Second Baseman Are Growing as Baseball Evolves

Not lengthy after the Colorado Rockies chosen Ryan McMahon within the second spherical of the 2013 draft, the third baseman started casually, however commonly, asking the membership’s farm director, Zach Wilson, about attempting second base. That the 6-foot-2, 219-pound McMahon was a power-hitting nook infielder who hadn’t performed second base since he was 12 years outdated was irrelevant.

“I just kept throwing it in there, kind of trying to be funny, but then it happened,” McMahon mentioned, including extra critically: “At that point, I was just trying to do anything I could to get to the big leagues. I felt like if I could play more positions that make me more valuable to the team.”

In McMahon’s fourth minor-league season, at Class AA Hartford in 2016, the Rockies initially moved him from third base to first. It was solely after he was reduce from large league camp a 12 months later that McMahon returned to Hartford and eventually obtained his want, spending a while at second. He made his main league debut later that season and, over the previous 5 seasons, has spent extra time at second than another place.

Once a doubter, Wilson now believes that McMahon — whose 16 dwelling runs lead the Rockies — has Gold Glove potential at second.

“If you just look at the size and shape of Ryan McMahon, you go, ‘I don’t know,’ but you watch him on the field at first and third, you watch the instincts, you watch the way he’s able to move his feet, you watch the first step and things that he just naturally does as a baseball player. You put all those pieces together and go, ‘OK, there’s no harm. Let’s see if he can do this.’”

The dimension and form of main league second basemen has been altering. Long the ball discipline residence of the undersized — the 21 Hall of Famers on the place are, on common, 5-foot-10½ and 172 kilos — the place is now populated much less by welterweights like Joe Morgan (5-7, 160) and extra by sluggers like D.J. LeMahieu (6-Four, 220).

Put one other manner: For 50 years, from 1948 till 1998, there was by no means a time when a couple of common second baseman stood at the very least 6 ft and weighed at the very least 200 kilos. In 2019, the final full season, 29 such gamers took the sphere, in accordance with Baseball Reference.

McMahon weighed 219 kilos when he was initially known as up, however slimmed down some to assist along with his protection. Credit…Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Much of that evolution tracks comparable dimension positive factors throughout the game, however the shift at second base will be attributed to greater than random outliers. McMahon, who has slimmed all the way down to round 207 kilos and prefers to play second regardless of the group usually needing him at third, has excelled since branching out. Other unlikely gamers on the place have acquitted themselves pretty as nicely.

When the Milwaukee Brewers traded for third baseman Mike Moustakas (6 ft, 225 kilos) on the 2018 commerce deadline, they moved Travis Shaw (6-Four, 230) from third to second. A 12 months later, they put Moustakas there for 47 video games. Neither Shaw nor Moustakas beforehand had performed a single inning of professional ball at second.

“As an industry, we’re beginning to recognize you don’t need to look a certain way to play a specific position,” mentioned David Stearns, the Brewers’ president of baseball operations.

In Colorado, the early critiques of McMahon’s fielding had been decidedly blended.

McMahon’s Baseball America scouting report earlier than the 2018 season famous that, whereas he’s bodily giant for second base, McMahon “impressed the Rockies with how he adapted to the position, although opposing scouts are less convinced.”

As the 2021 season begins its second half on Thursday, nonetheless, McMahon’s seven defensive runs saved at second base are tied with Marcus Semien of the Toronto Blue Jays and David Fletcher of the Los Angeles Angels for the key league lead. That is regardless of McMahon’s spending half his time at third base. Add his six D.R.S. at third, and McMahon has been essentially the most priceless fielder within the majors.

While McMahon was a fielding success story, the evolution of second base has additionally opened up choices for good hitters who don’t have a pure place.

Max Muncy, a university first baseman who realized third within the minors, performed solely three Class AAA video games at second, and two within the Cape Cod League, earlier than the Oakland Athletics put in him there within the majors in 2016. With his husky 6-foot, 215-pound construct, Muncy has performed second base extensively for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He leads the National League with a .414 on-base proportion this season and has provided quite a lot of versatility by spending time at 5 positions (first, second, third, proper discipline and left) over the previous couple of years.

“Muncy is a better athlete than people think: He can run, he can dunk — he’s a pretty explosive dude,” mentioned Josh Byrnes, the Dodgers’ senior vp of baseball operations.

Byrnes added that tremendous utility guys like Ben Zobrist freed up expectations for others. “Whereas on defense you’re not a one-position, single-file-line player,” he mentioned. “We see more creativity and movement.”

