What makes Chase Utley so good?

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt, special to The Hardball Times, from John Dewan’s excellent new book The Fielding Bible—Volume II. The new version of The Fielding Bible includes many improvements to John’s Plus/Minus fielding system, such as the impact each major league fielder had on runs allowed. This excerpt, which discusses the impact of positioning on defensive performance, is one of the many great essays available from the Fielding Bible II, which is now available from ACTA Sports. Please support THT by using this link to purchase it.

Before we talk a lot about Chase Utley, I should mention that Brandon Phillips actually won our Fielding Bible Award at second base in 2008. To understand why, you’ll have to read Bill James’ note on Phillips on page 273 of the The Fielding Bible—Volume II. But if Brandon Phillips is so good, why does Chase Utley have a plus/minus of +46 while Phillips “only” has +17 (or +21 if you only count ground balls)? On my Fielding Bible Award ballot I personally listed Utley first. In fact, Utley received more first-place votes than Phillips, but Phillips was listed in one of the top three positions on all but one ballot while Utley had four voters who listed him from seventh to tenth place.

Most of the voters probably agree, however, that Phillips is more athletically talented. It shows up when you watch them on the field, and it shows up in our Misplays/Good Plays system. Phillips had more Good Plays in fewer chances than Utley (66 to 57) and fewer Defensive Misplays plus Errors by far (34 for Phillips vs. 48 for Utley). But, when I was voting, I looked at that plus/minus differential and couldn’t justify voting for anyone but Utley. Let’s take a closer look at how Utley’s and Phillips’ plus/minus numbers break down.

Left . . . Left . . . Left, Right, Left

Chase Utley’s +46 means that if an average second baseman had all the same batted balls that Utley had, he’d have made 46 fewer plays. Looking at Utley’s profile in the 2B Register of the The Fielding Bible—Volume II, we know he was +32 to his left, +6 straight on, and +8 to his right. He made 46 extra plays but he made four extra plays to his left for every one extra play to his right. The first thought that comes to mind is that Utley reacts better to his left. Not just better, amazingly better. But let’s look further.

In working with this information over the years, one thing we’ve found is that hitters generally pull balls hit on the infield. More specifically, when we isolate ground balls and catchable short liners on the infield, we find that hitters pull the ball over 70 percent of the time. For fly balls, it’s a different story, with fewer than half (45%) being pulled. But we’re dealing with infielders here, and with that pull ratio, shifting positions in the infield based on the handedness of the batter makes sense and is done all the time. As a result, we decided to analyze plus/minus based on the bat side of the hitter.

Before we proceed, let me mention this. When we’re measuring batted balls for second basemen and we’re calling it “To His Left,” “Straight On,” and “To His Right,” what we really mean is relative to the normal location for the second baseman. We looked at where all fieldable (by the second baseman) batted balls are hit and, in essence, broke them into thirds. But it is possible that a player could position himself in the area called “To His Left” and actually field the play as a ball hit right to him, or even slightly to his right.

Let’s look at both Utley and Phillips. We’ll ignore batted balls that are Straight On—these are the ones that are to the center of the second base position. When right-handed batters are at the plate, we find that there are about three times as many balls hit “To His Right” for both players.

Batted Balls hit by right-handed batters
In the Field     To His Left   To His Right
Utley                  42           112
Phillips               28            90

How about with left-handed batters at the plate? Not surprisingly, it goes the other way. For Phillips there were twice as many balls To His Left, and for Utley about two-and-a-half times as many.

Batted Balls hit by left-handed batters
In the Field     To His Left    To His Right
Utley                 185            68
Phillips              141            71

Based on this information, it’s clear what needs to be done. Positioning. And it is done. Not just by Utley and Phillips, but by nearly every second baseman in baseball. However, what I’m trying to get at here is the extent. How much positioning is done? How much should be done?

Let’s go deeper. Both Utley and Phillips have excellent plus/minus scores, but Utley is still higher. Can we see anything about positioning in the plus/minus numbers. Let’s add plus/minus to the two tables we just showed and put them side by side.

Batted Balls
             Right-Handed Batters  Left-Handed Batters
In the Field      Left    Right       Left    Right
Utley              42      112         185      68
Phillips           28       90         141      71

And here are the plus/minus figures for each fielder:

              Right-Handed Batters  Left-Handed Batters
In the Field      Left    Right        Left    Right
Utley              -6       22          37      -13
Phillips           -7       18           7       -2

What are these charts showing us? Against right-handed batters, Utley and Phillips look about the same. They both have minus plus/minus scores to their left. But their positive scores to their right more than make up for the difference. Both players appear to be shifting well over to the right when a right-handed batter is up. They have a harder time getting to the balls to their left, but there are fewer of those. They more than make up for the missed plays by making more plays on the greater number of balls to their right.

Now for the Left-Handed Batters side of the chart. It’s the whole key to Chase Utley. What appears to be clear from this chart is that both players are shifting left against left-handed batters, but Utley is going further. Phillips is missing plays to his right, but gets a few extra to his left. Utley is missing even more plays to his right, but is really making up for them on plays to his left. To the tune of +37, 30 more extra plays than even Brandon Phillips is making. That’s huge.

So what makes Utley so good? Simple answer: Positioning. And more specifically, positioning against left-handed batters.

Now keep in mind that not all left-handed batters are created equal. If you look at Defensive Positioning System in the Fielding Bible, you’ll see that. Utley has to vary his positioning by batter, even against different lefties, to maximize his performance. But, in general, the key appears to be that he is moving closer to first base against lefties than virtually any other second baseman in baseball. BIS Video Scouts, who watch every game and chart nearly everything you can imagine, have said the same thing. Utley has a strong tendency to position himself towards hitters’ pull side.

