Major League Baseball Should Steal a Defensive Concept From the NBA
I’ll preface this by saying that basketball is my first and current sports love. I know that’s a weird opening statement for a baseball article that will presumably have readers who feel the same way about baseball that I feel about basketball, but follow me here.
Over the last six months or so, I’ve done a ton of research and written a lot about both baseball and football, sports I’ve always been interested in, but just never to the extent of basketball. In the midst of some baseball research last night, I took a break to read one of my favorite basketball writers, Kevin Pelton, and his weekly basketball chat over at ESPN.
I was in an odd place where my mind was mostly still baseball, but also thinking about basketball, and I came to a question in Pelton's chat about a current, trendy basketball skill set, specifically a player’s ability to “defend multiple positions.” This idea wasn’t always important in basketball and we’re seeing a high point, as evidenced by the Sacramento Kings taking Willie Cauley-Stein sixth overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. Cauley-Stein, if you don’t follow basketball, is a player who is very raw offensively but projects to be a generational talent on the defensive end because, you guessed it, he can defend multiple positions.
This skill set is incredibly unique and probably justifies his draft position. Cauley-Stein is a seven-footer who moves like a six-footer and boasts the ability to both defend a big center and also switch onto a quick point guard. Just about no one in the world has that same skill set, save for maybe Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson, who is currently fighting for a maximum contract.
We see this in guards and wings in basketball, too. Memphis Grizzlies wing Tony Allen is considered one of the best defenders in the league, and he often guards the opposition’s best player on the floor. If the best opposing player is the other team’s “2” (or shooting guard), Allen will guard him and effectively become a shooting guard at the time. If the best opposing player is a “3” (or small forward), Allen will then effectively move to that position.
The point is: in both basketball and football (except for Darrelle Revis), positions are more fluid. Why not baseball?
The Proposed Movement of Andrelton Simmons
Although in discussing amazing defensive players I should probably mention Kevin Kiermaier here – he’s posted a ridiculous 20.6 UZR so far in the 2015 season. I’m going to focus on infielders.
Let’s talk about Andrelton Simmons, who is not only the best defensive shortstop in the league this year, but maybe one of the best defensive shortstops of all time. He’s posted a UZR of 11.2, sixth-best in the entire MLB, and a UZR/150 of 15.2. The Braves as a team, however, are not so great at defense, ranking in the bottom 10 in most defensive categories.
On the other side of second base is Jace Peterson, who isn’t a bad defensive player -- he ranks about average this season by both UZR and UZR/150 -- but obviously isn’t anywhere close to Simmons, although I know that’s not exactly a fair comparison.
Teams have definitely embraced the shift strategy more in recent years than ever before. But my question is, why not take it even farther? Why not put your best defensive players in the areas of greatest need? Against right-handed batters, play Andrelton Simmons at shortstop and let him clean up there. But against lefties, why not switch him and Peterson and let Simmons play second base for the at-bat?
Putting your best defensive player in the spot of biggest weakness is a strategy wildly used by just about every sport except for baseball, where players are locked into a position. I’m not saying that MLB analytics departments haven’t thought of this before -- they probably have and maybe it’s a terrible idea -- but I haven’t seen it discussed and I think it should be. If you have a defensive stud, move him around and let him do defensive stud-y things.
This idea, again, stems from something I want to do more of -- thinking strategically across different sports. Sometimes it’s easy to get so hyper-focused into one sport that we miss a glaring strategic need that other sports have been doing for ages! Maybe this idea isn’t that. Maybe basketball can steal something from baseball. Regardless, it’s always a good idea to look for inspiration everywhere you can find it.