Have the Reds become passé in the art of fielding?

It's been said many times that the Reds Renaissance of 2010 was built upon improved run prevention, thanks to better glove-men as much as better arm-men. In 2008, Walt Jocketty's first year as the Reds' General Manager, the Reds converted only 67.1% of batted balls into outs (Defensive Efficiency), last in the National League. The Reds moved all the way up to third in the NL in 2009 and carried over their defensive gains through last season. But I noticed in riverfront76's recent 18-game summary that it's been a much different story this year:

DEF (raw)

Place in NL

DEF (BPro park-adjusted)

Place in NL

UZR

Place in NL

2010

0.701

3

0.84

5

43.2

4

2011

0.705

1

1.27

2

43.8

2

2012

0.689

12

-1.31

12

-1.8

10

The dramatic defensive drop-off is puzzling given the team's relative roster stability from last year. Further, two of the primary additions to this year's team - Zack Cozart and Ryan Ludwick - look to be solid fielders, an observation supported by the limited sample of this year's fielding data. And the recent loss of Scott Rolen shouldn't skew these numbers too much, as he's played almost two-thirds of the team's innings at the hot corner. So what's weighing the gloves down?

It could be as simple as bad seasons from a few key contributors. "Defense doesn't slump" has never made much sense to me in baseball, and certainly over a sample size this small a few flubs could make the difference between strong and fair fielding performances. From what I've seen, Drew Stubbs hasn't looked quite as gazelle-like in Centerfield so far. And injuries to Brandon Phillips and Scott Rolen have made them less effective fielders than prior seasons.

Another consideration is what the pitching staff is serving up. Reds pitchers have allowed line drives on 21% of batted balls so far this year, compared to a league average of 18%. They've allowed 19% in each of the past two seasons. Line drives are hits about 73% of the time, compared to 15% and 24% for fly balls and grounders, so even a small jump in LD rate can spike a team's BABIP. The subjectivity of batted ball classifications should always give us pause, but it certainly seems like some of the team's starters have been hit hard. Homer Bailey has led the way with a line drive rate of 26%, but his rotation mates have also been at or above 20%. I think the higher line drive rate is at least partially responsible for the team's fielding woes given that the team's UZR regression (which accounts for batted ball type) isn't quite as severe as the DEF drop.

One final consideration, and the inspiration for the article, is the Reds positioning of its fielders. That hasn't presumably changed over the years, and perhaps that's a problem. John Dewan, the author of The Fielding Bible series, wrote last week about the increasing use of infield shifts. Dewan wrote that many teams "are doubling and tripling the number of shifts they've done in the past, a couple even more." Meanwhile, the Reds are on pace to use the shift just nine times this season and have been the fifth-most infrequent user of the shift over the past two seasons. The Tampa Bay Rays, the pioneer in the rebirth of the shift, are on pace to use the shift nearly 700 times this year. The Brewers, the most frequent shifter in the National League, are on pace to use it about 200 times.

That's not to say that the Reds are necessarily incorrect in shying away from the shift. Dewan concedes that while his research shows that "about 50 points are knocked off the batting average on grounders and short liners for the most commonly shifted hitters," the sample size is not yet conclusive. More importantly, the Reds might not face many pull-happy lefty sluggers to justify the shift. I'm interested in seeing a list of which hitters most often face the shift, but my guess is that they mostly play in the AL or at least out of the NL Central (Adam Dunn, David Ortiz, Ryan Howard, etc.).

Still, I do wonder if the Reds could benefit from more creative positioning of their infielders. And that's not limited to just the classic infield shift, where the Shortstop is positioned right near Secondbase. Intuitively, it doesn't make sense to have your fielders in the exact same position on every pitch. That's probably an overstatement when it comes to the Reds, but the underlying critique that the Reds exhibit less flexibility in the placement of their fielders than other teams is a fair one. I've seen a fair amount of Chase Utley over the years, and while he appears defensively sound it's always struck me as strange that he consistently rates higher than Brandon Phillips on advanced defensive metrics. The explanation, according to The Fielding Bible, is positioning:

When we compared Phillips to Chase Utley in The Fielding Bible--Volume II, we found that Utley is much better at positioning himself pre-pitch. Phillips stands in roughly the same spot regardless of who is at the plate. On groundballs he's often able to make up for it with his athleticism. However, there are hard grounders and line drives he just can't reach because he's not positioned properly.

Historically, the Reds are no strangers to the shift and creative infielding. They were one of the NL teams that employed the famed "Williams shift" (as in Cy, not Ted) in 1925 (p. 177). They employed the shift against Willie McCovey in the late 1960s. More recently, I recall Pete Mackanin using a five-man infield against a particular batter to help win a game in late 2007 (against the Pirates, maybe?). And just last night, it was mentioned in the game thread that the Reds pulled a shift on the Braves.

Since they're not doing anything noticeably diferent this year, the Reds' resistance to the shift shouldn't make much of a difference as far as explaining the recent drop in defensive efficiency. But in the dogfight that the NL playoff race will surely prove to be, the Reds will need every advantage they can muster. Increased use of the shift may or may not make sense for this team, but hopefully the Reds aren't passing on more creative defensive positioning simply because of organizational conservatism.

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