Maddon has Cubs more selective in shifting

June 19th, 2016

When Cubs manager Joe Maddon started with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, the defensive shift had been pretty much dead for decades, since Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau used it against Red Sox slugger Ted Williams in the 1940s. But with powerful left-handed pull hitters like Mark Teixeira, David Ortiz and Chris Davis overpowering the American League East, the Rays began taking defensive analytics to a new level, making basic lefty-righty shifts more specific to each hitter, each pitcher and their recent performances. Maddon brought that information out to the field, and an old tactic was suddenly back in vogue.

In 2010, the defensive shift was employed 2,400 times in the big leagues. In 2015, that number skyrocketed to more than 18,000. But Maddon, now in his second season with the Cubs, is no longer leading the charge. According to Baseball Info Solutions, since the start of 2015, the Cubs are 27th in the league with 552 shifts on balls in play. In 2016, they have the fifth-lowest percentage of shifts on balls in play, at just 12 percent.

"It's a function of the team you're playing against," Maddon says. "I think the AL East, back then, was just chock full of big lefty hitters who just pulled the ball. But if you look throughout the NL Central, and we play half our schedule against them, St. Louis might have a few guys who are heavy pull, but there's really a lot of right-handed hitters. And a lot of right-handed pitchers. It just seems to be more right-handed."

But is this anecdotal? A feeling Maddon has? Or do the stats back it up? As always, it depends on how you look at it.

In 2014, Maddon's AL East opponents -- Yankees (1st), Blue Jays (2nd), Red Sox (5th) and Orioles (7th) -- were all among the most-shifted against teams in baseball. In 2016, his NL Central opponents -- Reds (8th), Cardinals (14th), Pirates (23rd) and Brewers (30th) -- are not shifted against nearly as much.

However, Baseball Info Solutions classifies good shift candidates as left-handed hitters who have pulled 75 percent or more of their recent groundballs and short line drives, and right-handed hitters who have pulled 80 percent or more of them. Using that standard -- and with the additional requirements that hitters are not pitchers and that they have at least 120 groundballs and short line drives in their Major League careers -- they calculated the percentage of total plate appearances, split by division, in which the batter was identified as a good shift candidate.

"While it's true that the NL Central, excluding Cubs hitters, has a lower percentage of its plate appearances with good shift candidates, 31 percent of those plate appearances are against good shift candidates," says Scott Spratt of Baseball Info Solutions. "So, in my mind, I think the Cubs are leaving a lot of good potential shift opportunities on the table."

Maddon, though, is doing a good job of picking his spots. According to Spratt, the Cubs have 17 Shift Runs Saved since the start of 2015, which is tied for 10th most in baseball, despite the infrequency with which they use the shift.

Maddon noted that during the Cubs series against the Nationals last week, both Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper successfully utilized the left side of the field. He also said that while many lefties hit the ball in the air to right field, ground balls go to the left side, which makes shifting more dangerous.

As the Cubs prepare to play three games against the division-rival Cardinals at Wrigley Field this week, Maddon is no doubt thinking about if and how he will utilize the shift. Lefty hitters Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter and Brandon Moss are all prime shift candidates. Maddon will also remember how the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Adams laid down a bunt to beat the shift against the Phillies on May 2.

"Hitters are finally starting to make adjustments," Maddon says. "They don't want people to shift against them."

So Maddon adjusts as well. Currently, his Cubs are 12 1/2 games atop the NL Central with a league-best .701 winning percentage. So, if he doesn't want to use the shift, who are we to argue?