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Evaluating the Phillies' Infield Shifts

June 14, 2018
 Jake Arrieta's recent comments called attention to the Philadelphia Phillies’ infield shifts. The veteran right-hander complained that his team is "the worst in the league with shifts," and by our Shift Runs Saved metric at Sports Info Solutions, he is indeed correct. The Phillies rank last in Major League Baseball in Shift Runs Saved, costing themselves eight runs while no other team has cost themselves more than two runs. What has gone wrong for Gabe Kapler’s club?

Most of the Phillies' shift struggles have come against right-handed batters. Despite shifting righties much less frequently, shifts have cost them seven runs against righties and one run against lefties. On groundballs and short line drives, right-handers have hit .326 against the Phillies' full Ted Williams shifts (three infielders on the left side of second base) and .381 against their partial Ted Williams shifts (two players significantly out of normal positioning).

Batting Average Allowed
Groundballs and Short Line Drives
  Bat Side Full Shifts Partial Shifts
Phillies Right .326 .381
MLB Right .232 .283
Phillies Left .255 .271
MLB Left .206 .267

Against left-handed batters, the batting averages the Phillies allow on grounders and short liners are better when shifting (.255 with Full, .271 with Partial) than when not shifting (.299). However, compared to the rest of the league (.206 with Full, .267 with Partial), their shift performance is still problematic.

Further review of the Phillies’ costliest Shift Runs Saved plays, particularly against right-handed batters, reveals another issue: throwing. Two of their worst plays happened to come behind Arrieta in his April 25th outing versus Arizona. Paul Goldschmidt twice rolled a groundball into the shift, but Maikel Franco committed a throwing error in the fourth inning and J.P. Crawford followed with a throwing error of his own in the sixth.

Our "Good Throw Rate" statistic illustrates the Phillies’ struggles of throwing to first base from the left side of the infield. Franco, Crawford, and Scott Kingery can all be found near the bottom of the rankings at their respective positions.

Good Throw Rate (Min. 30 Throws at Position)
Player Pos Rate Pos Rank
Scott Kingery SS 93% 27th of 36
J.P. Crawford SS 88% 35th of 36
Maikel Franco 3B 86% 37th of 37

Part of their poor shift performance is certainly attributable to positioning, luck, and other factors, but the Phillies’ underlying defensive skills may be the root of the problem. By Defensive Runs Saved, which does not include shift plays, they have lost 13 runs at shortstop and six runs at third base this season, tying for the worst left side of the infield in baseball with the Baltimore Orioles.

Fewest Defensive Runs Saved at SS and 3B
Team DRS
Philadelphia Phillies -19
Baltimore Orioles -19
New York Mets -15
New York Yankees -14
Boston Red Sox -13
Pittsburgh Pirates -13

Shifting does improve their poor defense, particularly on the left side, but it is still well below average relative to the rest of the league. Moving forward, there is reason to be optimistic from a strategy standpoint. The Phillies say that the information they were using in April "wasn't always up to date" and they are confident that they have since implemented positive changes to their positioning strategy.

As it turns out, all eight of their runs lost to the shift came in March and April, so they have performed considerably better (yet still not great) in recent weeks. That said, the shift cannot always mitigate the effects of poor defenders, especially when it comes to throwing across the diamond.


COMMENTS (2 Comments, most recent shown first)

Are shifts less effective against right-handed batters generally? Seeing the wide disparity in BA in the Phillies' numbers, I wonder if having to keep the first baseman relatively close to the bag makes a difference. Teams can put their third baseman wherever they want, which means they cover the opposite field better. The first baseman needs to stay close enough to get to the bag for a throw, which means a right handed batter just needs to hit the ball in the general area of where the second baseman normally plays to get it through (basically a hit-and-run), while a left-handed batter has to hit it down the line.

Another issue might be the throws. Playing a shortstop in the hole anywhere close to as deep as the second baseman plays in a traditional shift makes for a hell of a throw to get the batter-runner. The Phillies' stats stink, no question, but I'd love to know if shifts are inherently less effective on the left side of the infield.
3:12 PM Jun 15th
It may seem churlish to kick a guy when he's so low, but I have to wonder how and why J.P. Crawford was the Phillies #1 prospect for what seems like 5 years in a row. His power in the minors seems unexceptional even for a shortstop in the International League, and his batting average is likewise mediocre. He excelled at taking walks, and bully for him for that skill, which he's brought with him to the majors. But to add defensive mediocrity to the mix is appalling. Shouldn't age 23 be his PEAK defensive season?

Let me be clear, I'm not trying to write Mr. Crawford's MLB obituary just yet. I'm just wondering, what did the scouts see in him every year that they didn't see in Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, Aaron Altherr, Jorge Alfaro, or for that matter, Nick Pivetta, Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and so on?
2:16 PM Jun 14th
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