The Minnesota Twins Saved Runs By Going All In
Image courtesy of David Berding-USA TODAY SportsAdmittedly, pulling the infield in is nothing new. With no exact origin story, the alignment likely began when the first runner reached third base at Elysian Fields.
As an organization, the Minnesota Twins have hired people to run their baseball operations who question the game’s status quo -- Why do pitchers need to establish their fastballs when a breaking ball might be their best pitch? Why do catchers need to squat on two legs? Playing the infield in early in the game is another traditionally held no-no, but why?
Part of the long-standing rationale is the tendency to surrender extra hits. Cheap hits at that.
Baseball Info Solution recently looked at all of their infield positioning data going back to 2015. According to their research, in the face of the infield drawn in, hitters posted a batting average 70 points higher on ground balls and low liners as those balls found more seams and carried just out of reach of the defenders. From 2015 through 2019, hitters posted a .296 average with a normal infield alignment while they hit .366 average with the infield in.
Like the defense shift, nothing seems to agitate traditional baseball people more than when a weak grounder squibs through an opening where a defender should be.
But here’s the rub: according to BIS’s study, runs scored declined significantly with a drawn in infield. Under normal conditions, that runner on third would score 63% of the time yet with the infield playing in, the runner scored just 49% of the time. That’s a significant swing.
The Twins are not alone in pushing the boundaries of the game, especially in this regard. In 2017, depending on the situation, the Boston Red Sox looked to cut off the runner at third early in the game.
“We try to tell our guys defensively, ‘Let’s not give away easy runs. Let’s make the other team execute. If they don’t execute, let’s knock down lead runners,’” Red Sox third base coach Brian Butterfield told the Providence Journal’s Tim Britton. “It changes a guy’s hitting approach. With all the infielders back, he just has to stand in the middle and play pepper with the second baseman or shortstop and you’re guaranteed a run.”
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli echoed this sentiment in this season when he told reporters that the teams’ decision is based on “trying to cut down runs and giving yourself an opportunity to cut down runs as opposed to giving them up and simply playing the infield back.”
As BIS’s research previously showed, the odds indicate that teams would indeed save runs. So why not take advantage of them?
A runner on third will score on a hit to the outfield no matter what. While a normal depth infield might increase the range of where an out can be made, it also means that a run would likely score regardless. Because the Twins have confidence in their batted ball data and their starting pitchers’ ability to execute pitches, they believe they can maximize coverage with the infield pulled in.
When the Red Sox were determining whether or not to move everyone in, there were several factors at play in their decision-making process. For instance, is the person hitting fast and capable of stealing a base? Sacrificing a cheap hit and a run might result in a runner in scoring position quickly. Is there a runner on second? If that runner is fast, a cheap hit through the infield might score two. Under those circumstances, it might be better to play it conservatively.
Data suggests that Baldelli tended to be more aggressive in 2020 when it came to those situations.
There is no publicly available data that shows exactly how many times the Twins opted to play the infield in early in the game but if you were to examine Statcast’s infield starting position, you can see that there was a big effort in moving their infield in when runners are on third and less than 2 outs. Looking at just the middle infield positions, both fielders started on average over 10 feet closer to the plate than they did in 2019 (and more so than 2018 and 2017).
Compared to the rest of baseball this season, the Twins were second in the depth their infield started in those situations.
In the first three innings, only the forward-thinking Tampa Bay Rays positioned their infield closer on average in runner-on-third/less than 2 out situations. Their shortstop would begin precariously close to a hitter at 113 feet. Meanwhile, the Twins would start Jorge Polanco, et al at 121 feet, the next closest in.
In all, the Twins had 21 instances where there was a runner on third and less than 2 outs. A review of those plays shows that among those 21 balls in play, there were only three plays that 1) the infield was in and 2) managed to keep the runner from scoring where a normal defense would have conceded the run. A more robust analysis would be required to determine how many of those bleeder/cheap hits gained during the shift resulted in extended innings. That being said, saving three runs in a shortened season is not nothing.
Focusing on reducing easy runs might be one of the reasons why the Rays (67) and the Twins (69) were second and third in baseball at allowing the fewest runs in the first three innings in 2020.
On its own, bringing the infield in to cut off a handful of runs might not seem that significant but if you look at it in the aggregate -- combined with the other elements -- it becomes another piece of overall run prevention.
Tiny improvements. Big gains. That’s the secret sauce.
- rukavina, h2oface, mikelink45 and 3 others like this