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The Problem That Managers Ignore About The Shift
- Updated: April 18, 2017
Despite my youth, I would consider myself more of a traditionalist when it comes to baseball. I prefer the classic statistics over the advanced ones such as WAR. The RBI should still be considered a viable statistic to help determine how productive a player can be, a win-lose record should matter with starting pitchers, and the closer is an important spot on the team. While aspects of instant replay are fine, there are portions of it that I loathe. For example, if a player takes his hand off of the bag for a split second while getting up, a replay of that should not overturn the call. My views on baseball might give me a bias about some of the changes that are occurring in the sport. While that can be an article for a different day, today I am focusing on something that I honestly think is hurting teams who utilize it. That is the extreme defensive shift.
The Origins of the Shift
The shift that I am talking about is the one where three infielders are placed on one side of the infield. Now, when it was only being used for hitters such as Jim Thome and David Ortiz, I was fine with it. It added some unique value to the game and it was used smartly in those cases. Players like Thome and Ortiz were pull-heavy whose approach were to rip the ball into the right field bleachers. That exact approach caused a lot of rollover ground balls. In those circumstances, the shift made sense. If the spray chart of the player reads that 80% of his batted balls are to the right side of second base, then put three infielders over there.
Using the Shift for More Players
However, the shift has now evolved into something more common in baseball. Managers such as Joe Maddon and Joe Girardi seem to have fallen in love with this defensive alignment. In the average Yankee game, it seems that the infield is in this drastic shift more than the infielders being in their “common” position. It is getting to the point where it is becoming ridiculous. No longer are shifts reserved for the pull-heavy power hitters. Depending on the team one follows, a player such as Robinson Cano can have the infield shift placed on him. Cano, who can spray the ball all over the part, should not be considered a “dead pull” hitter. However, some teams shift on him. When he was still with the Yankees, Cano hit a routine groundball to third base against the Boston Red Sox in a game. Rather than being an out, Cano got a double because the third baseman was playing shortstop due to the shift.
In 2013, the combined total of the overshifts was 9,437 among all MLB teams. Last year, that number skyrocketed to 30,938. That is an increase of over 21,000. As I mentioned above, this is because of more players receiving the shift. The reason for this is parted. Part one: the approach of the hitter has shifted to a “yank-and-crank” mentality.
While playing collegiate ball, my former head coach would rant about how “showcase baseball” was ruining the culture of the collegiate game. When I first heard this as a freshman, I shrugged it off and did not think much of it. I personally had never bought into the tournament style of amateur baseball. I preferred playing for championships with a team that I was with more seasons. However, the older I got, the more I realized that my coach was right.
When attempting to be scouted for college, young players attempt to impress by hitting for power or simply constantly getting on base. In the team sport of baseball, there are other tangible skills that are being lost. With a runner on second, scout tournaments encourage the hitter to try to hit the guy in rather than focus on simply moving the runner over. This is where the “yank-and-crank” mentality has been adopted. Hit home runs or have a high slugging percentage and it does not matter if you strike out 200 times. That is a trade-off that is being accepted now. That approach leads to more pulling, which also means more rollovers.
Part Two: Spray Charts and Other Analytics
Part two of why there have been more shifts in baseball is partially tied to part one. However, the movement to advanced analytics is the major reason for the change. With these new statistics, teams are now convinced that playing their defenses in these alignments will lead to more outs and fewer base hits. In theory, this makes complete sense. If a player is hitting 65% of his batted balls to one side of second base, then the odds of preventing this player from getting a base hit are increased if the defense is positioned correctly.
Theory is Different Than Reality
In theory, the shift should work the majority of the time. Sure, there will be the occasion where the hitter will slap the ball where the fielders are not. However, the majority of the time, the shift will work in the defense’s favor. That is what most people believe, but is entirely true. In fact, it seems to be flat out wrong since 2013.
Bill Ripken of MLB Network had a segment on MLB Tonight where he discussed players beating the shift. Part of this segment had the batting average for the entire MLB of balls put into play against the infield shift. The results were honestly shocking to me, someone who hates this overabundance of the shift. I expected the numbers to be around .250. But I could not have imagined that the lowest BAbip since 2013 against the shift is .297. Last year, it was .300 even. Hitters (when putting the ball in play) are batting .300 against the shift. That is awful for the defense.
Seeing is Believing
Take away the BAbip for a moment. While watching a game where the infield shifts a lot for one team (or both), ask yourself this: how much does the shift honestly help? Take away the cheap base hits that the hitter gets from the shift as well. Only focus on the outs that are made while in the shift and you should be able to tell something. The shift does not do much to prevent base hits. Most of the balls hit into the shift would have been outs either way. Even balls that are hit into the hole, the exit velocity of the ball would not have been fast enough to punch through the infield anyway.
Imagine a scenario where the second baseman fields a ground ball in short right field. How often is that ball hit with enough velocity where the same second baseman could not have reached the ball by ranging to his left? The inherent problem with the shift that it is derived from looking at spray charts. However, looking at a spray chart does not always tell the full story. If a player is smashing the ball on the ground to the pull side constantly, then it is usually from bad contact due to casting out or being early on a pitch. A standard infield positioning would have taken care of that play anyway. Does the shift help to protect against the ball that is crushed? Occasionally, but not all the time. Most balls that are hit with pace to the shifted infield find holes unless the ball is hit directly at a fielder.
Hitters Will Take Advantage of the Shift
Unless the batter is someone like Chris Davis, an MLB hitter will begin to adjust his approach to take advantage of a vulnerable defense. Take Chase Headley and Kyle Schwarber for example. Headley’s Opening Day saw 3 base hits, all coming from the shift. Schwarber laid down the perfect bunt Monday night to get a base hit. These two players have power (especially Schwarber), but decided to take the easy base hit instead. A runner on base is more important in certain situations than trying to go for the home run. It is the “moneyball” approach in a way. If the other team is making a mistake, do not stop them. More teams and individual hitters are looking at the opportunity that the shift affords them. While it is not always easy to guide a ball to hole or lay down a bunt, it is a better percentage play than trying to fit the ball around five fielders (three infielders and two outfielders) on one side of the field.
Is it Worth the Vulnerability?
In my personal opinion, no. Is that due to my bias? Some could argue that. But, the fact that opposing hitters are batting .300 against the shift is a pretty solid indication that the shift is a broken system. Are there certain players who should receive the shift? Absolutely. Should it be half of the lineup? Not a chance. Players will naturally pull the ball on the infield more often than not. It is part of hitting. A hitter is more likely to pull the ball on a bad swing than go to the opposite field. Normally, the ball will be hit weakly on the pull side or fouled off. The shift looks like a brilliant idea on paper. But in reality, the shift is only hurting the defense. Imagine the anger that the pitcher feels when the opposing team gets a base hit off of a 20 hopper to where the third baseman should be positioned. As a former pitcher, I believe that anger scale is at the high end.
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