The Reds are dead last in Batting Average (BA) at .207, while MLB average is .242. Hitting for average is one aspect of offense. Hitting with power is another. The Reds are 6th out of 30 teams in power, measured by the stat ISO, which is Isolated Power. ISO is a better measure of pure power than the more popular Slugging Percentage (SLG) because SLG includes Batting Average and therefore singles. ISO subtracts the singles out of SLG and measures just extra-base hits. The Reds are 6th in the major leagues in extra-base hits.
What about the third big component of offense, drawing walks? Well, the Reds are 3rd in MLB in walk-rate, behind only Cleveland and the Chicago Cubs.
What’s gone wrong with the Reds offense? Hitting for average. Not power, not on-base skills.
We’ll get back to the hometown team in a minute.
The Reds and their fans don’t have a monopoly on this concern. The claim that “offense is down in baseball in 2020” has become conventional wisdom across MLB. It provides an easy narrative for broadcasters and fertile research ground for analysts. Turns out, most popular explanations are off target, because the underlying premise is wrong. Offense isn’t suffering across baseball. It’s down for left-handed hitters. Right-handed hitters are doing fine.
Armed with that revelation, we have to ask: What’s going on with the lefties?
An answer to that question, one with intuitive appeal, is that teams have been successful aligning their defenses against left-handed batters. This explanation has a nice fit for the particular problem we’re investigating because shifts are designed to affect Batting Average, not power. Shifts involve moving infielders around. Its primary target is singles.
But in the past, when researchers have looked for this cause-and-effect, the impact of the shift on offense, it’s gone missing. That creates warranted skepticism about this explanation. Shifts have been a thing since Ted Williams. With nothing new to defensive shifts in 2020, nothing to see here, right?
Well, not so fast.
Getting Left Out of Batting Average
To explore the impact of the shift, we’re going to use two statistics.
The first stat is as back-of-the-baseball-card as you can find: Batting Average (BA). Simply, BA is the number of hits divided by total at bats. This one is so simple we could calculate it as kids. Batting Average shown as a 3-decimal point number between .000 and 1.000 (the 2020 Reds are hitting .207). Batting Average statistics are kept for players, teams and leagues. From 1970-2020 — that’s a sample size of about 10 million at bats — the Major League BA has been .260. In the past few years, it has fluctuated a few points below that. One of the main pieces of evidence for “offense is down in baseball in 2020” is that the current league Batting Average is .242.
This chart shows how the BA of right-handed hitters has compared with left-handed hitters for each season since 2010, through 2019.
You might call that a romantic walk. The Batting Average for right-handed hitters (RHH) and left-handed hitters (LHH) move together, arm-in-arm. Any gap in recent years has been small. The largest divergence was 4 percent (in 2011 and 2012). The past four seasons, RHH and LHH batting averages have been within two points of each other. That’s close.
Now let’s add the 2020 season:
Whoa. So much for our romantic walk. The LHH have broken off and taken a path less traveled. That’s a 22-point gap (.251 vs. .229). It’s historic. Left-handed Batting Average is the source of the decline of offense in MLB and learning that is the start of figuring out what’s gone wrong with the Reds.
Doing Worse Than Expected
That brings us to our second statistic: Expected Batting Average (xBA).
You won’t find xBA on your baseball card. It’s new. xBA is based on things baseball didn’t have the technology to measure well until the past few years. It operates on the same scale as BA and is calculated the same way, with one change. Instead of the numerator being the number of hits, the numerator is the number of hits you would expect based on how well the ball was hit and how fast the runner is. We’ll need to leave calculating this one to the pros.
To come up with the numerator, for each batted ball an estimate is made of the probability it will become a hit. To do that, the ball’s exit velocity, launch angle and the batter’s sprint speed are compared to every ball hit that same way since 2015. Why 2015? That’s when MLB introduced Trackman radar in big league stadiums. MLB then created Statcast to take that data, calculate stuff from it and make it public.
Think of xBA as the number of hits the batter/team/league should have given average defense, park dimensions and luck. xBA isn’t imaginary. It uses actual batted balls of that player or team, but replaces the specific outcome with the average outcome for that contact quality.
This table shows the BA and xBA for left-handed hitters for the six seasons that xBA has been calculated. The third column is the difference between the two.
Important points based on the data in this chart:
• xBA for 2020 is close to previous seasons. Batters, both RH and LH, are behind pitchers at the start of the season. xBA increases after the first few weeks as contact quality improves. We see that every season and are again in 2020. The low Batting Average for LHH isn’t due to quality of contact not being as high as in the past. It’s almost exactly the same.
• In the first five seasons xBA was measured (2015-2019) we see a consistent pattern of Batting Average and Expected Batting Average being close to each other. Graphing it would produce another romantic walk. In each season from 2015-2019, BA has been slightly above xBA. That gap narrowed in recent years to almost zero.
• Something in 2020 has not only flipped the relationship between BA and xBA, but produced a gigantic gap. Keeping in mind that xBA is the quality of contact and BA is the outcome, what that data says is that left-handed batters are hitting the ball the same way, but their specific outcomes are way down — almost 20 points.
Is Defensive Alignment the Explanation?
Well-hit balls that traditionally have been hits but turn into outs are the defensive shift’s calling card.
We know the number of shifts has increased. The use of infield shifts against left-handed hitters has increased from 22% in 2017 to 53% in 2020 (2018: 30%, 2019: 42%). The Reds use an extra-infielder alignment in 66.5% of plate appearances vs. LHH. That’s 6th most in MLB.
