Does Playing Shallow Work?

September 10, 2013
One of the newest data points now being tracked by Baseball Info Solutions is the direction that every defensive player moves in order to field a ball in play. Directions are broken into nine possibilities in a grid that looks like this:
 
shallow
 

There’s a lot that can be done with this new data to analyze defense. One thing we can use this for is to analyze the value of an outfielder playing shallow, especially a center fielder. One of the long-standing theories in baseball is that some of the very best center fielders can play shallower than others because of their ability to get a great jump on a ball hit over their head and because of their tremendous speed to track it down. By playing shallow they can turn a lot of short flies and liners into outs that would otherwise have fallen in for base hits. And the only deeply hit balls that get past them would have gotten past them anyway regardless of where they played.

That’s the theory. With this new data from BIS we can look into this more closely. Here’s what we did. We started with the 35 center fielders in baseball with the most playing time this year and looked at how often they went back on a batted ball and how often they broke in. The concept is that if a center fielder has to go back more often than others he is playing shallower. The player who has played the shallowest center field this year, based on this method, is the Nationals’ Denard Span. He has gone back on a batted ball 212 times out a total of 503 plays. That’s 42 percent of the time. At the other extreme, the deepest center fielder is Aaron Hicks who’s gone back 115 times out of 369 plays (31%).

Here are the ten players who have played the shallowest center field in baseball by this method:

Player Going Back Rate
Denard Span 42%
Ben Revere 42%
Dexter Fowler 41%
David DeJesus 41%
Colby Rasmus 40%
Michael Saunders 40%
Adam Jones 40%
Matt Kemp 39%
John Jay 38%
Justin Ruggiano 38%

 

These six players play deep, having gone back on a ball less than a third of the time:

Player Going Back Rate
Austin Jackson 33%
Juan Lagares 33%
Angel Pagan 33%
Gregor Blanco 32%
Alejandro De Aza 31%
Aaron Hicks 31%

 

The next thing we did was to group the players into two groups. The Shallow group contains the 10 regular center fielders who have played the shallowest center field in baseball this year. The All Other Regulars group includes the other 25 regular center fielders. Now we can look at our defensive Plus/Minus System to measure the number of plays made or not made, and the number of bases gained or lost on those plays. The number of bases gained or lost will help us account for the fact that it’s worse to give up a double or a triple than it is to give up a single.

The Shallow group as a whole saved 13 bases making plays compared to an average center fielder on balls hit less than 300 feet. The All Other Regulars group cost their teams nine bases on shallow hit balls. That’s a difference of about 22 bases on plays with shallow hit balls. Surprisingly, it’s a very small advantage.

On deeply hit balls (over 350 feet), the Shallow group cost their teams 67 bases on deeply hit balls. The All Other group saved their teams 104 bases. That’s a difference of 171 bases. That’s huge.

If you look at Plus/Minus Runs Saved, where we translate the bases saved or lost into runs, you get:

Plus/Minus Runs Saved (through 9/3/2013)
Balls Hit Shallow Balls Hit Deep
Shallow Group 8 -38
All Other Regulars Group -5 59

 

Overall, playing shallow saves 13 runs while playing deep saves 97 runs.

Theory busted!

OK, that may be a little strong. It is possible that there may be that rare gifted center fielder who can play shallow and still make the plays going deep. And, I’m sure there are other studies that can be conducted to try to corroborate, or even possibly refute, this result. But this data suggests that trying to play extremely shallow is not a good strategy overall.

 
 

COMMENTS (6 Comments, most recent shown first)

monahan
I hear what you're saying, Trailbzr, but even if we say that the difference is 50 plays. If the Shallow group gives up 50 doubles on those plays, that's 100 bases they cost their teams... versus the Deep group making those plays and saving 100 bases... that's a difference of 200 bases right there.

I may be missing some key part of the equation, but 171 bases seems extreme, though not absurd.
11:43 AM Sep 17th
 
jollydodger
Could this be why Minnesota let go of Revere and Span at nearly the same time? lol
1:38 PM Sep 12th
 
OldBackstop
Interesting piece. Was there any thought given to situations where the CF broke back but a corner OF was there in the gap to save a base? In my less than voluminous coaching career, I always considered the wheels on the corners, and how much I could cheat over with a faster corner guy to play the CF more aggressively.

Said differently, if your RFer is Rusty Staub, you may not want to play the CFer in tight. Also park factors, turf etc have a role here I suppose, but I'm too thought out right now on other stuff.
1:14 PM Sep 12th
 
Trailbzr
If my math is right, there must be some quality leakage going on. The difference between a deep and shallow fielder is about 50 "going back" plays a season (42% vs. 32% on about 500 plays). So a difference of 171 bases doesn't seem likely among a group of players who were similar except for depth choices.​
11:10 AM Sep 11th
 
therevverend
I also saw Aaron Hicks play. He is friggin awesome. Playing medium depth, ball hit over his head. Made an awesome play racing way into left field to chase it down. His judgement is amazing.
One influence here is there are very few parks with huge center field areas. Fences moved in at Safeco. Old Yankee stadium, Tiger Stadium many of the older parks had huge center field areas. This is rare now a days. So a lot of these old timey theories are no longer valid. A good center fielder just isn't gonna have that many balls hit over his head. A bad center fielder may be able to make the plays in front of him but is lost on anything hit over his head. Something to keep in mind when looking at the data.
9:33 PM Sep 10th
 
therevverend
Been watching Michael Saunders attempt to play center field all year. While he is fine in left or right he should never play center. Saw balls shooting over his head and past him all the time. I'm used to watching good center fielders. Cameron, Griffey, Gutierrez.
This year the Mariners outfield defense has been the worst ever. At a recent game during warm ups I saw Ibanez gimping around in left, Morse trying to stretch out his hammies in right and Saunders was limping around center. None appeared healthy. During the game several balls an average center fielder would of gotten to, let alone a good one went bouncing to the fence. Morse knocked a ball out of his glove over the fence. I would suggest that your data from Saunders may be somewhat skewed by this. Don't really know about your other guys.
9:24 PM Sep 10th
 
 
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