Greetings. Let’s get to one “Ask Bernie” question today. I have more waiting in the hopper, but some questions are best addressed by taking the time to do some research and provide a more thoughtful and detailed answer.
Just a reminder: send me your question by emailing to BernScoops@gmail.com
My question is, what kind of effect do you think the prevalence of the shift would’ve had on Ozzie Smith as a defensive player? Does he earn as much lifetime defensive WAR as he actually earned and do we get to see the amazing range he had at shortstop? Would he even have near as much impact today with all the focus on strikeouts? I don’t know how to explain the question any better, but the lack of balls in play and action got me to thinking about The Wizard in particular. (R. Kellerman, Chicago.)
That’s a great question. Let’s pretend that Ozzie Smith was still in his prime and starting at shortstop for the Cardinals or any other team in 2021. This much is certain: at a time when games are overloaded with strikeouts, and MLB batters are obsessed with launch angles and putting the ball in the air, Ozzie would be extremely frustrated. He’d be doing a lot more standing around – and, just like the rest of us – waiting for some action.
In 2015, the number of batted balls in play for the entire season included 57,964 grounders. In 2021, the ground-ball count had dropped to 51,509 – a decrease of 8,375 since the ‘15 season. (And since 2005, through 2021, the number of ground balls wen down by 8,375.)
Safe to say, Ozzie Smith wouldn’t have the chance to make as many plays. He wouldn’t be rolling up massive assist totals. MLB’s all-time leader for most assists by a shortstop would have fewer grounders to get to, fewer runners to throw out.
In 1980, Ozzie (as a Padre) set a single-season record with 621 assists by a shortstop. In 2021, no MLB shortstop had more than 436 assists.
OK, but here’s the thing about that: shortstops still make a heckuva lot of plays, even in today’s form of baseball. MLB teams make heavy use of defensive shifts against LH batters, and shift at a much lower percentage against RH batters. True, the shortstop will often move closer to second base when a LH hitter is up, but that isn’t a new tactic.
According to the data at FanGraphs, the total number of assists by MLB shortstops in 2021 was only 1,684 fewer than the position’s assist total in 1980. That isn’t a substantial amount. And the number of assists by shortstops in 2021 was only 173 less than their assist count in 2015.
So now that I’ve looked specifically at shortstops and their defense in a changing game, I have to change what I stated earlier. It’s all relative, but Ozzie Smith still would be plenty busy in present-day baseball, because the shortstop is still a huge piece in a team’s strategy to reduce runs with defense.
And even if managers do relocate their shortstops, it’s usually for a smart reason … and also because they have a shortstop that doesn’t excel at defense and has limited range. It makes sense to give him an advantage by doing everything to place him in the most likely path of a batted baseball based on the batter’s tendencies.
Given his extraordinary range and sharp instincts – he was just an incredibly intelligent player – Ozzie in his prime would still be the best of the bunch. He would still be snatching more batted balls on the ground or in the air. He’d still be stealing the most hits from batters. He’d still be saving the most runs with his defense. In recent years, the best shortstops have remained at the top, or near the top, in the defensive metrics ratings each year. They are unfazed by changes in the game, and can still get the job done more effectively than most peers.
And what about Ozzie and defensive shifts? I don’t believe, for a second, that his greatness would be reduced by shifts. If a shift is set up smartly and properly, it would provide exceptional fielders with more opportunities to make more plays – not fewer plays. Putting Ozzie in a shift doesn’t make him less athletic, or reduce his range, or dull his instincts.
And I don’t believe his wow-factor plays would be less frequent … or not by much, anyway. Why? Because of his range, I don’t think managers would feel compelled to deploy him the same way they’d line up an average shortstop. He’d cover so much ground, there’d be no reason to slide him over in a dramatic fashion, away from his normal territory. That’s a plus.
Plus, think about this: even if Ozzie Smith was deployed in an overshift – lining up much closer to second base – it would just give him more chances to dazzle us with plays to his right … or plays to his left … ranging widely, a comet in isolation, cutting off grounders that seemed destined to become a single to left-center, or right-center.
And don’t forget about Ozzie’s manager, the innovative and creative Whitey Herzog. He drew gasps by occasionally moving an infielder to go with a four-man outfield alignment against specific hitters that had a locked-in habit of hitting baseballs to the same area. While managing the KC Royals, Herzog flummoxed Boston slugger Jim Rice by going with four outfielders. And Herzog went with the strategy on occasion while managing the Redbirds. And he certainly shaded Smith to his left, or to his right, depending on the hitter’s spray charts. And Herzog loved to rely on spray charts to position his defense. He was well ahead of his time on that, and it was fascinating for me to sit in his office before games and listen to him explain why he planned to arrange his defense for different hitters.
Herzog used shifts before shifts became a mainstream title … and with Ozzie Smith as his shortstop … and it worked out great. These unofficial “shifts” didn’t change Ozzie’s career trajectory as a extraordinary defender. If anything, Herzog’s subtle shifts probably enhanced Smith’s defense to some extent.
Under any circumstances, Ozzie Smith would be a spectacular (and reliable) fielder. And while he’d have fewer chances to turn a double play, he’d still do it better than any shortstop in the game’s history. And we don’t need a counting stat to reach that conclusion. Those of us who saw it were thrilled by it.
When a player is as great defensively as Ozzie Smith was while winning 13 Gold Gloves and setting numerous records – his sublime defense would still stand out. He’d exert influence during games. Fans and media would still exalt him with praise. Even with fewer assists compared to the old days, he’d still have more of them than any shortstop in the game. And in my view that would be true of any era, or in any style of play.
Because when we get down to it, playing high-quality shortstop is all about the skill set. Quick reflexes to track the ball, speed to cover a wide swath of ground, having the good hands to field the ball, and the pinpoint accuracy on the throws. And if a team has a top-level shortstop, he’ll frequently nullify a hitter’s tendencies – no shift, or shift.
Greatness is greatness.
And Ozzie Smith was a defensive shift. All by himself.
Thanks for reading … and thanks for the question.
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.