This morning, for the second straight morning, the Tampa Bay Rays – a team built on pitching and defense – lead the American League with 40 errors. That’s more than half of the 73 errors they committed all of last season when Joe Maddon was asking the BBWA to add a “team” category to Gold Glove voting.
So what gives?
The personnel is fundamentally the same. Carlos Pena is as good a defender as Casey Kotchman. Matt Joyce doesn’t cover the same ground Sam Fuld covered but, he isn’t error-prone.
Could it be the shift?
The Rays have made tons and tons of headlines because Joe Maddon has started calling defensive plays like he is an NFL coordinator. There has been a ton of good analysis on how often the Rays are shifting and, it appears that other teams are following suit. This week, we saw Toronto employ some pretty dramatic shifts (including one shift that had third-baseman Brett Lawrie calling off rightfielder Jose Bautista on a hooking liner over the rightfield foul line).
Generally, everyone thinks the shift is genius. Some oppossing hitters are even complaining about the sure hits it has taken away. But isn’t it possible that it is causing the increased errors too?
On the one hand, that is a logical explanation. The Rays are fundamentally the same team, save a few injury replacements, so the prime variable seems to be the shifting. (See Mr. Schoenfeld, I was paying attention when you taught us about the scientific method in 8th grade).
More importantly, the shift requires players to start a defensive posture in a place they are not used to being. That means they are seeing the ball off the bat differently. That means they are throwing from unique angles and distances. Basically, it is like they are learning new positions on a nightly basis because, for their entire baseball-playing lives, they have stood in the exact same spot when the pitch was delivered.
First, to confirm the shift is causing us some problems, I think we need to take out all errors by outfielders, pitchers, and catchers because those players aren’t really shifting into unique positions. That takes us from 40 to 23 errors. In theory, you could also discount some part of Will Rhymes’ 5 errors because he is simply an injury replacement but, he seems to commit his errors when he is in a weird position. Still, 23 infield errors is nearly half of the 49 infield errors committed by the un-shifted 2011 infield.
I suppose the question is, if the shift is causing errors, does it matter? If the shift is turning hits into outs at a high rate, does it matter if it is also turning outs into baserunners at a high rate?