For as long as sabermetrics have been around – hell, for as long as basic stats have existed – there have always been the naysayers who deride them as geeky and irrelevant. Typically it’s the guys on the field and in the locker rooms and clubhouses that tow this line. “You will never truly know who really is a stud and who is a scrub,” they say, “because you only look at nerdy numbers while we’re actually playing the game and coaching the players.”
This debate will probably never end, though the pendulum continues to swing in the direction of the numbers with each passing year. As new metrics are developed and innovative technology emerges, such as Statcast and SportVU, everyone is getting a seemingly truer understanding of all kinds of things that happen on the field, court, and rink.
In other words, it’s getting harder and harder for the “eye-test guys” to scoff at the “stats guys” since a lot of what’s coming out is actually describing in real-world terms what players actually do. For example, proponents of Statcast believe it is more accessible for fans to know how many miles per hour a batter hits a ball rather than, say, his xwOBA on pulled line-drive hits.
So to get things going today, I’d like to make a compromise. On one hand, what I’m going to share is definitely “eye-testish,” yet it wouldn’t even be possible to express this data without Statcast. Hopefully this pleases both sides of the aisle!
Remember back when you played baseball as a kid? When the little runt kid came to the plate everyone moved in, but when the big husky kid came to bat, if you moved back any farther you would be in the parking lot. You might assume, as an outside observer without access to stats, that the farther the outfielders play from home against various kids, it’s likely those kids are the best hitters.
Thanks to Baseball Savant, we can now look at the actual distance from the plate that every fielder was at the time of the pitch. I figure there is value in this as it’s very accurate data that is made possible by advanced technology, yet it represents a sort of traditional, scout-like, anecdotal view on a hitter. Just imagine a chain-smoking, road-weary scout from decades past who was apt to say stuff like, “I tell ya, those sumbitches are basically standing on the warning track every time he comes to the plate!” Only now, instead of the scout just being armed with a radar gun and note pad, he has access to high-tech imaging equipment and software as well.
Now, that example – the anecdotal account by the old scout – is all well and good but he can’t actually tell anyone exactly how far every outfielder’s lined up from home plate against individual batters. We just have to trust him or see it for ourselves . . . but that doesn’t change the fact that we can’t represent the distance by an actual number.
But now, thanks to Statcast we can! I can tell you exactly how many feet any positional player was from home on any plate appearance. Pretty cool, huh? So, with that in mind, what we’re looking at is the average depth opposing center fielders play when these players are at the plate:
Top-25 average center field depth, on the road, bases empty, over the past month (minimum 250 pitches seen) | Link
I’m not surprised by any of the names up here. They’re all guys who can really drive the ball with authority. I’m pretty excited by these search results.
Some clarification: we’re narrowing the search to only return results that happened on the road and with the bases empty. The reason for this is the data can be skewed by a player’s home ballpark’s dimensions and conditions. This can clearly be seen if we look at home-only results. Notice the seven Rockies in the top-10; the outfield dimensions and high altitude of Coors Field absolutely impact the results. Furthermore, not a single Rockies player finds himself on the top-25 “away” list. So by only looking at opposing center fielder depth on the road, we end up with data that deals with a wide variety of parks.
As for only including results with empty bases, this is done because we want to understand how center fielders play this batter without having to account for runners on base. For example, a center fielder might play deeper or shallower based on situational factors related to baserunners. We want to remove this from the results so we can examine center fielder depth that, theoretically, is based solely on the batter’s power absent of baserunners altering that depth.
So what can we learn from this? I liken this to Vegas lines. Many DFS players will tell you that you can really shorten and/or simplify your research time just by looking at Vegas lines. No, the implied totals and money lines won’t tell you everything you need to know about a matchup. But there is so much valuable research and data crunching done by smart oddsmakers that is baked into the Vegas lines that we can just trust that these simple numbers represent truly actionable information. In other words, sometimes all you need to know about a team’s bats is that they’re implied to score six runs . . . and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out they’re probably going to score a lot of runs that night.
Likewise, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the farther the outfielders position themselves from home plate based on who’s at bat, the more likely it is that this guy is a good power hitter. After all, major league teams don’t pay six- and seven-figure salaries to coaches, managers, and data analysts for no reason. So when a guy like Travis Shaw is seeing opposing center fielders line up about 330 feet from home, the 13th-farthest distance from home based on our search terms, we know “330 feet” and “13th-ranked” have a lot baked into them.
In other words, instead of spending so much time trying to figure out who is the best slugger, why not just rely on the people who are paid by MLB teams to dedicate untold hours scouting opponents and crunching numbers?
Think of it like stocks: the saying goes, “the trend is your friend.” If the price per share keeps going up over a long period of time, some say research isn’t necessary. Just let the trend be your guide. There are smarter and richer people than you and I who are making this stock go up, just like there are smarter and richer people than you and I who position these center fielders as far (or close) as they do.
Anyways, that’s it for now. In case you didn’t notice, I posted this here on the blog as opposed to Patreon. I plan on making the blog the permanent home of Trendspotting going forward. Check back soon for another installment. Thanks for reading and good luck tonight in your contests!