SHIFTAPALOOZA -- Bartolo Colon is on the mound with Anthony Rendon on first. The ball is hit right back to Colon and he quickly throws to Asdrubal Cabrera at second, forcing Rendon to slide early. Rendon pops up well before the base. Cabrera has all day to find his lane, collect his thoughts, maybe even order pizza. It's as if the double play is going in slow motion. Runners are establishing their lanes early and, even if they go hard into that lane, the fielder has time to find his way around it, easily.
This is a play that, in 2015, would have given Rendon a chance to disrupt Cabrera with a contact slide. But in 2016, runners are going to extremes to avoid violating the new slide rule.
A close play at second base to start a double play no longer involves contact and no longer involves the take-out slide. It is a free pass to convert, and yet conversions are not increasing in percentage.
The slide rule has not made it easier to turn a double play.
Baseball Info Solutions Data compiles research that focuses on the conversion rate of double plays. They measure the number of opportunities a middle infielder gets to either start or receive a double play in a pivot. Here is a look at the data so far, with a wide sample of players' rates of converting the double play from 2015 and 2016. It is based on the double-play opportunity starting from the listed position.
Many of these listed players are tops in defensive runs saved or had Gold Glove on their résumé. Given the wide range of players' ages and reputations, the general downward conversion rate spares no one. So we can look at arm strength and quickness, footwork and positioning, and recognize there are many factors that go into an infielder turning a DP. We also have to consider that an infielder can be fantastic in his own right, but if he has a mediocre partner feeding him the ball or turning it for him, there is not much he can do to improve his data. But just to eliminate any questions about the pivot infielder messing it up for the guy starting the DP, the pivot conversion for all of MLB is down from 64 percent in 2015 to 62.1 in 2016. So these same players are on average also converting fewer when their DP partner is starting the double play, too. Take 2015 Gold-Glove Award Winner Brandon Crawford, for example. When he is the pivot infielder, his conversion rate is down from 71.2 percent in 2015 to 59.6 in 2016.
I did not expect to discover that the rate of turning double plays would go down for any middle infielder from 2015 to 2016 given the contact-free environment.
Keep in mind that the slide rule was not added in a vacuum. There were other factors. And to MLB's credit, the organization realized that the onus should not just be on the runners; for decades, fielders were finding tricky ways to not really touch second base, relying on magic tricks and illusions.
But the lower conversion rate of double plays is decided by two factors: the neighborhood play and the shift.
For years, fielders had been gliding across the base, scraping air or jumping over the bag after using it as a trampoline. Now, they have to exact their skills. The infielders have to be on the base while receiving and throwing the baseball.
That split second to confirm they have the ball and touch the base may be slowing down their pivot just a hair, giving the runner that extra step -- the difference between a double play and a fielder's choice.
The unintended consequence is that fielders no longer have to be as nimble to avoid contact. But the numbers are saying the fielders aren't finding an advantage in this freedom. The base is acting more like an anchor, not a springboard.
It could be due to old habits.
"Guys still go in hard," Harrison added. "I still act like we are operating with the old rule."
In speaking briefly with Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, he saw little change from the rule, partly because he has elected not to change his approach. He has been one of the best second baseman in the game defensively, so why change anything, even if the runner is giving you an open door to first base?
"I don't think much has changed. I can't recall a fielder having the neighborhood call against him," Gyorko said. "The runner was not much of a factor in my approach before; I approach it the same."
Cards coach and former major league infielder David Bell added: "I bet that when you slow it down, when we thought it was a neighborhood play, it turns out they were on the bag. These guys were so quick that it looked like they weren't on it as they caught the ball."
But how can eliminating a take-out slide be a non-factor? According to former big league shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the shift is instrumental. He held down shortstop for 15 years, including his 2016 season with the Chicago White Sox.
"It is much easier to turn a double play with the runner not being able to take you out," Rollins said. "The neighborhood play I don't think has nearly as much to do with it as the shift does. Putting guys in a position to turn it that may not be accustomed to doing so is a factor; also having a defense in a position that is not conducive for more double plays is another. Shifts take away hits ... but it makes the double play, in many instances, less of a priority."
Pirates coach Rick Sofield echoed Rollins' thoughts.
"Guys are no longer in standard positions. Sometimes, they have a lot of ground to cover to start that double play," Sofield said.
Defenses have been increasing the number of shifts exponentially over the past five seasons. It is less of a priority to keep equal spacing for the double play and more of a priority to defend the hitter. Third basemen may be receiving throws from middle infielders to turn the DP, or defenders have to run long distances to make the turn, placing them in unorthodox positions to convert the play into two outs -- all costing precious time to get that runner heading to first.
The data supports the idea that shifts are playing a larger role in the conversion rate of double plays. For starters, the number of shifts each year has continued to rampantly increase from the previous year:
2010 -- 2,463
2011 -- 2,350
2012 -- 4,577
2013 -- 6,882
2014 -- 13,299
2015 -- 17,744
2016 -- 17,122 (on pace for 28,284!)
And now with new types of shifts (take the Baltimore Orioles having six outfielders against Victor Martinez), we are finding that opportunities for double plays are occurring more and more within shifted defenses. Partly because there are simply more shifts, and partly because of better positioning.
However, shifted defenses circa 2016 are less likely to turn the double play than conventional double-play alignments, underscoring the point regarding unorthodox pivot men and exchanges.
As BIS Data president Ben Jedlovec explained, the shift is creating more double-play chances, turning would-be hits into forceouts or double plays. And the shift was creating enough new chances to offset the lower conversion rate. But a continued drop in conversion rates might have shifted that balance.
Since 2013, the shifted double-play conversion has gone down more than 13 percentage points for second basemen and more than 6 percentage points for shortstops. Both positions experienced a big drop-off in 2016 from 2015, coincidentally when the new slide rule was added.
The take-out opportunity may have been only a small percentage of double plays, even in the past, but the mental comfort of having to find a lane to throw must have value. That value may not be easily quantified. Here's the new normal: The Orioles may have more defensive alignments than the Baltimore Ravens.
Meanwhile, the skill of evasive tactics, made more famous by the Wizard, Ozzie Smith, will erode with this new slide rule, which could be the necessary step to make players safer. But there is a generational question here. Younger players will eventually come up to the big leagues not expecting contact at all, working with the lanes clear and the luxury of uninterrupted time. It is clear from talking to coaches, players and managers that despite the rule, it will take time for players to change their instincts.
If MLB set out to make a rule that will have an impact without changing results, the numbers show it has accomplished its goal -- so far. The double play is converted at roughly the same rate as in previous years. But it may be more a function of Shiftapalooza. As Red Sox manager John Farrell explained, "When we first started these shifts, the infield errors skyrocketed. Guys were making throws they were not used to, but that has calmed down."
The same may be true as infielders learn to turn more unique double plays. Welcome to the adjustment period. Problem is, defensive analytics may always be ahead of that adjustment.