If you’ve read my stuff before you know I like to bring receipts for the claims I make. I don’t have many strengths but one of them is I generally don’t accept things at face value – I don’t mind doing a little homework to see if a theory has merit before commenting on it.
That said, I’m breaking with My Baseball Page tradition today and just giving my opinion based on a series of observations without fact-checking. If you’d like to fact-check me on any of my thoughts that are about to follow, please do – I encourage it. I’d love to find out if I was wrong because that would only mean I got smarter (or less dumb). For example, if you’d like to see if my theory that middle infielders in today’s game are significantly bigger and more powerful than middle infielders were 50 years ago, knock yourself out, Baseball-Reference is free.
But for now, let’s just proceed with my untested theories that got their genesis by watching several games from the 1950s through the 1970s recently.
Middle infielders were significantly smaller and less powerful back then than they are today. If we’re being honest, many (most?) of them would not be in the major leagues today as their jobs were to just pick up the ground balls hit at them and toss the ball to first base – absolutely nothing else was required of them and their physiques showed it.
With less arm strength than today’s players, they (all infielders but especially shortstops) had to play shallower. The overwhelming majority of ground balls were fielded about midway between the infield and outfield grass so a howitzer of an arm wasn’t necessary. Very few balls were fielded from “deep” short and none of the throws from the third base hole came from the edge of the outfield grass – either the third baseman made that play by cutting it off or it didn’t get made.
Today’s infielders can play deeper because they have stronger arms. Due to that, and again because they’re bigger, they can cover more ground. The combination of playing deep and having the arm to make throws means more pop-ups in the shallow outfield get caught, but more importantly, more groundballs from left to right are stopped before getting through the infield. (For fun sometime, look at where Matt Chapman positions himself when playing third base – he plays deeper than most shortstops did in the 70s.)
Furthermore, we (obviously) have more information today. The defense knows which pitches each batter will swing at and which ones he won’t swing at. Of the pitches each batter will swing at, the defense knows which ones he can hit and which ones he can’t. Of the ones he can hit, the defense knows where he will hit them. So obviously, the defense can place its fielders on the field accordingly.
Now let’s add all that up: Infielders are bigger and more powerful than they were decades ago. Due to having more range and arm strength, they can play deeper, which results in more ground balls being cut off before rolling safely into the outfield. Combine that with the knowledge of where batted balls go and positioning is exponentially better informed in today’s game.
This is why in today’s game, hitting the ball on the ground isn’t an automatic out – but it’s pretty damn close.
It’s also why fans, especially older ones, need to stop pining for batters to “just put it in play”, and saying things like “we need more athletic players who can leg out hits”. In 1971, when almost all middle infielders – even very good ones – were built like Bud Harrelson, Fred Stanley, and Freddie Patek, that may have worked. Ground balls in the hole had a 50/50 shot, and a hard grounder up the middle back then was a hit 9 times out of 10. In today’s game there’s usually somebody standing in those places and in the cases there isn’t, there’s someone who’s fast enough to get to it and can make the throw once he does get to it.
In the 70s, players who hit the ball on the ground and had high batting averages would see a 40 point drop in BA if they were playing against teams with Didi Gregorius at shortstop and DJ LeMahieu at second base. To be clear, I picked those two players because they have more or less average range – tell me how your strategy of just putting it in play with Carlos Correa and Marcus Semien playing up the middle works out for you.
Again, if you want to check me go ahead, Statcast and FanGraphs are free. I can virtually guarantee you that the numbers will tell you that hitting the ball on the ground in today’s game is an irredeemably bad idea.
Is that a good thing for baseball? Who knows, but that’s a different discussion. It’s just something to consider when you’re mad at your favorite power hitter who is trying to make very hard contact and elevate the ball – you need to remember, that’s his only chance in most cases.
Don’t get me started on the pitches he’s trying to hit…
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