Baseball moves away from tradition, toward smarter defense
Shifts have been a part of baseball since at least the 1920s, when National League managers loaded the right side of the infield with three infielders against Phillies lefty slugger Cy Williams.
The other Williams shift often is credited as baseball's first radical departure from traditional defensive alignment.
The Ted Williams shift was born in the second game of a doubleheader July 14, 1946, at Fenway Park. In the first game, Williams drove in eight runs against Cleveland. When Williams came to bat in the second game, Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau moved from his shortstop position to the traditional second base position. Cleveland's second baseman was deployed to shallow right field, and its third baseman moved to the right of second. The alignment was so radical that a photo of the shift appeared in The Sporting News later that month.
“I heard this from Ted,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “When that shift was first put on, Ted was walking to the plate, and he just went ‘Whoa.' The ump goes, ‘I've never seen that before.' Ted goes, ‘Neither have I.' The ump said, ‘How are you going to handle it?' Ted says, ‘It really doesn't matter because they can't play me high enough.' He changed the condition of the game.”
The idea of shaping defensive alignment to a batter's tendencies may not be new, but the increased frequency of shifts is revolutionary.
The number of shifts employed by major league teams has tripled over the past four seasons, growing from 0.8 shifts per team per game in 2010 to 2.4 this season, according to Baseball Info Solutions. The company defines a shift as when three infielders are on one side of second base, or when two or more infielders are significantly out of position.
Shifting once was based on anecdotal evidence. Managers often were armed with only personal history to make subjective decisions. But the information age has made available an avalanche of statistical data, revealing every hitter's and pitcher's tendencies with which to mold defensive alignment. The Pirates are among the teams that have bought into increased shifting.
“We started to do it a couple of years ago, more aggressively last year and even more aggressively this year,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “We are watching the data, seeing how it matches up, trying to get it to where it's relevant and it matters and then putting players in position where balls are typically hit.”
Look around the game: Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie has shifted to shallow right field. Tampa Bay has shifted three infielders to the left of second base. Look around and you'll see the game shifting away from tradition and toward what clubs believe is smarter defense.
WINNING (OLD SCHOOL) HEARTS AND MIND
Hurdle's countenance suggests he is old school.
The Pirates manager's hair has evolved from black to gray during his 40 years in the game as a player then manager. His deep tan indicates he is more interested in being around the action than sitting before a computer. He scoffs at some new-age metrics, noting everyone likes to try to “measure everything” in today's game. But Hurdle does see value in what he pulls from a three-ring binder in his PNC Park office.
Hurdle extracts a single sheet from the notebook. Printed on the page are charts that resemble NBC's peacock logo. The computer-generated, color-coded charts have swaths of red, green, blue and yellow emanating from home plate, showing the frequency in which individual batters hit toward different parts of the field. Red indicates a high volume of batted balls to a certain slice of the field; blue indicate areas rarely utilized by the batter. Unlike more abstract new-age stats, this data is tangible.
Hurdle then places a smart phone in his palm. He demonstrates the other data he can access. He retrieves four charts in a matter of seconds showing a player's tendencies with two strikes and in hitter-friendly counts, against left-handed or right-handed pitching. Charts like these are purchased from scouting services like Baseball Info Solutions or Inside Edge or retrieved from an in-house proprietary database.
“When I got in the game (as a manager), (Barry) Bonds might have been the one guy we shifted dramatically. You just didn't do it,” Hurdle said. “There used to be a day when you were up by a run in the seventh or eighth inning and you guarded both lines, no doubles. But if guys aren't hitting the balls down the line, why stand on the line?”
Shifts once were exclusive to left-handed hitters — the logistics of fielding are easier on the right-side of the infield — but against the Braves last month, the Pirates shifted three infielders to the left of second base against right-handed hitter Dan Uggla. This extreme shift on pull-heavy, right-handed hitters is a new phenomenon. According to Baseball Info Solution's database, the first shift employed against a right-handed hitter occurred June 11, 2009, when the Phillies shifted left against Gary Sheffield.
“We've actually embraced statistical analysis and not gone with traditional values of what you think is supposed to happen (with defensive alignment),” Hurdle said. “The one issue here, the one that has to be challenged, the one that has to be talked about, is tradition. Tradition is a wonderful thing in a lot of ways, but tradition can also be a vision killer.”