But defensive shifts in 2020 involve more than sliding a third infielder over to the right side as in the past. If you’ve watched even a small amount of baseball this year, you’ve noticed that defenses are positioning a player out in short right field. That defender is aligned deep enough to catch line drives, but close enough so he can charge a ground ball and still make a play at 1B.
What’s new in defensive alignment in 2020 is the prevalence of extra-deep infielders on the right side.
This graphic shows the evolution of infield positioning (for LHH, shift on, no one out, Baseball Savant).
The two black arrows highlight that the 2B (or one of the infielders) is playing deeper now. In 2016, shifts rarely involved moving an infielder out there. In 2019, not quite half the shifts included the extra-deep fielder. Now in 2020, the extra-deep fielder has become the standard.
The extra-deep infielder is designed to thwart ground balls and line drives. Let’s look at each category and see what’s happening.
Ground Balls From 2015-2017, Batting Average and xBatting Average on ground balls were about the same as each other. But as defenses made greater use of three infielders on the right side, a small gap (5-8 points) opened up. The shift showed a modest effect. But in 2020, with infielders stationed out in right field, the gap between BA and xBA for ground balls has soared (60 points). Based on the way baseball has operated in the past five years, left-handed batters should be hitting .261 on ground balls, this year they are hitting only .201.
Line Drives Into The Shift Line drives are the best kind of batted balls. They have more than double the probability of turning into a hit than do ground balls. For years, the 3-across infield shifts didn’t affect line drives because the balls flew over the infielders’ heads. But extra-deep infielders put line drives into play.
These are the numbers for Batting Averages on line drives for left-handed hitters into the shift. In effect, they compare the effectiveness of the shift season-to-season. As more left-handed shifts involve an extra-deep infielder, Batting Average has declined relative to xBA by more than 30 points.
It’s easier to understand what’s going on when you see it happen in a game. Here are three examples of the extra-deep infielder taking away a base hit.
These are simple to find. The first two come from back-to-back innings in Friday night’s game, with the Reds benefitting. Here, Freddy Galvis is playing the extra-deep infield position and robs Matt Carpenter of a line-drive hit in the 2nd inning.
The second example is from the next inning. Galvis ranges far to left to field a ground ball and throw the runner out at first.
Those two balls have been hits for 100 years. But they aren’t now.
Finally, here’s an example not from the Reds but a play you may have seen on a highlight reel.
The player making that catch in the RF corner is Manny Machado. He is the Padres THIRD BASEMAN who was playing their deep 2B.
Now, Back to the Reds
The brutal facts If you look at the data for the Reds left-handed hitters, the ones who are common to 2019 and 2020 (Votto, VanMeter, Barnhart, Winker, Galvis as LH) or those who are new with a large role in 2020 (Akiyama and Moustakas), you’ll find these astonishing facts:
- The percent of pitches Reds LHH have seen when the defense is playing a shift has increased from 35% in 2019 to 65% in 2020
- The quality of contact (xBA) from Reds lefties has been good at .263
- Reds lefties have lost 40 points in Batting Average (BA) relative to their quality of contact (xBA)
So if you’re looking for explanations for the Reds weak offense Start here. The impact on LH batters from the double-whammy of seeing almost twice as many pitches into the shift and the new emphasis on extra-deep infielder in 2020 is enormous. Reds LHH in particular have been significant and frequent victims. Joey Votto’s quality of contact (xBA) against the shift should have produced a Batting Average of .271, which is good. But his BA against shifts is only .197. That’s a gap of more than 70 points. Votto had no shift gap in 2019. Josh VanMeter has similar 2020 shift numbers to Votto (even a little worse), and Jesse Winker’s gap is about half of Votto’s, which is still big.
What about the Reds right-handed hitters? They are facing more shifts as well. Their pitches-with-shift percent is up from 11% (2019) to 25% (2020). But those shifts are far less effective because using an extra-deep IF doesn’t work against RHH. Unlike one on the right side, an extra-deep infielder on the left side doesn’t have time to throw out the batter on a ground ball. So shifts against RHH are mostly three guys straight across.
The data shows the shift isn’t hurting Reds RHH. But when you poke around those numbers you discover the amazing amount of bad luck Reds right-handed hitters have suffered in 2020. By quality of contact, Reds RHH have hit .251 (xBA) which is right at league average. But their actual Batting Average is only .206. That’s a staggering loss of 45 points. That’s the highest BA-xBA gap in MLB; only a couple teams are close. The gap for Reds RHH is there with shifts and standard defense.
A Quick Thought on the Future of Defense: The Super Infielder As the extra-deep infielder strategy becomes central and its benefits clear, teams will search out and pay a premium for a specific kind of player. The extra-deep infielder has to be versatile, agile, have a strong arm and be exceptional at charging a ground ball to make a play at first. For most teams, the shortstop will become a super infielder on both sides of second base. Freddy Galvis often plays the extra-deep infielder for the Reds and he’s ideal for it. Galvis is quick and agile, and metrics show that charging ground balls has been his strength in the past.
The culprit in the Reds offensive woes is Batting Average. Remember, the Reds are #6 in power and #3 in walks. But they’re not seeing line drives and ground balls falling in for hits. We’ve discovered two things: (1) Reds LHH are being owned by the newish extra-deep infielder, and (2) Reds RHH have been struck by bad luck on balls in play.
Those factors don’t explain everything wrong with the Reds offense, but their magnitude on Batting Average is gigantic.
As a fan, complaining about defensive shifts and bad luck may not be as gratifying as pointing blame at David Bell or Dick Williams. But unlike fictional yarns spun about “urgency” or “feel” these are real, grounded in data, on-the-field explanations for what’s going on.
[Featured image: https://twitter.com/Reds/status/1136683194487623680]