Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Shifting Value of First Base Defense

The value of a first basemen’s defensive prowess has long been an afterthought. As long as a 1B can hit and pick throws he will maintain his position on the diamond. Teams generally accept poor first base defense provided the player can hit. If a first basemen is an exceptional fielder, well that is just gravy. You rarely hear about a team concerned with improving the defensively play at 1B. There is no such thing as an all glove/no bat first basemen. Even the sabermetric community treats 1B like the ugly step child of defensive positions. 1B has the lowest positional value in WAR calculations. However, there may be somewhat of a shift in the valuation of first base defense. It is the shift that is causing the shift.

Across the major leagues there was a dramatic increase in defensive shifts in 2013. The Pirates put the shift on to the tune of a 500% increase. As teams employ more and more analysts to break down the data from the spray charts of various hitters, more candidates to shift against will be identified. What was once a strategy reserved for only the most extreme left handed pull hitters is now becoming common place for many different hitters, including right handed hitters. And there in lies the issue with first base defense. Shifting against a right handed batter greatly increases the defensive demands of a first basemen. A clod like Adam Dunn can’t be expected to play 15 feet further off the bag and be the only player positioned on the right side of the infield. If you look at the spray chart of Andrew McCutchen you would see a player that looks like an ideal candidate for a right handed over shift. That seldom happens. You see teams shade against him, but not a lot of shifting. Covering the bag is just too problematic for many first basemen if they were to shift against a speedy player like McCutchen. A quicker, more athletic, and preferably left handed first basemen could allow for that.

The Pirates are a team that likes to employ the shift often and presumably wishes to expand its usage, so will that lead them to place a higher value on 1B defense? If so it could impact what player the Bucs look to acquire this offseason to fill their hole at first base. Corey Hart with his two bad knees and right handed glove wouldn’t make a lot of sense for the Pirates if more expansive shifting is part of their plans. However, it could make James Loney a more attractive free agent target.

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