But going away from tradition is difficult. It is counter-intuitive to leave half the infield undefended. As manager, you can look foolish when a shift fails, Huntington said.
“(Shifts) may result in the four-hopper that goes through the four hole, that man, if the second baseman had been in the traditional spot, we remember that one,” Huntington said. “What we don't remember is Neil Walker being one step away from second getting a one-hopper that would have been a base hit.”
The data behind the proliferation of shifts can be traced to the kitchen of John Dewan's home in southwest Chicago. It was there in 1984 when Dewan, then an insurance actuary, sat transfixed reading the “Bill James Baseball Abstract.”
“I remember just sitting there, and it's like I went into a trance. ‘I'm like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is exactly what I dreamed about doing since I was in high school,' ” Dewan said. “So literally I put the book down on the kitchen table and called directory assistance.”
He reached James, who was beginning his Scoresheet project, the first attempt to computerize play-by-play information. Three weeks later, Dewan was programming for the database. A year later he was the project manager, and in 1987 he founded STATS Inc. in a bedroom he converted into an office.
STATS became the first company to track batted-ball data, Dewan said. In 2002, he formed another company, Baseball Info Solutions, which studied batted-ball data at a more detailed level. Other companies like Inside Edge joined the analytics field. By 2007, Inside Edge was charting the outcome of every major league pitch. Today, Inside Edge uses 30 former professional players to chart and evaluate every pitch and create detailed scouting reports and batted-ball charts.
Every major league team subscribes to at least one scouting service like Baseball Info Solutions or Inside Edge, and many employ their own analysts to create proprietary data. The Pirates hired Mike Fox from Baseball Prospectus in 2008 to create analytics, including studies of batted-ball data.
Still, the data existed long before any major league team adopted it for defensive purposes. It took a team willing to break away from convention. It took the Tampa Bay Rays.
“In baseball, when one team does something and they are successful, other teams try it,” Dewan said. “Tampa Bay has been successful as a team. … They were shifting 200 times in 2010 and 2011, and very few teams were even close to 100 shifts. Most teams were shifting 40, 50 times. They started a trend.”
The Rays demonstrated that the theory of extensive shifting worked. A shift will decrease a pull-heavy hitter's batting average by 50 points on groundballs and line drives, Dewan said. Dewan said for every 100 shifts, 3.3 runs will be saved.
In 2010, the Brewers shifted only 22 times, last in the National League. In 2011, new Brewers manager Ron Roenicke shifted his defense 170 times, an NL best, and second in baseball only to Tampa Bay (216 shifts). The result? Dewan estimated the Brewers saved 56 runs.
“It's not always going to work,” Roenicke said, “but if the percentages tell you something, I think it's smart to go with it.”
The offensive decline in baseball must be tied to something other than the decreased use of performance-enhancing drugs, which have been tested for since 2003. Perhaps the decline is tied to smarter defense.
AN ART FORM REMAINS
While it might seem science is pushing subjectivity and instinct to the margins in baseball, an art form in defensive positioning remains.
Kenny Kendrena is a project manager at Inside Edge. His company conducted a study that demonstrated certain clubs benefit more than others when shifting.
“Some of these bench coaches out there now just do such a good job of being prepared with splits within spray (charts) and are able to make adjustments in mid-at-bat,” Kendrena said. “These coaches have value, and there are better coaches than others, so it is a skill.”
Huntington said Hurdle and infield coach Nick Leyva have “all the discretion in the world” to depart from the data.
“(Hurdle's) the one in the dugout,” Huntington said. “He's the one seeing what's happening on the field. He's the one who sees when a hitter maybe has a different swing than the 1,000 swings he's seen before.”
Hurdle embraces defensive data but also incorporates experience.
“(St. Louis outfielder) Jon Jay beat us twice last year with a groundball off a left-handed pitcher down the third-base line,” Hurdle said. “There's no other history of that. But to this day we're going to play a step off the line.”
Boudreau considered his shift on Williams more psychological than tactical.
And even though Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez has a better average when he uses the opposite field — .367 career average to left versus a .224 average to right — he also thinks shifts are more psychology than tactical in nature.
“They want you to change your approach,” Alvarez said. “If you do, they win.”
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