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June 21, 2010

Overthinking It

The Way They Drew It Up

by Ben Lindbergh

Sometimes, it’s the comments that seem to miss the mark that generate the most discussion. Take this nugget  (please!) from Tom Verducci, buried within a long, otherwise-insightful article for SI.com about this season’s league-wide ebb in offense:

“The state of hitting is awful. Batters strike out more than ever before and, anecdotally, there seem to be more defensive overshifts employed than ever before. A shift for J.D. Drew, a guy who has hit 30 homers once in his life?”

Baseball cranks with a sabermetric slant try not to rely on anecdotal evidence when we can avoid it, but in the case of infield shifts—the “wishbone,” or Williams/Boudreau overshift, specifically—we’re forced to choose between drawing upon imperfect information, and discarding the evidence altogether. Baseball Info Solutions and STATS LLC flag overshifts (albeit only some of them, if captured from broadcast feeds), but until someone starts collecting comprehensive shift data and publishing it publicly (insert standard-issue FIELD f/x soliloquy here, though I certainly wouldn’t count on FIELD f/x being free), infield alignments will retain their present air of mystery in analytical circles.

Anecdotal evidence aside, it’s not clear to me what J.D. Drew’s home run output has to do with his suitability as a candidate for the shift. Since no infield arrangement yet devised can bring a ball back from over the fence, home run totals seem largely non-pertinent to the issue. True, when most of us think of players who routinely face the shift, we tend to think of prototypically burly southpaw sluggers: the Delgados, Hafners, and Giambis of the world (my internal player prototypes haven’t been updated since 2006, apparently). It’s easy to take the mental shortcut to concluding that only players with gaudy homer totals are suitable shift subjects, but in this case (as in all others), relying on stereotypes obscures exceptions to the rule.

Since batters tend to exhibit more power to their pull sides, we see a significant overlap between pull-oriented players (who invite defensive shifts) and players who hit for power. In other words (and symbols), it’s often the case that the guys whom we think of as prime candidates for the shift belong to the set Pull∩Power (H/T for the intersection sign to grammar-school math teacher Mrs. Findley, who made me at least as smart as a fifth-grader, in some respects). Power hitters also hit the ball harder (and perhaps, as a group, reach first base more slowly), making them easier to throw out from short right field. Finally, they may prove unwilling, or, due to lack of experience, unable, to abandon their power-centric approach and resort to bunting in an attempt to beat the shift.

However, a player need not be especially strong, slow, or unadaptable for an unorthodox defensive alignment to make sense. Drew may have maxed out at 31 homers in a single season, but if his hit distribution pegs him as a likely candidate to be hampered by extra fielders on the right side, opposing managers would be wise to avail themselves of the opportunity to gain an edge. It’s also worth mentioning that while Verducci may not be impressed with Drew’s power, the man does have a .219 career ISO (to say nothing of his on-base abilities), so he’s hardly a pushover at the plate.

Verducci’s comments call to mind a shift-related statement from another baseball luminary—none other than Bill James. In an interview with TIME magazine in 2008, James had this to say on the subject:

“I'm not sure I get the point of the over-shift against David Ortiz. It helps you if he hits a ground ball, but if the bomb goes off, you can put those infielders anywhere you want to, it doesn't really do you any good. The damage that David does comes when he hits the ball 380 feet. It really does not matter much where you put your infielders when that happens.”

Well, sure—you can’t shift your shortstop to the right-field stands. But James seems to have answered his own implied question with his second sentence: the shift helps you if he hits a ground ball. As long as it doesn’t hurt you when he doesn’t, shouldn’t that be explanation enough? Unless the Red Sox senior advisor moonlights in the media as a minister of misinformation, it’s difficult to understand why James believes that the shift’s inability to defuse the “bomb” discounts its other potential contributions.

Verducci’s observation made me curious about whether the shift on Drew is a recent development, or an old one that’s gaining more traction among major-league managers. An informal and unscientific survey of some of my more Soxually experienced friends (including card-carrying Massachusetts resident Marc Normandin) elicited a collective shrug, so I reached out to a few Boston-area beat writers—you know, the guys who actually watch the games, rather than stare at the spray charts and launch angles afterwards.

Ian Browne, who covers the Red Sox for MLB.com, responded, “I have noticed that teams seem to be shifting on Drew more than I’ve ever seen before,” and Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe added, “General impression is yes, they’re shifting on him a lot more. I don’t keep track of it, but my eyes tell me that last season they started doing it more from the second half on, and not everyone did it. Now everyone is.” Their testimony is persuasive, suggestion bias be damned (who says that beat writers and basement-bound bloggers can’t co-exist?), but with the words of our expert witnesses in hand, let’s check out the available evidence for ourselves.

