The Dodgers have been one of the best defensive teams in the league over the past several years, doing it in a somewhat unconventional way. Despite rarely having players who really stand out on defense — Mookie Betts was their only Gold Glove winner in 2022 — they play solid defense as a group.
One of the reasons for the defensive success is their skill at positioning. That skill will be dampened beginning in 2023, as the shift is going away. Teams will still be able to position their fielders, but there are limitations being put in place. Los Angeles has the most defensive runs saved from the shift last year, so it stands to reason that they have the most to lose by the shift going away.
Over at ESPN, David Schoenfield wrote about what L.A. stands to lose between the banning of the shift and the shuffling of their defense.
The Dodgers ranked second in the majors in defensive runs saved.The Dodgers are experts at developing pitching, great at stressing plate discipline, trade for stars like Mookie Betts and Trea Turner and sign MVP candidates like Freddie Freeman, but the underrated aspect of their success all these years: They catch the ball. Look at their rankings in DRS since 2016: sixth, second, fifth, first, second, 10th and then second in 2022. They’ve moved players around, they’ve utilized the shift to perfection … but this will be an interesting year for the Dodgers. Not only is the shift going away — at least the extreme shift, with three infielders on one side of the diamond — but L.A. will be making defensive changes all over the field.
Gavin Lux slides over from second base to shortstop to replace Turner. He had above average range at second but below average arm strength, so let’s see how that works. Cody Bellinger, a solid center fielder, is gone, replaced by Trayce Thompson, who should be OK out there. Thompson is also 32 and will need to prove his good season at the plate in 2022 wasn’t a fluke just to stay in the lineup. With J.D. Martinez signed to DH, Max Muncy will have to man second or third base. He’s had good metrics at those spots in the past, but it’s possible the Dodgers’ shifting helped him quite a bit, at least at second. Rookie Miguel Vargas may take over at third base with Justin Turner now in Boston, and there are some questions about his range at the hot corner. The Dodgers will still have Betts, Freeman and Will Smith to anchor the defense, but the group may take a big step back in 2023.
It’s one of many questions around the Dodgers right now, but it’s also the one that’s hardest to answer right now. We might not really have any idea how much the shift ban will affect them relative to other teams until we see it in action. For now, all we can do is guess and hope.
It’s important to remember there’s more to defensive positioning than just the shift. Even with just the first and second basemen on the right side of the infield, there’s still data on where players hit the ball most often, and L.A. surely has smart people working on that right now.
But yeah, Gavin Lux, Max Muncy, and Miguel Vargas manning the infield leaves a lot more questions than answers.
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