not teams believe it is helping them win games. If it becomes the norm, we may be on the leading edge of a change to the way baseball plays are recorded for the posterity. A shifted infield is not possible to describe in the standard language of the scoresheet. If it does do away with the standard number assignments in favour of some other shorthand, it will be the first significant change to that system in over 100 years.