If we ever cease calling second base the keystone — or just need to add a brand new moniker for the fielding position between first base and shortstop — maybe we must always contemplate the bellwether. Owing to the extensive funnel that leads gamers to the position, second base has grow to be a beacon we will observe as forces in the sport pull groups’ priorities this manner and that.
The 2023 MLB season units up as the begin of a brand new, fascinating period in the historical past of second basemen, because of the daybreak of MLB’s infield shift limitations. The space of the area most distorted, crowded and studied by fashionable defensive techniques will (largely) be snapped again into its conventional alignment by drive of rule. The gamers who man the position will face new (or outdated) obligations and calls for, and fully totally different folks would possibly discover themselves in the function as a result of of these adjustments.
While most of the consideration on the new shift limitations has understandably gone in direction of understanding how hitters would possibly profit — what number of extra hits left-handed sluggers would possibly accumulate underneath the new guidelines — there may even be career-altering intrigue in the area. Who is match to stroll the tightrope of second base with out the shift’s forgiving internet? Who will discover the stability between the position’s current offensive prowess and its conventional defensive bent?
To perceive the divergent paths that would emerge, it helps to know how the thought of a second baseman morphed into its present type.
The position of limitations
Maybe you have a visible archetype of the second baseman: contact-hitting, brief, speedy. There’s good motive for that. The two finest hitting second basemen by OPS+ since integration are Joe Morgan and Jose Altuve, all-around marvels underneath 5-foot-9. A bevy of much less completed major-league fixtures — from the early years of the sport via now — additionally match that psychological mildew, in a technique or one other, with out the excessive stature or excellence. It’s not as a result of being brief is advantageous, although. That’s only one outcropping of second base’s standing as the wild card, the fallback plan, the limbo of the defensive spectrum.
Maybe you additionally have a scouting archetype of the second baseman: “Not sufficient arm for shortstop.” There’s good motive for that, too. Athletes with the fingers and agility match for demanding middle-infield duties have for eons shuffled over to second base if they cannot fairly make that longer throw to first. Or if their bat would not fairly minimize it at third base. Or if they’re merely usurped by a superior participant.
Maybe you have a blurred archetype for what the second baseman was. The previous 15 years have seen much less simply labeled stars float out and in of the spot the place Chase Utley and Dustin Pedroia as soon as stood day by day, peppering the ranks of Altuve, Robinson Cano and Ian Kinsler with superutility gamers for whom second base shouldn’t be precisely residence. however the closest factor to it.
Ben Zobrist turned the poster boy for the keystone-centric versatility wizards, and ultimately that mannequin turned pervasive. Jeff McNeil, DJ LeMahieu, Ketel Marte and others have since taken up this mantle with out the novelty.
Second base is, in a technique, the position of limitations. But at its finest, it is the position the place gamers of many sizes and styles free themselves from their limitations.
Throw softly and carry a giant stick
Second base didn’t evolve from Pesky Slap Hitter Central to the Haven For Diverse Hitters by itself. The proliferation of the infield shift, plus extra nuanced advances in defensive positioning, helped increase the vary of potential second basemen — in additional methods than one.
More exact and extra dramatic positioning allowed slower-footed second basemen to carry their very own in the area. As a consequence, extra helpful hitters who would possibly have in any other case been relegated to first base, left area and even designated hitter discovered at the very least part-time roles at an up-the-middle position, in a single of the 10 lineup slots that, in concept , requires weighing fielding functionality and offensive aptitude.
As groups turned extra assured of their shifts, in the little playing cards in every participant’s again pocket, they began choosing an increasing number of second basemen for his or her bats somewhat than their gloves. It’s not that the prototypical second basemen out of the blue obtained changed by sluggers, however the toss-up roster spot that may have gone to a middle-infield defensive specialist began going as a substitute to a bat-first possibility who may handle at second (Wilmer Flores, Marwin Gonzalez, Brandon Drury).
