Shifting Sands: Major League Baseball and the “Defensive Shift”

Header Photo: CBS Sports

On July 14th, 1946, the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox met for a Sunday baseball double-header. During the first game of the double-header, Ted Williams blasted the Indians with three home runs and eight RBI, going 4-for-5 over the nine-inning contest. The next game, player-manager Lou Boudreau told his players to adjust their field positioning whenever the left-handed Williams came to bat. He knew that a great deal of Williams’ hits were sent to right field. So with a brief yell, the shortstop/coach gave the signal for his players to “shift,” resulting in seven players on the right side of second base, leaving only the left fielder on the opposite side of the diamond.

Lou Boudreau Shift
Photo: CBS Sports

Boudreau’s cunning strategy became known as the “Ted William’s Shift,” after the all-time great hitter for which it was used to stop. Unbeknownst at the time, a similar tactic would become the marquee strategy of Major League Baseball’s analytics revolution seventy years later.

Ted Williams “only” went 1-for-2 that game with a double and two walks, as managers around the league grew curious about this gimmicky idea.

A general shift in fielders can be traced back as far as the 1920’s , but the tactic used with Ted Williams was different. A change in defensive positioning of that magnitude had never been consistently or faithfully executed before, yet for the rest of his career Williams was faced with non-traditional defensive positioning whenever he came to the plate. It became one of the only strategies that seemed to be remotely effective against one of Major League Baseball’s most prolific hitters of all time, and for nearly 50 years the shift was occasionally used against heavy-hitters known for hitting the ball to a particular side of the field with incredible consistency.

Statistically, left-handed hitters tend to hit baseballs to right field more than left field, while right-handed batters tend to do the reverse. If one of these events occur in an at-bat, the hitter is said to “pull” the ball to whichever field is opposite his dominant hand. If, for example, a left-handed batter hits the ball into left field, he is said to hit it to the “opposite field”. In 2018, only 31,723 out of 126,275 balls put into play by a batter resulted in the batter hitting the ball to the opposite field (FanGraphs). That is only 25%, leaving the remaining three quarters of balls in play either being pulled or hit to center field.

Of course, some batters are more likely to pull the ball than others, and it is identifying these batters has become a growing infatuation with the front offices around the league. These observations have created an avalanche of research and analytical analysis that has subsequently inspired what is now called the defensive shift.

As Washington Nationals player Daniel Murphy told ESPN,

“When baseball started, they set players up in the positions they did because that’s where they thought the ball was going to be hit. You had the first baseman and the

Daniel Murphy
Daniel Murphy. Picture: ESPN.com

third basemen at the corners, the middle infielders and three outfielders. There was no rule that you had to have five guys on the dirt, a catcher and three outfielders. They just set it up that way because they said, ‘Hey, this is where we think we’re going to hit the ball.’ It’s the same thing that’s being done now.”

 

 

For the majority of baseball’s life, even after the Ted Williams Shift, the trend never really caught fire among major league teams. The majority of players never had to worry about one of the most dreaded, annoying things a hitter can face.

That is, until the early 2010’s.

From 2011 to 2018, the total amount of shifts used in a particular season in the MLB went from 2,350 to 34,671. In other words, as of 2018, nearly 19 percent of plate appearances have provoked a traditional shift, compared to just over 1 percent in the 2011 season (FanGraphs).

The Tampa Bay Rays were one of the first modern teams to embrace this philosophy, and from 2009 to 2011, 22.4% of ground balls against the Rays became hits, compared to the American League average of 23.6% during the same time period. While seemingly arbitrary and minuscule, this difference would, according to models, lead to approximately 1.7 more wins per season. For reference, a baseball player’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) rating, which attempts to “summarize a player’s total contribution to their team,” indicates that 1 WAR is worth on average $7 million (Fan Graphs). So in theory, simply changing where players stand on the field could lead to millions of dollars saved and an more tallies in the win column. How could Major League front offices resist?

Infographic Timeline

So, what is the shift, exactly? According to MLB.com, it is a “situational defensive realignment of fielders away from their ‘traditional’ starting points.” Vague, yes, but if we establish a sense of what “traditional” is, then it may become clearer. The image to Standard Positioningthe left depicts what is meant here. Infielders typically split themselves equally on both sides of second base, as the left and right outfielders are equidistant from the center fielder, who is more or less lined up with second base and home plate. These positions are generally fluid, as fielders often adjust their distance away from the plate and proximity to their base based on the situation (runners on base, if they expect a bunt, if there are one, two, or no outs, etc.).