Using Gameday data from 2007-09, Jeff Zimmerman found Drew to be the 18th-most pull-oriented lefty in the game. However, Zimmerman’s analysis included all hit types, which doesn’t help us isolate Drew’s ground-ball tendencies. Since 2002, Drew has hit 47.6 percent of his balls in play to right field, and 43.3 percent on the ground. Drew may have been able to avoid a reputation as an overwhelmingly pull-heavy hitter thus far because of his tendency to go the other way in the air. Courtesy of the Bloomberg Sports Pro Tool, here’s Drew’s spray chart of fly balls from 2008-10:

The majority of Drew’s homers exit fence right, but his most common fly-ball landing zones lie in dead center and the opposite field. All of those pulled balls that Zimmerman identified have to be hiding somewhere, right? Let’s check Drew’s ground-ball distribution, from 2010 only:

 

 Ah—there they are. That looks like the spray chart of a perfect shift candidate, doesn’t it? Almost all of the balls that Drew sends past the mound on the ground make a beeline for right field. By stacking that side of the field with an extra fielder, teams stand to gain a number of additional putouts, while sacrificing scant coverage on the other side of the diamond (you can see one such putout clearly, represented by the circle near the outfield edge of the most thickly populated zone). In case you were wondering, the ground-ball distribution seen above is nothing new for Drew; here’s his grounders-only spray chart for 2008-09:

We’ve already established that the shift baffles Bill James, but maybe he can be of some help to us nonetheless. The following tables display Drew’s performances on ground balls in each of the three seasons displayed on the spray charts above, drawn from the statistics section at Bill James Online:

Looks like an open-and-shut case, right? Teams start shifting, and Drew’s success rate on grounders to the right side plummets. Not only that, but his TAv has declined for three straight seasons, too—the shift must be getting to him! Would that it were so simple. Unfortunately, Drew’s career batting average—in this case, a perfectly acceptable stat to cite—on grounders to the right side since that data began to be collected in 2002 is .183. Granted, he’s never finished a season as low as .100, but this neat little three-year trend is likely nothing more than a statistical quirk that happens to fit our narrative, rather than a smoking gun. Moreover, it tells us nothing concrete about how often the shift has been applied, or by whom.

Fortunately, another beat writer stepped in to open a new avenue of exploration. John Tomase of the Boston Herald told me that “The J.D. Drew shift started with Joe Maddon (go figure) and has been employed by Cito Gaston, as well. They were the first two, and now it's becoming more prevalent.” Tomase added, “I want to say that it started in earnest last season with Maddon, and the Jays may have done it at the end of the year after Cito became manager, but I can't be 100 percent positive about it…But Maddon definitely was the first guy to do it every time.”

That makes a lot of sense. Maddon has become known for his outside-the-box thinking, especially as it relates to unusual shifts, which he’s been implementing since taking the Rays’ reins in 2006. The Blue Jays may not have acquired as strong a reputation for pursuing the extra 2%, but Toronto third base coach and infield instructor Brian Butterfield was telling the Times about computerized spray charts as far back as four years ago.

As a final measure, I decided to take Warner Wolf’s advice, and go to the videotape (no actual tape was involved, but “Let’s go to the digitally compressed video file!” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it) to see if I could determine just how Drew has been defended this season. I watched 154 of the 173 balls that Drew has put into play this season (the remaining 19 weren’t as easily accessible), and made a note of any overshifts, as well as a few other special circumstances that I’m about to describe. Granted, the sample was incomplete—I omitted not only the defensive arrangements on those missing 19 balls in play, but also those in place during over 80 strikeouts, walks, and hit by pitches accrued by Drew—but it wasn’t missing any of this season’s Red Sox opponents, so it should be fairly representative of how he’s been treated.

 

BIP

Shifts

Hits Robbed

Hits Gifted

Hypothetical Hits Robbed

Hypothetical Hits Gifted

154

21

3

1

12

2

 

“Hits robbed” were batted balls resulting in outs which, in my judgment, would have been hits had the shift not been used. “Hits gifted” were batted balls resulting in hits which, in my judgment, would have been outs had the shift not been used. “Hypothetical Hits Robbed” were hits that I deemed preventable by a shift, had one been in effect, and “Hypothetical Hits Gifted” were fielded balls that I suspected would have eluded a shift, had one been in place.

