Like the other 29 MLB teams, the Minnesota Twins face a new defensive challenge in 2023: they’ll have to adapt to rules barring shifts on the infield. When we think about the ramifications of that change, we often focus on fielders’ ability to reach and field the ball. In reality, though, there’s an interaction between raw range and throwing arm–one that will become more important. To that end, bringing back Carlos Correa at shortstop was crucial, but even his strong arm faces a tougher test under the new guidelines.
Shifts aren’t just about reaching balls that would otherwise scoot cleanly through to the outfield. They are, in nearly equal measure, about making plays more comfortable for defenders. When a big-league team deploys a shift, a much higher share of ground balls hit by the opposition are within a step or two of a fielder’s starting position. They can usually make the play, plant their feet, and make a strong, balanced throw from a firm footing.
In a post-shift world, we will see teams carefully calibrate their positioning to create as many of those easy chances as the new constraints permit. Inevitably, though, we’re going to see more plays made on the run. Since two defenders have to set up on each side of second base, the shortstop won’t be able to shade as far toward the hole against some right-handed batters as they previously had, because the second baseman will have to be a couple of steps further away from any ball hit to the left side of second base. That, in turn, will force the third baseman to play a step further off the foul line, in order to help defend the hole.
As a result, we’ll see more plays on which a third baseman’s momentum carries him into foul territory as he fields a ground ball up the line. We’ll see more shortstops making plays that require them to give ground and end up in shallow left field, with less time to get off a throw. We’ll see second basemen having to make a few more plays on which they must field the ball on the move away from first base, twist around, and throw off-balance from a position more familiar to the shortstop.
These are all tough plays to make, because of a neglected secret of infield play: the time during which the ball is with the fielder is the window in which a groundout can become an infield hit. The ball is usually hit at somewhere north of 70 miles per hour, even on a seemingly slow chopper. Once a fielder grabs it and flings it, it nearly always travels more quickly than that from wherever they are to first base. The length and strength of the throw in question matters, of course, and the speed of the runner matters. Too often, though, we overlook how pivotal the time between a fielder slapping the leather on a grounder and their release can be.
To evaluate how well the Twins can handle that in the new era, one must rely on more than velocity, including more nebulous metrics like "arm utility." We dive into that here, along with where the Twins' infielders rank, and the one advantage the rotation might give them. But just using ad revenue, we can't pay writers enough to do that kind of deep dive. So we reserve it for our Caretakers that support it.
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