Thus, Major League Baseball puts all at-bats into three separate categories: Standard, Three (or more) Infielders on One Side of Second Base, and Strategic Shift. For purposes of this article, any mention of the word “shift” refers to the second of these three categories listed, unless otherwise specified. For all intents and purposes, the Strategic Shift category is designed to include all defensive alignments that are not covered by the other two. For example, a strategic shift may have two infielders on both sides of second base, but one of them may be pushed back considerably into the outfield grass, as pictured to the rightBaseballpositioning-infielddeep.png. These situations could be a reaction to runners on base, the number of outs in the inning, or simply who is up to bat. The point being that front offices are continually creating new non-traditional defensive alignments, charged by the idea of saving runs, winning games, and saving money.

When casual fans talk about the defensive shift, pitchers may fail to enter the conversation. However, such an omittance would be misguided. Some pitchers are known for generating ground balls, others deal a considerable amount of strikeouts, while still more hang their hat on producing fly-outs. Each pitcher has their own arsenal of pitches – curve ball, fastball, sinker, cutter, etc. – that tend to evoke different kinds of balls in play. As a result, certain pitchers throw in front of the shift with extreme frequency, while some rarely pitch with the shift behind them.

Infographic what is the shift

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A common thought in economic theory is that under a fair and open market, two opposite effects such as supply and demand will eventually reach equilibrium. So, when MLB was set off-balance by the emergence of the defensive shift and batters around the league became frustrated watching former singles and doubles turn into outs, there was chatter that players would simply adapt. How hard could it be to simply hit the ball the other way?

Very hard, it turns out.

“It was common thought, ‘People are going to learn just to go the other way,’” said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, “But the fact of the matter is the human element took over, and what they decided to do was go over the top rather than go the other way.”

In an interview with ESPN, Daniel Murphy summed it up by bluntly explaining, “If any of us could control hits, we would get more of them. But you can’t. You can only control the process,” emphasizing how “I’m really never in the business of trying to aim for a certain area because I have to be perfect, and I’m not perfect.”

That’s why players haven’t started from scratch and reinvented their swings. As Commissioner Manfred hinted at, players have resorted to other methods of combating the shift other than going the opposite direction, such as hitting more line drives to go over infielders.

Despite what certain statistics and logic suggest, the jury is still out as to whether the shift is even effective. As baseball has been played since the 1800’s, the past seven to eight years is relatively a small sample to work with in the grand scheme of the sport. In a 2016 article by FiveThirtyEight.com, authors Rob Arthur and Ben Lindbergh point out that from 2011 to 2016, “league-wide batting average on balls in play has increased, from .294 to .300.” Furthermore, the league average of ground balls – what the shift is supposedly designed to stop – has gone up during the same time period, from .228 to .242. Batting average against pulled balls (balls that go into the shift) has decreased, but the batting average of balls that go away from the shift has skyrocketed. Whether these are a direct effect of the shift or a result of some confounding variable is uncertain. Players could be trying to hit the ball harder and higher as Manfred suggested, or maybe there is something else at work here.

One example of the shift doing its job is the story of Ryan Howard, a former MLB superstar and heavy-set power hitter who won the MVP in 2006, well before the shift was popularized. In a FiveThirtyEight.com article by Rob Arthur, it is explained how over his first eight seasons before the shift, Ryan delivered 21.6 wins above replacement, compared to his final five shift-filled seasons, where he delivered a WAR of -2.2. From 2010 to 2016, Howard was shifted on roughly 88% of the time. In 2016 he was cut from the Philadelphia Phillies, and never saw playing time in the Major Leagues again.

So as baseball continues to adapt and transform, one might wonder what the future of the shift entails. In terms of usage, the path seems to be skyrocketing upwards. 2017 has been the only year since 2011 that has seen a decrease in total shifts from the previous year, when it fell from 28,130 to 26,705. However, there were 34,761 shifts recorded in the following year, 2018 (FanGraphs). At what point will expected returns from shifting reach zero and shifts per year will plateau? It’s a question many teams around the league are trying to answer.

Despite how much front offices have embraced the use of the shift, some argue that whether or not it continues its exponential climb may be moot point. In early 2015 and in his first public interview as Commissioner, Rob Manfred suggested the idea of banning baseball’s defensive shift entirely. Since then, the idea has never completely faded from public discourse, but it also hasn’t gained much momentum. Banning the shift would require imposing a plethora of different issues and subjectivity to the game of baseball. How would it be enforced? Where would certain position players not be allowed to go? How would fans react to confusing and complex rule changes? These are questions that have no clear and ready answers, and perhaps never will.

Front offices around the league are already focusing on adjusting to their new life with the shift rather than fighting its credibility. It may not be pretty and it may not be traditional, but the shift is here to stay.

*All self-generated statistics use data from either FanGraphs or Baseball Savant*

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