In my collection of viewed videos, teams shifted on Drew only 13.6 percent of the time. By my calculations, teams have served up 10 hits to Drew which could have been prevented by a standard overshift, in well under half a season. Take 10 singles away from Drew, who’s currently batting .276/.359/.467, and he’d be toting an unsightly .231/.323/.422 line.

Of course, we can’t just add or subtract hypothetical hit totals with abandon; if Michael Kay (or even Fake Michael Kay) were reading along, he’d even now be mouthing a warning about the “fallacy of the predetermined outcome.” If Drew were to face the shift in every plate appearance, he’d quite likely change his approach, for better or for worse; even confronting it to the extent that he has caused him to lay one perfect bunt down the third-base line against the shift, responsible for the lone entry you see in the “Hits Gifted” column above. We don’t know precisely how Drew would respond to an escalation of the shift, and if the current state of affairs persists, we never will, but it’s probably worth it for teams to find out; it seems fairly certain that Drew is winning this battle of offense-against-defense game theory thus far.

I enlisted a fourth and final Bostonian beat writer to conclude my inquiries: the incomparable Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe, who’s brought the same brand of unceasing informative coverage to Boston that he once lent to the other side of the Sox-Yanks rivalry. Peter graciously offered to track down J.D. to sound out his thoughts on the shift. Here’s what Drew had to say:

“I haven't noticed it too much. Some teams are playing the shortstop over a few steps more than they used to. But I think you see that for a lot of lefties these days. I'm not getting a shift like David [Ortiz] and some guys like that.”

The data largely reinforce what Drew had to say; it would seem that he hasn’t had to face the 3-4 shift employed against Ortiz, and he’s been met with a more typical overshift only sporadically. If the shift has barely registered on Drew’s mental radar thus far, teams might be wise to amplify its signature.

As far as I could tell, only two of the 14 teams against whom Drew sent a ball into play in my sample employed the shift. Care to guess which two? Tomase nailed it: the Rays and the Blue Jays. The Rays shifted on Drew at every single opportunity contained in my sample; the Jays shifted more sparingly, using a standard alignment with a runner on first (perhaps hoping to avoid a repeat of this play). Drew has managed two fair bunts (only one of which succeeded), and three foul balls on bunt attempts in 2009 and 2010 combined; not surprisingly, all five came against either the Rays or the Jays. Even if I hadn’t independently reached the conclusion that a shift on Drew was the right call, I might have been inclined to believe it based on the identities of the most shifty teams alone, since it’s likely that anything the Rays are doing with regularity has some sense behind it. Of course, it’s not necessary to go through such a “close reading” of every player to know whether a shift would be advisable—presumably, one could model the anticipated difference based on expected launch angle and fielder zone coverage, and leave it at that—but it is somewhat satisfying to attach some empirically-derived digits to the discussion.

Drew isn’t the only hitter for whom one could perform this exercise and find the shiftiness of his opponents lacking. Why might that be? I’d love to hear some opinions in the comments, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that any major-league front office lacks employees capable of dissecting and comprehending the significance of spray charts—those days are long gone. In response to a Boudreau shift on Mickey Mantle in 1956, Tigers manager Bucky Harris told The Sporting News, “Let Boudreau get the credit—we’ll try to get Mantle out honestly.” Perhaps the notion that a shift is incompatible with a baseball man’s integrity has survived the last half-century, but I think there’s something more at work.

It may very well be that most of the resistance to more flexible and aggressive defensive alignments originates from unimaginative and risk-averse coaching staffs, which don’t take kindly to defensive positioning—a fiefdom long regarded as being under their purview—being directed from on high. As teams continue to get smarter, but struggle to bridge the disconnects with their on-field and in-dugout personnel, the knowledge lost in translation from one level of operation to another might represent one of the most glaring inefficiencies in the game today. “Stats vs. scouts” may have been supplanted by a side of beer and tacos at the upper levels, but the closer one gets to the clubhouse, the less variety one finds on the menu. Of course, defensive positioning represents an area in which the two emphases are often perfectly aligned, so there should be more than enough common ground to support a meeting of the minds. Pitch-by-pitch shifting might be asking too much, but there’s plenty of room for more realistic improvement.

With the right fielder in question temporarily laid up with a minor hamstring injury suffered last Friday, the Drewfensive revolution will have to wait, but teams not blessed with deep-thinking cyclists for managers might want to consider reevaluating the processes by which they make some of the simplest of decisions. As Maddon asked Murray Chass (of all people) over four years ago, “If you have information, why not use it?”

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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