To Shift or Not To Shift

March 30, 2012

That is the question.  In our book, The Fielding Bible—Volume III, Ben Jedlovec and I provide some research that suggests that a shift, in particular, the Ted Williams Shift with three infielders to the right of second base, reduces the batting average on groundballs, short liners and bunts by the top-shifted hitters by 40 to 60 points. In a recent article on Bill James Online, Bill James states that he doesn’t believe that the shift helps a team defensively, and that there are some flaws in the research.

This essay is a little longer than our usual Stat of the Week, but I think it is worth it.  I will address Bill's comments, but before I do that, I’d like to provide some further information about The Shift.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays were the best defensive team in baseball last year.   Here is a list of the top teams from 2011:

2011 Runs Saved Leaders
Team Runs Saved
Tampa Bay Rays 85
Arizona Diamondbacks 54
San Diego Padres 46
Cincinnati Reds 44
Colorado Rockies 34

Just to put that in perspective, the Rays won 91 games in 2011.  Using the rule of thumb that 10 runs is a win, if the Rays had an average defense (zero Defensive Runs Saved), they would have won 8 or 9 fewer games. Instead of 91 wins, that comes out to 82 or 83 wins, just barely over .500.  That incredible last day of the season with the Rays overtaking the Red Sox would not have occurred without Tampa Bay’s excellent defense all year.

The Rays were also the most aggressive team with shifts. In 2011 there were 216 times when a ball was put in play while the Rays employed some type of shift.  Here are the teams with the most shifts in 2011:

2011 Shift Leaders

Team Shifts
Tampa Bay Rays 216
Milwaukee Brewers 170
Cleveland Indians 148
Toronto Blue Jays 117
Three Teams With 75


The Rays had the most (216).  It drops off quite a bit to the Brewers with 170.  Another large drop to the Indians at 148, then again to the Blue Jays at 117.  And then yet another good size fall-off in total shifts to the three teams tied with 75.

Is it a coincidence that the team with the best defense in 2011 was also the team that shifted the most?

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers entered the 2011 season with this infield in place:

Prince Fielder, 1b 
he cost the Brewers 17 runs defensively the previous year, 2010.  Out of the 35 players we rank at each position each year he ranked 35.

Rickie Weeks, 2b – he cost Milwaukee 16 runs defensively in 2010. That ranked 34 out of 35.

Yuniesky Betancourt, ss – he lost 27 runs with his defense in 2010.  Rank: 35 out of 35.

Casey McGehee, 3b – 14 runs lost in 2010.  Rank: 31 out of 35.

Could you have put together a worse defensive infield if you tried?  The only player who could make this infield worse defensively that I can think of would have been Mark Reynolds at third base.  Or still worse, Miguel Cabrera.

So what did Ron Roenicke, the new manager of Milwaukee, do?  He took the Brewers from being the least aggressive team regarding shifting in 2010 (only 22 shifts all year) to the second-most aggressive in 2011 with 170.  And he did it in a little different way than the Rays.

Baseball Info Solutions categorizes shifts into two types.  The Ted Williams Shift, with three infielders on one side of the bag, and Other Shifts, where players are clearly shifted well out of the normal infield alignment but short of three fielders on one side of the bag.   There are a handful of hitters that almost always get shifted by most teams, and then most other players almost never get shifted.  The way the Rays were more aggressive was by shifting against these other players.  They shifted 110 times against the top ten shifted hitters, and equally as much against the rest (106 times).  Ron Roenicke and the Brewers were even more extreme.  They shifted 45 times against the top-ten, and almost three times as often against other players (125 times).

Did this shifting work for Roenicke?

Here are the results comparing the non-shifting season (2010) with the shifting season (2011).

Milwaukee Brewers Infield Runs Saved 2010-2011

Player 2010 Runs Saved 2011 Runs Saved
Prince Fielder -17 -9
Rickie Weeks -16 -5
Yuniesky Betancourt -27 -7
Casey McGehee -14 3
Total -74 -18

This data is striking.  These Brewer infielders improved by 56 runs in 2011.  They were still below average with 18 defensive runs lost overall, but that 56 run improvement means five or six wins added to their win total.

Is it a coincidence that as the Brewers became the second most shifting team in baseball their infielders improved so dramatically?

I think not.

