Information Increasingly Putting Defenses On The Offensive

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - AUGUST 22: Manager Joe Maddon #70 of the Tampa Bay Rays directs his team against the Detroit Tigers during the game at Tropicana Field on August 22, 2011 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

The world of Major League Baseball is getting smarter by the day, and all of the available information seems to be giving an edge to the players in the field.

At its simplest, baseball can be broken up into run production and run prevention. The run production unit, obviously, is the lineup, while the run prevention unit combines the pitchers and the fielders into one.

We've always used the terms "run production" and "offense" interchangeably, and there's a good reason for that - it's the run production that leads to funny numbers on the scoreboard. Offense produces. Defense prevents.

But while the bats are the offense, it's worth remembering that hitters are always reacting. It's the run prevention unit that gets to go on the offensive first, and as Jayson Stark writes in an excellent and thorough piece this afternoon, run prevention units are getting better and better as they gather and make use of more data. There's so much I could blockquote, but I'll try to keep things simple:

But the data conclusively shows fewer fastballs are being thrown in "fastball counts" than at any point in recorded pitch-tracking history. We asked our friends at Inside Edge to study 1-and-0, 2-and-0, 2-and-1, 3-and-0 and 3-and-1 counts over the last 10 years. They found that the percentage of fastballs being thrown has been steadily shrinking for all of those counts, except 3-and-0.

Thanks to companies like Baseball Info Solutions, all 30 teams know exactly where every hitter in baseball tends to hit the ball. So when you look out at the field and see third basemen practically playing up the middle, shortstops on the other side of second base and second basemen set up on the outfield grass, 75 feet beyond the infield dirt, that's not guesswork, ladies and gentlemen.

Those are two paragraphs. You should read the whole thing. It's really fantastic, and it'll take you only ten minutes or so. The article talks a lot about the iPad, but in truth, it's more about the accessibility of mountains of pitch-by-pitch and play-by-play data, and the effect that data can have on:

(1) Pitch sequencing

(2) Defensive alignment

As far as the former is concerned, pitchers now have the option of better understanding which pitches certain batters can and cannot hit very well. Additionally, the information can help them avoid throwing predictable pitches in predictable situations. Pitchers die by predictability, and hitters thrive.

As for the latter, teams can observe where opposing hitters tend to hit the ball, and position their defenders accordingly ahead of time. We've seen an increase in specific shifts over the years, led by Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay Rays.

When you read the article, you come away with the distinct impression that all this information is putting the hitters at a disadvantage. And I don't think that's necessarily exaggerated. The hitters can study up on a certain pitcher's tendencies, sure. But then a pitcher can mix up his tendencies, and the defensive shifts are big. Every hitter has a "natural" spray chart. If the defense makes a corresponding shift, there's not a lot a hitter can do to counter the tactic. It's extraordinarily difficult to aim a batted ball, and while I suppose we could see, say, more bunts down the line to beat an infield shift, we don't see many of those today. Not nearly as many as one might expect.

All the information could shift the balance of power a little bit. Not every pitcher and not every team currently make use of the information, since baseball's still overflowing with traditionalists, but more people understand the data today than yesterday, and more people will understand the data tomorrow than today. Every day, Major League Baseball gets smarter, and in this regard, every day I think a hitter's job becomes that much more difficult.

A hitter's job will never be impossible. A pitcher can never pitch with true randomness. A shift can always be beaten. A hard-hit ball will always fall in more often than it won't, and pitches can't be thrown to precise locations every time. I don't think we're staring at a future dead ball era once all this information is properly understood and implemented by a sufficient number of teams.

But I do think we're staring at a change. A change that's already underway. Offense is down for the second year in a row. League BABIP is down for the fourth year in a row. Run prevention units are becoming better informed, and a little more knowledge can go a long way.

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