Shift is on: Odd defensive alignments the new norm
This used to be idiosyncratic and yet oddly entertaining terrain, reserved only for the Rays and their offbeat skipper.
Ah, yes. Joe Maddon remembers it all now. All those questions he fielded from inquisitive reporters or fans wondering what in the world he was doing, radically repositioning his players on the field.
It's not that Maddon had invented the practice of the defensive shift. Heck, Lou Boudreau had deployed a dramatic one in an attempt to thwart Ted Williams as far back as 1946. But Maddon and Tampa Bay have expanded the scope of the shifts, using them not just against left-handers, but righties as well. And using them often.
"It was kind of neat when nobody else wanted to do it," a reflective Maddon said. "You felt like you had somewhat of an edge."
The Rays no longer retain an edge in this particular defensive department. If anything, their shifting strategy is the new norm, a practice employed by everyone from up-and-coming to established managers. Because whether you're analyzing the statistics or the employment practices in Major League Baseball today, one thing is clear:
The shift is on.
As far as the metrics are concerned, the numbers of defensive shifts on balls in play tracked by Baseball Info Solutions' (BIS) video studies over the last four seasons were as follows:
A 94-percent jump from 2011-12 is eye-catching, in and of itself. A 245-percent rise from 2011-13 is meteoric.
"I would say it's in large part due to much more attention being paid to the data," said a National League advance scout. "Even something as simple as spray charts include much more information than what was previously available."
What is also available is a mountain of data that confirms a severe decline in offense, with last year's run production at its lowest level in more than two decades, and league-wide batting average at its lowest point in more than four.
Now, how much credit does the shift movement get for this decline, especially when there are so many other factors -- the crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs, the increase in average velocity, the popularity of the ever-vexing cutter, to name but a few -- in play?
Hard to say, truthfully.
There are, however, numbers that would lead you to believe the value of hitters who can hit with authority to the opposite field is particularly high in this defensive day and age.
Fangraphs.com has batted-ball data going back to 2003, and, perhaps as a function of all the defensive shifting taking place, the two highest batting averages on balls put in play to the opposite field came in the last two seasons -- .285 in 2012, .284 in '13. The '13 number was a full 31 points higher than the .253 mark from 10 years earlier.
Beat the shift
Most shifts hit into in 2013
|Player||ABs vs. shift||BABIP w/shift||BABIP w/o|
Pull-side balls in play, meanwhile, fell for hits at a .296 clip last season. That was 11 points higher than 2003, but 17 points lower than 2007.
It is difficult to know how much to read into those figures, because batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is a crude stat subject to random fluctuations. That said, the Hardball Times did a study of the 2013 season that found 15 teams that used the shift in at least 200 instances in which a ball was put in play. And of those 15 teams, only two (the Cubs and Yankees) had a higher BABIP against them in shift situations than they did when using a "traditional" defense.
Some teams swear by the shift. The Orioles (595), Maddon's Rays (556), the Brewers (538), the Cubs (506) and the Astros (496) employed the most shifts on balls in play last season, per BIS.
The Pirates, meanwhile, essentially ignore the publicly available data and insist they used "optimized defensive positioning" on literally every plate appearance by the opposition. They are convinced that infield shifts were so instrumental in the progress of their pitching staff in the organization's first winning season in 21 years that they plan to expand their use of the shift this season to incorporate more aggressive outfield positioning, as well.
"There's not a doubt in anybody's mind," said Bucs manager Clint Hurdle, "that this was a gap-closer for us."
Other clubs are attempting to close the gap, and it seems a safe bet that the number of shifts will be on the rise yet again in 2014.
A couple notable examples: Brad Ausmus and Matt Williams took over Tigers and Nationals teams that ranked 19th and 30th, respectively, in terms of the number of major infield shifts on batted balls last season, according to the Hardball Times' calculations. Each new skipper hired a coach who will essentially serve as a "defensive coordinator" (Matt Martin in Detroit; Mark Weidemaier in Washington) in the upcoming season, applying the advanced scouting work and the balls-in-play data to provide suggestions on proper positioning.
In the Tigers' case, Ausmus' predecessor, Jim Leyland, ultimately left the shifting strategy up to the pitcher, and his level of comfort with the practice. In fact, Leyland went on one memorable not-safe-for-work tirade to reporters last year about the prevalence of the shift and his frustrations with pitchers who complain when it doesn't work out in their favor.
Whether Martin's presence will lead to an increase in Detroit's use of the shift is an open question. But the Tigers, who have drastically improved the quality of their defensive personnel, are open-minded about the idea, even in subtle situations.
"We may be talking about a matter of playing our shortstop a yard further up the middle," Martin said. "Most people don't see that, and they're like, 'Well, that's not that big of a deal.' Well, over time, it is, the longer it plays out. That's where I think you'll see the Tigers more, where we're adjusting three feet, rather than 18 feet."
Some clubs are decidedly more bold with their application of the shift, with varying results. A young Astros club employed the shift the fifth-most times of any club in baseball last season, but their overall defensive metrics -- Houston had the seventh-worst defensive runs saved mark in baseball, per BIS -- don't speak particularly well of the results.
Neither, in fact, does at least one former member of that club.
"From my understanding, they were just taking stats and putting it into a database; they weren't taking in other variables such as velocity, power pitcher or finesse pitcher," said Bud Norris, now with the Orioles. "So it was a little frustrating to be with Houston at a time we were struggling and to keep moving people all over the field.
"It just got really confusing toward the end. I couldn't move people where I wanted to. We move people around here [in Baltimore] to put them in the right position. We did it the opposite way down there. They did it more for a database down there. They were trying to get information to make their own new system. It was really confusing, and they didn't have any input from me or any of their pitchers."
Getting the pitchers on board with the idea seems an essential element to the successful application of the shift, because the last thing a team wants is a pitcher rattled before he even goes into his windup.
This is the primary reason even a forward-thinking organization such as the Cardinals was among the least shifty squads in baseball last season. The Cards are in the process of implementing the idea at their Minor League levels, getting their pitchers to "buy in" to the approach at a grassroots stage before implementing it full-bore on the big league stage.
The general perception in the game is that all the advanced data available to teams tends to benefit pitchers more than hitters, simply because they can dictate what is coming and when. More and more teams have embraced the platoon advantage in an effort to match up their offensive pieces to the best of their ability, and, thanks to the shifts, we're seeing an increase in the value of guys who can make infielders uncomfortable with their ability to bunt or smack one the other way.
As with any trend, it's possible that defensive repositioning will become overemployed and teams will shift themselves into hits, rather than outs.
"I think it's like every other information flow in the game," the advance scout said. "There's an initial burst where people probably go too far away from convention, and in the end, the right answer is probably between the traditional positioning and the extreme shifts."
For now, though, "the Father of the Shift" sees a strategy on the rise and longs for the days when the unconventional wasn't so conventional.
"This razor-thin line keeps getting thinner and thinner," Maddon said. "Everybody's adopting a lot of this stuff, and it's making it a lot more difficult for us, too. I liked it when a lot of people thought we were crazy."