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Shortstops are toying with Albert Pujols, and other Statcast lessons

MLB, Los Angeles Angels

Every year, baseball gives us a little bit more information about itself. This year, MLB.com began publishing Statcast measurements of how far from home plate each defender is on each pitch. For example, we know that on Monday night, Dodgers third baseman Logan Forsythe was standing 114 feet away from batter Austin Hedges when Yu Darvish delivered an 0-0 pitch in the third inning. And we know Forsythe was standing 115 feet away from the plate on the subsequent 1-0 pitch.

What does it mean!? It means ... not much. Now multiply: Seven positions per pitch, almost four pitches per plate appearance, 76 plate appearances per game, 2,430 games per season. More than 5 million new data points! A lot of it will mean ... not much.

But there's a lot of fun here, too.

Two places on the diamond, in particular, tell us a lot. We spent a day this week looking primarily at the left side of the infield and at center fielders. Here's what we learned:

Byron Buxton is turning up the heat on the hot corner

The two fastest men in the game are Billy Hamilton and Byron Buxton. (Another Statcast offering this year is sprint speed, which confirms this observation.) Because of this, they are each threats to bunt. And because of that, third basemen must play in to guard against these bunts.

So ignore speed for a minute. Who is Buxton's most comparable hitter, speed entirely ignored? Buxton hits the ball, on average, 85 mph, which puts him in the bottom quintile of the league by exit velocity. His closest comps are Chris Young, Freddy Galvis, Dixon Machado, Jett Bandy and, to get at least one famous guy in there, Dustin Pedroia. This understates Buxton's power somewhat -- his hardest-hit balls are harder than any of these hitters', almost 10 mph harder than anything Pedroia or Bandy have hit this season -- but this'll do for a nice, conservative comp list. Here's where third basemen play all of those guys, with fewer than two strikes:

  • Bandy: 113 feet back

  • Young: 113 feet

  • Pedroia: 111 feet

  • Machado: 105 feet

  • Galvis: 98 feet

  • Buxton: 93 feet

By being fast, Buxton cuts 20 feet from the third baseman's range and reaction time. Even with two strikes, when the bunt is presumably no longer a threat, Buxton's speed forces the infielders to play shallower, by about 5 feet compared to the other guys.

Buxton's speed allows his power to play up. Now, bring speed -- bring Hamilton -- back into the discussion. Both of these players are incredibly fast, equally fast. Where do third basemen play Hamilton when he's batting right-handed (the positioning data in this piece applies only to right-handed hitters, as shifts against lefties dramatically affect depths), relative to Buxton?

Without two strikes (bunt situations):

  • Buxton: 93 feet away

  • Hamilton: 87 feet

With two strikes:

  • Buxton: 109 feet

  • Hamilton: 104 feet

Strong hitters' counts (2-0, 3-1, 3-0):

  • Buxton 101 feet

  • Hamilton: 87 feet

Hamilton's average exit velocity is the lowest among all right-handed batters. His speed pulls third basemen way in, but his lack of power doesn't force them to respect anything but bunts and choppers. Buxton's speed pulls them in, but his power keeps them back.

Hamilton doesn't have a bunt hit from the right side this year. Buxton has 11, in 22 tries, according to FanGraphs. Each hitter's spray chart shows how many hits have, and haven't, come against the third baseman:

(Spray charts via Baseball Savant)

That all sort of puts a different spin on the saying that speed never slumps. Maybe it doesn't, but the threat of power doesn't, either, and that's part of what enables the speed.

(See also: The 28 extra hits being a BABIP god gets you.)

Center fielders are ... all over the place

The least surprising thing you'll read today is that center fielders play deeper against guys who hit the ball harder. The deepest positioning? Against Aaron Judge. The highest average exit velocity? Aaron Judge. Center fielders, on average, play Judge 27 feet deeper than they play Dee Gordon, whose average exit velocity is some 15 mph slower than Judge's. The correlation between average exit velocity and center-fielder depth is a robust .67. Roughly and generally speaking, an extra mph of exit velocity translates to a little bit more than one foot of center-field depth. OK, just establishing that.

Now here's what's odd: We know batters hit the ball harder when they're ahead in the count and less hard when they're behind. And sure enough, defenders move back in hitter's counts and move up in pitcher's counts. But ... not by enough?

The difference between 0-2 contact and 3-0 contact is almost 10 mph, bigger than the difference between Joey Gallo (93.0 mph) and Joe Panik (84.2). But outfielders move back 12 feet for Gallo, relative to Panik. They move in or back only 3 feet when the count shifts dramatically, turning the average hitter into Gallo or the average hitter into Panik.

I'm not ready to say anything conclusive about this. There are a lot of variables involved in the decision of where to stand. I'm just thinking about it right now. It's an odd thing, and it's worth thinking about.

Albert Pujols might be the Ted Williams of right-handed shifts

Williams is the guy most of us associate with proto-shifts. A half-century before the Bonds shift, 70 years before Big Data Baseball, Lou Boudreau was pulling three infielders over to the first-base side of the infield against Williams. Shifts are now common against most left-handed hitters and against a number of right-handed hitters. Then there's Pujols.

In April, shortstops played Albert Pujols 145 feet from home, on average. Pujols is so slow that he's barely on the scale, but 145 feet is pretty much normal against right-handed batters -- a foot closer than average and a distance that about one-fourth of the league's hitters see.

Here are Pujols' shortstop distance splits this season: May: 145. June: 145. July: 145. August: 145. September: 155.

That's huge. It's 6 feet deeper, on average, than for any other regular hitter this month. It's 6 feet deeper than for any hitter -- including pitchers, who get played much deeper because they have no speed -- this season. As an average, it undersells what we're really talking about.

Shortstop depth is based largely on the speed of the batter. The right-handed batters with the deepest positioning against are all pitchers, and once the pitchers thin out it's mostly catchers. Pujols, according to Statcast, runs slower than any major league catcher.

On Sept. 9, the Mariners played Pujols 158 feet back. That was the deepest daily average for Pujols all season. The next day, they moved back farther: 161 feet. The Angels had an off-day, then played Houston for three games: 164 feet, then 170 feet, then 186 feet. On Sunday, when Pujols faced the Astros on ESPN, there were pitches on which the Houston shortstop was 190 feet from home plate. This is what that looks like:

Houston's third basemen were also deeper -- as far back as 132 feet, 13 feet deeper than the league has played Pujols most of this season. Three hitters scare third basemen farther back: Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Nelson Cruz -- for power reasons more than slowness reasons.

Interestingly, Pujols and the Angels played Cleveland and Texas between those two series against the Astros. Each team played Pujols more or less the same way teams did in the first five months of the year. Pujols got an infield hit in the hole against Texas, and it's fun to imagine how a third baseman standing 15 feet deeper or a shortstop standing 40 feet deeper might have approached the play:

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