However, this information about Tampa Bay and Milwaukee is not direct evidence that shifting works.  Both are anecdotal pieces of evidence.  They are strong pieces of evidence, but anecdotal.  In the article in The Fielding Bible—Volume III called "The Ted Williams Shift," we tried to provide some direct evidence.

Comments and Thoughts from Bill James

Bill James recently wrote an article called "John, Ben, David and the Ted Williams Shift."  The John and Ben in the title refer to Ben Jedlovec, my co-author on The Fielding Bible—Volume III, and me.  David refers to David Ortiz.  First of all, I want to thank Bill for his kind comments about the book.   Getting a good review from Bill is high praise indeed, but Bill does point out that he and I have been friends for quite some time.  Almost 30 years now.

Nevertheless, Bill and I stand in disagreement about The Shift.  Having said that, Bill has thoughts and suggestions about some things in the research that we could have done better.  Let me address those.

In the book Ben and I studied the top-ten shifted hitters.  Here’s a list of who they are:

Top 10 Shifted Hitters 2010-11

Hitter All Shifts 2010-11
David Ortiz 486
Ryan Howard 461
Carlos Pena 341
Adam Dunn 305
Prince Fielder 253
Jim Thome 223
Adrian Gonzalez 205
Mark Teixeira 180
Brian McCann 118
Jack Cust 115

Baseball Info Solutions tracked every shift on batted balls in the last two years, but for the most part, the data is mostly about these ten guys.  Other than the Rays and Brewers, most teams only shift against these guys.  As a result, we focused our research on these ten hitters because that’s where we had data. In the book, we excluded Carlos Pena and Brian McCann from our look at shift effectiveness because they have been successful beating the shift with the bunt.  We found that the batting averages of the other eight guys dropped by 51 points on grounders, short liners and bunts when the Ted Williams Shift was employed.

The next step of our research was one with which Bill had a problem.  In retrospect, I have to agree.  We removed three more players from the group of eight based on the fact that our Defensive Positioning software no longer suggests a shift for them.  One of them was David Ortiz.  The remaining five players had their averages drop by 61 points with the Ted Williams Shift on.

I should have known that excluding David Ortiz would raise a big red flag for Bill.  He’s been telling me for years that he’s not sure the shift is working against Big Papi.  In his article Bill points out that shifting on Ortiz has probably caused more problems for teams than it has solved.  And in fact, Ortiz has hit slightly better against the Ted Williams Shift than not (.245 vs. 232.) in the last two years.  However, Ortiz is the most-shifted hitter in the history of the game, Bill contends, and pulling him out of the study for whatever reason is not appropriate.  In retrospect, I agree.

In our defense, before Bill’s article came out, Ben and I had already switched our focus in all of our presentations (at the SABR Analytics conference and with MLB teams) on the part of the study that includes Ortiz.

A second area that Bill focuses on in his article is some anecdotal evidence of his own.  He points out several incidents where The Shift has backfired with Ortiz batting.  Most of these are with runners on base when Ortiz is batting.  Part of the research that Ben and I presented showed that the batting average dropped for the eight shifted hitters (excluding Pena and McCann) pretty much equally when there were runners on as when the bases were empty.  But what Bill points out is that a lot of things can go wrong when there are runners on base with players being out of position.

I agree with this as well.  We just measured the batting average, but we didn’t measure the run values.  That is, because of players out of position, runners can take extra bases against The Shift that they might not get against a standard defense.  How much is this worth?  I don’t know.  Is it worth something?  Yes.  But we haven’t measured this yet.  If I were to re-write what Ben and I wrote I would say something like: While we feel confident that we have evidence that suggest that using The Ted Williams Shift is effective with no runners on base, some caution and judgement needs to be exercised when there are runners on base, despite the evidence here that batting average also drops when using The Shift with runners on base.

Based on what I know and what the data suggests, I would still shift with men on base, but maybe not as often and maybe not as aggressively.

Finally, there is one statement that Bill makes that I want to point out that I disagree with.  Bill wrote, "John wants to focus on groundballs and short line drives, which, again, is a legitimate and constructive step toward understanding the problem, even though I think it is being used to create an exaggerated estimate of the shift’s effects."

I totally disagree with the part starting with "even though".  We are not trying to create an exaggerated estimate.  We are presenting the facts that we have.  Right now Baseball Info Solutions is undergoing an extensive video review effort to record every plate appearance and every batted ball where a Ted Williams Shift occurred in the last two years.  It’s a massive effort.