Upon this actuality, some gamers who would possibly in any other case have been shunted onto one other path as a result of of their physique kind or top constructed careers at second (Daniel Murphy, Matt Carpenter). Others carved out mid-career roles that concerned important and generally jarring taking part in time at the keystone; Mike Moustakas turned Milwaukee’s experiment right into a profitable cope with the Reds. The aesthetic peak of this shift would possibly’ve are available in Game 6 of the 2018 NLCS, when the Dodgers and Brewers began the beefy duo of Max Muncy and Travis Shaw at second.
In the meantime, youthful gamers with stellar bats and questionable fielding vary emerged into full-time roles both as beginning second basemen or utility sorts with frequent stops there, Brandon Lowe and Luis Arraez amongst them. Arraez, whom the Minnesota Twins traded to the Miami Marlins on Friday, may nicely be altering groups as a result of his restricted fielding skills now not match as nicely on the Twins with Carlos Correa, Jorge Polanco and prospect Royce Lewis all locked into or jockeying for enjoying time .
The consequence, mixed with MLB’s rising desire for defensive flexibility, is an upward pattern of better-than-average hitters who play at the very least some second base.
As an entire, second basemen (and shortstops and catchers and middle fielders) traditionally do not hit in addition to the relaxation of the lineup as a result of their hitting potential is a smaller chunk of the rationale behind their roster spots. This is the foundation for the positional adjustment in WAR and an intuitive reality you possibly can collect by MLB draft outcomes or recalling the place the most gifted youngsters in your Little League group performed.
Recently, although, the hole between second basemen and the common MLB hitter has been shrinking.
In live performance with new hitting philosophies and adjustments in baseball that created huge residence run surges — and made sluggers of even unspectacular, diminutive second basemen between 2015 and 2021 — the new form of personnel at the position pulled second base near and infrequently over the bar of the common MLB hitter, an astounding supply of offense and worth for groups that struck the proper stability.
Will shift limitations reverse the pattern?
That stability is about to get so much trickier. MLB’s infield shift limitations taking impact in 2023 outlaw or severely compromise the important methods groups alleviated defensive strain on second basemen. There’s so much of nuance in positioning past this, however broadly talking, it is simpler to area at second when you a) stand farther again, on the outfield grass and b) shade closely to 1 aspect whereas counting on one other fielder, sometimes the shortstop, to cowl the relaxation.
With infielders required to begin every pitch on the grime and the excessive shift that introduced the shortstop throughout second now banned, second basemen will undeniably have extra floor to cowl.
Teams using second basemen whom they’ve papered over defensively will now face the problem of both shuffling their roster to maneuver these gamers off second base or finding the finest method to cowl for them inside the new guidelines. Take the Rays and Lowe. They have a stockpile of center infielders, most of whom are vastly higher defenders than Lowe, however they may actually use the thump in his bat and that of a DH in the lineup after ending twenty fifth in MLB in slugging final yr. The Dodgers, on the different hand, may attempt to use their roster to maintain Muncy away from second much more.
At first blush, it could appear that the offense emanating from second basemen, lengthy on the rise, is about to take a tumble. But the final destiny of the trendlines shouldn’t be future. It’s a product of decisions.
The similar thought processes that turned Altuve and 5-foot-8 Ozzie Albies into 30-homer mashers pushed so much of the motion off the floor and into the air. The leaguewide ground-ball fee, which stood at 45.1% a decade in the past, has are available in underneath 43% in every of the previous 4 seasons. That may not sound like so much, however it quantities to roughly 2,734 grounders being lifted into the air — or about 91 balls per group per season which might be extra more likely to fall to the outfielders.
Given the relative reliability of projecting offensive efficiency and the risk that they will finagle new strategies of cracking the defensive code, there’s an opportunity groups roll with these hitters. There’s additionally an opportunity they attempt to adapt and understand they have to return to extra agile fielders, and thus, the position experiences a delayed-reaction offensive downturn.
Whatever occurs, the state of second basemen goes to inform us one thing about the course the sport is headed. That, although, is one factor that will not be new.
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Zach Crizer on Twitter @zcrizer.