While not as slick a fielder as McMahon, Max Muncy of the Dodgers gives his group a wealth of choices since he can deal with 5 positions. Credit…Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Front workplace executives are getting extra creative typically with roster development, however a confluence of leaguewide developments is making experimentation at second extra interesting. Strikeouts charges are at an all-time excessive and, with fewer balls in play, no place has seen a larger discount in whole probabilities than second basemen, who’re fielding 20 % fewer batted balls per sport than they had been within the mid-2000s.

There are discernible causes for the change. Pitchers are throwing extra four-seam fastballs on the prime of the strike zone, fairly than sinking two-seamers on the knees, resulting in extra airborne batted balls. Better superior scouting info is informing extra exact positioning, which has led to a preponderance of shifts, and canopy for gamers with lowered vary.

“It’s so much more of a science now,” mentioned Bobby Basham, the Chicago Cubs’ director of participant growth. “It’s not just guys looking at a spray chart. Every team’s got a philosophy or a model. They’re really trying to pinpoint exactly where the best places for these guys to be on a baseball field. If you’re just in a better position, that’s 80 percent of the battle sometimes.”

Fewer floor balls and fewer base runners — the league’s on-base proportion, .316, is the second lowest it has been since 1972 — have mixed to supply the bottom fee of ground-ball double performs in baseball’s fashionable period, with 2021 in a digital tie with 1968.

That means the agility and dexterity required for pivoting on the double play are, fairly merely, in much less demand.

“Defensive positioning and shifting to some extent has changed the definition of positions on the dirt in a larger context,” Stearns mentioned.

“You’re just playing the odds that the ball is not going to be on the ground,” added Brewers Manager Craig Counsell. “You are giving up something defensively, and you’re giving up something to get something. That’s the decision that we make most days when we construct a lineup. In ’18 and ’19, that was a risk that we were willing to take. It is a risk, but on the aggregate, we felt like the offense that that player added made us better.”

One of the early proponents of taking that danger was John Hart, the retired government who, in his time main the 1990s Cleveland Indians and early 2000s Texas Rangers, prioritized offense over protection at second. He crammed the place with, amongst others, Carlos Baerga, Michael Young and Alfonso Soriano — all good hitters who had been subpar defensively. One of Hart’s lieutenants in Cleveland was Byrnes, who tried an identical strategy with Jedd Gyorko throughout his time with the San Diego Padres. But Byrnes additionally emphasised the significance of getting good total group protection.

“Everyone has their tolerance on this,” Byrnes mentioned of the trade-off.

While Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros (5-foot-6, 166 kilos) is what many individuals count on from a second baseman, D.J. LeMahieu of the Yankees (6-Four, 220) spends nearly all of his time there as nicely.Credit…Bob Levey/Getty Images

The widespread metonymy for infielders invoked by Stearns — calling them the “positions on the dirt” — is turning into antiquated, notably for second basemen, whose common shifting tasks often place them nicely on the outfield grass the place they’re too removed from the bag to even try to show a double play. As a outcome, arm power has change into a extra essential prerequisite on the place, making it a logical place for third-base transplants. First base can also be a gateway place, granting gamers the prospect to acclimate to the best facet of the infield.

In the 1980s, the statistician and author Bill James outlined a defensive spectrum, ordering baseball’s positions — from least to most difficult — first base, left discipline, proper discipline, third base, heart discipline, second base, shortstop and catcher. Conversely, extra offense is desired on the left finish of that spectrum. But this caste system of anticipated manufacturing positive factors flexibility when some gamers outhit their place, which has occurred often lately.

In 2016, when the typical weight of a second baseman topped 200 kilos for the primary (and solely) time, gamers at second batted .277 (highest amongst all positions) with a .334 on-base proportion (second) and .436 slugging proportion (third), all of which outperformed the collective totals of each nook outfield spots. (The weight of this 12 months’s common second basemen has dipped again to a still-robust 193 kilos, in accordance with Baseball Reference.)

At the time of the defensive spectrum’s introduction, James famous that “rightward shifts along the defensive spectrum almost never work.” The play of McMahon, Muncy and others, nonetheless, is proof that the definitions have modified and can proceed to ask larger scrutiny.

“The N.B.A. has more positionalists,” Byrnes mentioned, referring to an increase of versatile basketball gamers. The identical holds true in different sports activities. “Even the N.F.L. sometimes with what the quarterback is asked to do, to Bryson DeChambeau and how he attacks the golf course — that’s what we should be doing: ‘Is this the best way or is there a better way?’”