Some players besides Utley and Phillips

Another player who looks like a radical shifter at second base is Jose Lopez. We’ll show his total positioning plus/minus:

Using Recurrent Neural Networks to Predict Player Performance
Technology is rapidly advancing possibilities in decision-making.
Jose Lopez
         Left   Straight  Right   Total
LHB       20       -1     -17       2
RHB      -11        2       9      -1
Total     10        1      -9       2

Similar to Utley, Lopez is much better going to the pull side of the hitter. He’s just not as good as Utley (no one is), with a plus/minus of +2 overall, about average.

Not all players are as straightforward as Utley or Lopez. Let’s move across the second base bag and look at Yunel Escobar, a +22 shortstop:

Yunel Escobar
         Left      On    Right  Total
LHB       21        1     -2      20
RHB       -2        2      1       2
Total     19        3      0      22

It looks like the same story for Escobar—he’s much better to his left against lefties. However, we might expect a similar strength to his right vs. RHB, but it’s just not there. Somehow, Escobar was +20 against lefties and +2 against righties. Perhaps part of the problem is his positioning against right-handed hitters; maybe he positions much better against lefties. Or maybe he has a bizarre phobia of right-handed hitters.

Cesar Izturis appears to be one of the more radical shifting shortstops, and just as good as Escobar (+22 overall):

Cesar Izturis
         Left    On     Right  Total
LHB       10      2      -3       9
RHB      -11      2      21      13
Total     -1      4      18      22

As with Utley and Lopez (but not Escobar), notice how the shift is balanced Left/Right. Izturis is +10 to his left against lefties, but that drops to -11 vs. RHBs. The 21 play difference is opposite and nearly equal on the other side: he picks up a 24-play difference to his right between LHB and RHB. For Escobar, the differences were 23 and 3.

Escobar and Izturis were the strongest defensive shortstops in the Plus/Minus System on ground balls alone, so let’s take a look at the other end of the spectrum, Yuniesky Betancourt:

Yuniesky Betancourt
       Left     On     Right  Total
LHB       -4    -2      -1      -6
RHB      -17    -5       8     -15
Total    -21    -7       7     -21

The numbers are lower across the board, but Betancourt has fewer problems to his left against LHB than against RHB, and is actually above average to his right against righties.

The vast majority of infielders, both good and bad, are stronger to the hitter’s pull side. But there are guys who fly in the face of convention. Take Adrian Beltre, the Fielding Bible Award winner at third base:

Adrian Beltre
         Left    On    Right  Total
LHB        3      2     -1       4
RHB       17      2      7      26
Total     21      3      6      30

There’s no pattern here, other than the fact that Beltre seemed to handle right-handed batters stronger in both directions. But that’s likely to be simply a matter of a lot more plays to handle with righties batting. Plus/minus totals for first basemen and third basemen are the enhanced plus/minus numbers, which take into account extra-base hits.

Let’s round out the infield with one of the worst defenders for all of 2008, Mike Jacobs:

Mike Jacobs
         Left    On    Right  Total
LHB       -3     -5     -4     -12
RHB       -3     -4     -6     -13
Total     -6     -9    -11     -26

Jacobs was consistently bad no matter how you slice it. As you might expect, first basemen exhibit much smaller shift splits than other infield positions. Tethered to first base, they are not as free to shift far off the first base line. This makes them much less interesting to look at from this standpoint.

The big picture

So is it better for an infielder to shift drastically based on the handedness of the hitter? Rather than cherry-picking more examples, let’s look at everyone.

Bear with me on the math here. We’re going to come up with a “left shift” score to determine how much shifting left each player is doing, and a “right shift” score to see how much he is shifting right. A player’s “left shift” score is measured by subtracting his plus/minus on balls to his left against right-handed hitters from his score to his left against lefties. For Chase Utley, this is 37 – (-6) = 43. His “right shift” is similar, subtract his plus/minus to his right against righties from his plus/minus to his right against lefties (Utley: 22 – (-13) = 35). The sum of these two is his Total Shift Score (Utley: 43 + 35 = 78, by far the highest in the majors).

Next, we’ll limit our study to the regulars by taking the top 35 players at each position based on innings played. We split the players into three groups: biggest shifters, average shifters, and smallest shifters. Here is the combined plus/minus for each group:

Plus/Minus by shift group  1B   2B   SS   3B
12 largest shifters        19   87   52  -41
11 average shifters         4    8   29   40
12 smallest shifters      -35  -57  -36   34

Except for third base, the biggest shifters were the best fielders, and the smallest shifters were the worst. Third base is the exact opposite; in fact, three excellent defensive third basemen actually posted negative “shift scores”: Joe Crede, Ryan Zimmerman, and Beltre.

(Interesting side note: since we are looking at 35 regulars at each position, the defensive replacements and backups are excluded. At second base, third base, and shortstop, the regulars posted an aggregate positive plus/minus score, indicating that the backups bring down the quality of fielding at each position. The opposite is true at first base, where poor defense is tolerable if the fielder’s offense can adequately compensate.)

Aside from the three fielders at third base (who combine for a +51 plus/minus), we observe a general trend: the group of infielders with the largest LHB/RHB differences had a higher plus/minus score than the group that shifted the least. However, it is difficult to determine exactly how shifting one way or the other would benefit or hurt a specific player’s defense. We cannot currently determine how a certain player would rate if he played a couple more steps to his left or right.

Caveats aside, the results are intriguing. The topic merits further study in the near future. For related discussion on this topic, be sure to check out the charts in the Defensive Positioning article on page 121 of the Fielding Bible—Volume II.

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