By MARK SIMON
Last Monday, Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil took an 0-for-5 against the Giants. He struck out once, lined out once and grounded out three times.
The last two ground outs, one to shortstop Brandon Crawford and another to third baseman Evan Longoria shared a common thread. Neither infielder had to move laterally to make the play. They were in the perfect spot.
This is one of the subtle keys to success for the Giants this season. Their infield defense, specifically when the team uses a defensive shift, seems to always be in position to make an out.
Our company can track and put a value on this as part of our PART system for evaluating defense. PART stands for Positioning, Air Balls (Flies, Popups and Liners), Range, and Throwing.
While a defensive player is evaluated for the ART portion, his team gets assessed a credit or debit based on where its players were stationed relative to where the ball was hit. You can learn more by reading this piece. Simply put, if a fielder’s positioning gives him a better chance to make the play, even if he doesn’t make it, he’s getting a credit.
This system is largely about small-value credits and debits but those add up over time. By our count, the Giants have saved 27 runs just based on where they’ve stationed their infielders in a shift, the most in MLB.
The Giants are a middle-of-the-pack team when it comes to shift usage and use full shifts (three infielders on one side) at a rate that ranks 22nd in MLB. But they’ve been so good at it. They’ve turned 80% of ground balls into outs when using a full shift. Only the Padres are better (81%).
Most Positioning Runs Saved on Defensive Shifts
* Average MLB team has 13 Runs Saved from Shift Positioning (full list here)
Here are some examples of the Giants’ excellence.
* This is a play that was helped by the combination of a nimble fielder and a non-nimble baserunner, but also based on where Donovan Solano was to start. That play isn’t being made if the Giants are in a standard defense.
* Another Diamondbacks frustration and another Giants success. Here’s Crawford handling a rocket from Stephen Vogt. Crawford doesn’t have to move at all. His entire effort goes into fielding the ball.
* When a right-handed pull hitter like Paul DeJong is up and a team moves its second baseman to the other side of the field, it leaves the first baseman alone on an island. Here, they play Lamonte Wade Jr. well wide of first base and it pays off.
* Wilmer Flores and Tommy LaStella are below-average infielders defensively for their careers, so in order to maximize what you get out of him, you need to put him in good spots. The Giants did so here and got a Giants-killer, Max Muncy, and a dangerous hitter, Omar Narvaez, out as a result.
* And to show one example on which a play was not made, but the Giants still got a statistical boost for good positioning: Here’s one from that same Mets game as was referenced atop the piece, a ball hit by Brandon Nimmo on which the positioning was sound but the execution was not.
The Giants don’t have a perfect defense. But they have a very good one, one influenced significantly by where they put their players. It’s another piece among their many components that have put them in position (pun fully intended) to have a big season.