The 2015 Bill James Handbook will be on bookshelves on November 1, but we wanted to give you a bit of a sneak preview. This is an abridged version of the introduction for the new Shifts section.
Let’s address the main question first. Who does give a shift? Answer: the Houston Astros. Prior to this season, the highest single-season total of shifts deployed by a team was 599 by the Baltimore Orioles in 2013. Six teams exceeded that total in 2014, but the Astros crushed it. The lowly Houston Astros, losers of 92 games, more than doubled the Orioles total with 1,341 shifts this past year.
Over the past four seasons the number of shifts in Major League Baseball, as measured by a ball hit into play when a shift is in effect, has nearly doubled every year. Here are the totals by year:
MLB Shifts by Season |
Year |
Number of Shifts |
2010 |
2,464 |
2011 |
2,357 |
2012 |
4,577 |
2013 |
8,180 |
2014 |
13,296 |
It is clear that Major League teams have embraced this new defensive strategy. Some more than others. But is it effective?
Our best measurement of the effectiveness of shifts is Shift Runs Saved. It is an estimate of the number of runs saved by a team when employing The Shift Defense. It is a technique similar to other elements of Defensive Runs Saved in that it utilizes info down to the play-by-play level, including direction and velocity of every batted ball. Let’s repeat that chart above, but add Shift Runs Saved:
MLB Shifts by Season |
Year |
Number of Shifts |
Shift Runs Saved |
2010 |
2,464 |
36 |
2011 |
2,357 |
42 |
2012 |
4,577 |
76 |
2013 |
8,180 |
135 |
2014 |
13,296 |
195 |
As you can see, the more shifts deployed in Major League Baseball, the more runs are saved. And the lowly Astros with their 92 losses? They had the highest total of Shift Runs Saved by a wide margin. They saved 27 runs on their 1,341 shifts. The next best team was the Toronto Blue Jays with 16 runs saved on 686 shifts.
So the answer to all of this is: Shift or get off the pot! Maybe that should have been the tile of this article. If you want to save runs, shift. Simple as that. And the more you shift, the more you save. Despite all the shifting that is already done in baseball, many teams are still leaving runs on the table by not committing even more to this strategy.
The 2015 Bill James Handbook contains the full version of this article as well as more detailed shift numbers, including batting averages vs. shifts and against traditional defenses. Additionally, The Fielding Bible—Volume IV, coming out in the spring, will provide a more thorough analysis of The Shift Defense.