Our data currently splits our Shift info between Ted Williams Shifts and Other Shifts for grounders and short liners only.  We did these first because it would lead to the quickest initial significant results.  Now we are going back to review all plate appearances, not just the grounders and short liners, to split our shift data between these two types of shifts.  This has nothing to do with trying to exaggerate the data and everything to do with trying to develop useful research.

I think most people would agree that a Ted Williams Shift is more likely to affect grounders, short liners and bunts than it would affect a player’s flyballs to the outfield, how often he strikes out or walks, or even how often he hits a pop-up that gets out of reach of a fielder playing out of position.


Unlike the anecdotal evidence showing how shifting seems to be working for the Rays and Brewers, we consider the 40- 50 point drop in batting average on grounders, short liners and bunts against the Ted Williams Shift to be direct evidence in favor of The Shift.  Is it conclusive?  No.  Is it comprehensive?  Not really.  It’s only two years and doesn’t include all plate appearances.

Is there more research to be done?  Yes.  We are working on this as we speak.  In particular, we are working at looking at all plate appearances, not just grounders and short liners.  Nevertheless, there is good preliminary evidence that The Ted Williams Shift appears to be working, especially with the bases empty.

Bill suggests a number of additional items to research regarding The Shift.  We would be silly to ignore his excellent suggestions and we plan to follow through on them as best we can.

One last thing: Bill felt we left out some specific info about David Ortiz.  For his benefit, here it is:

The Ted Williams Shift Against David Ortiz
Grounders, Short Liners and Bunts - 2010 and 2011

Ted Williams Shift On

  AB H Avg
Overall 237 58 .245
Bases Empty 139 30 .216
Runners On 98 28 .286


No Ted Williams Shift

  AB H Avg
Overall 125 29 .232
Bases Empty 34 8 .235
Runners On 91 21 .231

COMMENTS (9 Comments, most recent shown first)

Thanks, Joe. But the first one should have worked, right?
1:58 PM Mar 31st
Fine work. I'm sure you folks will clear up the issues. I would guess managers will help us decide this year. Are you a bull or bear? My guess bullish, up 10%. We shall see. The difference of opinion is what makes horse and pennant races.
6:40 AM Mar 31st
Dave, the HTML tags didn't work for chill because he turned one the wrong way.
2:24 AM Mar 31st
I love having this debate between two of the best baseball researchers in the forum. Thank you for your hard work and for your openness to constructive criticism, John, and for continuing to pursue the truth. I think you should include the bunters, though, both in an overall evaluation of the shift and in an assessment of the effectiveness of the bunting countermeasure.
2:26 PM Mar 30th
I have some questions that you may have answered in the book that I have yet to read, but very much look forward to reading.

Of the 10 players who face the shift the most, you remove the 2 who successfully beat the shift and a 3rd who also seems to do better against the shift. That appears to bias the data. Do you have the entire data on those 10 players without removing bunts and Ortiz? Do you have additional data other than batting average? OPS, perhaps?

Also, is there another reason for lower batting average during shifts, like sac flies? If the shift is more frequently used with nobody on base, we would expect a higher batting average without the shift due to sac flies. That needs to be corrected when testing the shift's effectiveness. You might remove all SF's or use PA as the denominator.

Lastly, the data you show here, particularly for Arizona, TB, and Milwaukee, appears to show that the manager has significant control over a player's defensive value, even if we don't know how much the shift is responsible. Do you have more evidence that is true, and if so - how much can the manager control?

2:23 PM Mar 30th
And "here's one other test."
2:19 PM Mar 30th
I don't know why the HTML tags didn't work, chill. Here's a test from me.
2:19 PM Mar 30th
Well, I guess the brief foray into html tags was a failure...
12:36 PM Mar 30th
I appreciate the additional information. I think the way a couple things were worded was weird. In particular, this:

"One last thing: Bill felt we left out some specific info about David Ortiz. [i]For his benefit[/i], here it is..."

For [i[Bill's[/i] benefit? So what are we readers? Chopped liver? In more than one place you supply information Bill asked for, and insinuate that you're more or less doing so because he asked, rather than because you think supplying that information is useful in general. But other than that petty carping...thanks for continuing the discussion in a place where we readers can appreciate it.
12:35 PM Mar 30th
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