Shifty Business

May 16, 2012

This is so cool.  Have I died and gone to heaven?

Since I began my career over 25 years ago, first with Project Scoresheet, then with STATS, Inc., now with Baseball Info Solutions, my main focus in the analytics world has been defense.  At Project Scoresheet we came up with a variety of techniques that we presented at the SABR conference in the 80’s.  In the 90’s at STATS, we developed Zone Ratings and the original version of Ultimate Zone Ratings.  In the 2000’s, here at Baseball Info Solutions we developed the Plus/Minus System and Defensive Runs Saved.

Recently our focus has been on evaluating The Shift.  And for the first time ever, we’re seeing major league teams immediately adopt a major strategy that is in line with the new analytics.

This is so cool.

In each of the last two years, there have been about 1,900 shifts in MLB.  This year we’re on pace for twice that, about 3,800.   Here are the top ten teams.  You can see that they have really upped the ante on the new Shift Defense.

Top 10 Most Shifting Teams in 2012

Team 2010 2011 2012 Projected
2012 Total
Rays 221 216 171 695
Orioles 103 75 95 386
Indians 130 148 81 342
Blue Jays 79 117 71 288
Royals 46 70 55 242
Yankees 56 53 54 228
Athletics 35 69 53 215
Brewers 22 170 46 194
Red Sox 87 41 42 177
Rangers 49 72 39 158

Most of these teams are doubling and tripling the number of shifts they’ve done in the past, a couple even more.

But there are still some teams that don’t believe in it yet.  Here are the five teams with the fewest shifts this year.  They have not adopted the Shift Defense.

Top 5 Least Shifting Teams in 2012

Team 2010 2011 2012 Projected
2012 Total
White Sox 40 43 0 0
Cardinals 27 26 0 0
Phillies 34 9 1 4
Rockies 55 42 1 4
Reds 43 43 2 9


In their defense, I will say that the research is not yet 100% conclusive that The Shift is effective.  In our book, The Fielding Bible—Volume III, we showed that about 50 points are knocked off the batting average on grounders and short liners for the most commonly shifted hitters in the last two years.  It’s a good sample size, but it’s not a conclusive sample size.  Baseball Info Solutions is continuing to track this and provide research updates to team clients.

Having said that, I believe the teams that are ramping this up are doing the right thing.  In The Fielding Bible—Volume II, that came out three years ago, we were suggesting more shifts to more hitters.  In our newest book we provide more evidence.  I expect that as we continue to dig deeper, we will continue to uncover more evidence in favor of the Shift Defense.

I’m calling it the Shift Defense.  I’m thinking of this as a new defensive strategy, like the Zone Defense in basketball, the 3-4 Defense in football, etc.   Defense in baseball has gone unnoticed for a long time.  It’s time a new defense in baseball got its own name like new defenses in other sports.  I expect that there will come a time in baseball where shifting by batter and even by count and pitch type will become as commonplace as NFL defensive changes based on the down and distance situation.  The Tampa Bay Rays are getting close to that now, and as they continue to succeed, other teams will begin to emulate their success, as they have begun doing now.

The media has also keyed into the increased amount of shifts this season.  Recent articles on the Shift Defense have appeared in The New York Times and Sports Illustrated

COMMENTS (7 Comments, most recent shown first)

Two comments:

regarding Flyingfish... there's an anecdote about the Miracle Braves (1914) where the Braves were in the field and Rabbit Maranville told Johnny Evers to move closer to second for a particular batter... Evers complained that he was "almost standing on the bag" and the batter hit the next pitch right to him. No, I wasn't there, but I read it in one of those "recollection" books.

regarding Jemanji... These guys can't win. Teddy Ballgame gets roundly dogged for hitting into the teeth of the shift (anecdotally, again), and now commenters are saying batters should drive in runs instead of bunting to beat the shift. :-)
8:53 AM May 18th
Probably just me, but I don't remember seeing much commentary as to MLB's aversion to having RBI men bunt for base hits. A guy would only have to bunt .500 against the shift to have a 1.000 OPS, but the players and color men always talk about "Ortiz' job is to drive in runs, not bunt for hits." Any links to mathematical proof (or not) that a Teixeira would profit by bunting?

If they did bunt, of course, they wouldn't have to bunt much before the shift reverted...
3:32 AM May 18th
from scientist to proponent?
8:37 PM May 16th
Can BABIP be used as a metric to measure the success of a shift? In other words, if a guy's BABIP is lower against a shift than it is against a straight-up defense, could that be used as evidence of a shift's success? I'm a babe in the woods when it comes to advanced stats, so my apologies if this is a dumb question.
3:28 PM May 16th
Why aren't dramatic shifts more common for right-handed batters? Probably because first base is on the right side of the infield. You don't want to pull the first-baseman too far off the bag.
11:24 AM May 16th
John Dewan wrote: "I would expect that there will come a time in baseball where shifting by batter and even by count and pitch type will become as commonplace as..."

But I can't remember a time when fielders didn't change their positions based on who was batting and who was hitting and who was on base, and I can remember quite a few decades. What I don't remember is the systematic shifts that one sees now, mainly for LH hitters. Seems to me that such big shifts aren't nearly as common for RH hitters; why not?
11:15 AM May 16th
Though I'm glad for Mr. Dewan if he considers this a professional triumph, all I could think about was that this means the future of baseball will be even more home run/walk/strikeout oriented. In those terms, it's depressing.
10:28 AM May 16th
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