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April 13, 2012

The Stats Go Marching In

Bringing Back the Birdie Tebbetts Shift

by Max Marchi

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In 2010, Baseball Info Solutions began recording instances of defensive shifts. In the Fielding Bible III, they presented some data from the last couple of years: the Rays emerged as the team using special alignments most frequently, with a huge margin separating them from the clubs ranked just behind them.

While watching some of the action in the Rays’ Opening Day game against the Yankees, I came to the conclusion that BIS video scouts would have an easier time if they inverted their approach and marked down the instances when Tampa Bay does not play shifted.

The Rays, like many other teams do, placed three infielders on the right side of second base (one playing deep in the outfield grass) when Teixeira batted from the left side. They deployed a similar alignment against Curtis Granderson, despite the fact that the center fielder has several season of leadoff hitting under his belt, which made a bunt attempt more likely. They also shifted facing right-handed Alex Rodriguez, moving second baseman Elliott Johnson to the left side of the keystone and leaving only first baseman Carlos Pena on the right side of the infield.

In a curious turn of events, the game ended with the Yankees arrayed in an unconventional formation, as they played the last two batters with only two outfielders (Granderson and Brett Gardner) and five infielders (Eduardo Nunez joined the four starters and planted himself close to the second-base bag).

None of the defensive configurations mentioned above is a novelty. The shift on Teixeira is an example of the well-known “Ted Williams shift,” which made news when Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau aligned his fielders in an unorthodox fashion to prevent another Splendid Splinter hit back in 1946. The tactic was hardly anything new even then, as another Williams, Cy, frequently faced an (even more extremely) empty left side of the diamond in the 1920s.

In their first World Series appearance in 2008, the Rays were not afraid to employ the shift even on a fast runner. The treatment they reserved for Granderson last week was dedicated to Chase Utley in that Fall Classic.

The right-handed version of the alignment was widely used for one of the most famous Yankees ever: when Al Gionfriddo made his famous catch to rob Joe DiMaggio of a homer in the 1947 World Series, the Dodgers were positioned exactly as the Rays were a week ago with A-Rod at the plate.

Finally, the two-outfielder, five-infielder formation is not uncommon when the game is tied in the bottom of the ninth and the home team has loaded the bases with nobody out.  The Rays were batting when that happened during their opener, but they have employed the desperate tactic themselves in the past.

Given their propensity for employing extreme positioning, I wonder whether the Rays will resurrect the Birdie Tebbetts shift sometime soon.

The Birdie Tebbetts Shift
I took the liberty of referring to the subject I’ll introduce shortly as “The Birdie Tebbetts Shift” because the name of the Reds (and later Braves and Indians) manager is the one I keep finding associated with this atypical alignment.

He didn’t employ it regularly, but on at least a few occasions, Tebbetts used a defense with three infielders and four outfielders. As he told the Milwaukee Journal on May 11, 1956, “We use this in certain spots against certain hitters to defend against the hitter getting a double or triple which might mean a tied score or a defeat for us.”

Two of the players that have emerged as having been the target of this scheme are inner circle Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Willie Mays. The shift usually featured second baseman Johnny Temple patrolling right center, and knowing that the right-handed Mays was one of the men facing it tells us that the alignment was something different from what we see today with power lefties at the plate.

Batted-ball data are available only for the latter part of Musial’s career. While his ground-ball rate was lower than the major-league average, his line does not seem to indicate that he was an extreme fly-ball hitter.

Howevery, Willie Mays’ ground-ball rate was consistently near the major-league low.

Candidates for the Tebbetts Shift: Identikit
If a team ever decided to employ a formation that swaps an infielder for an extra outfielder, it would certainly happen with a batter who has extreme fly-ball tendencies. Furthermore, since an infield spot would be vacated, the batter would likely be a dead-pull hitter on ground balls (one against whom defenses would not be afraid to leave the opposite infield unguarded) but more of a spray hitter on fly balls.

As I typed the above description, one player immediately came to my mind: Ryan Howard. The Phillies first baseman, currently recovering from an injury he sustained in the final at-bat of last season, is certainly a fly-ball hitter, albeit not the most extreme one.

His tendency to pull ground balls is well known around the league, as most teams leave a big portion of the right side of the infield unguarded against him.

The chart below was obtained using Gameday hit locations (2010 and 2011 data). While those data suffer from several shortcomings, as our Colin Wyers has often mentioned, they serve quite well for the purpose of showing the prevalent trajectories of Howard’s grounders.

On the other hand, when Howard connects for a fly ball, he uses the entire ballpark (and then some).

If you want a more reliable source to confirm Ryan Howard’s power to all fields, go to Greg Rybarczyk’s Home Run Tracker and take a look at the trajectories of his homers (here are his 2011 dingers).

Data available to major-league clubs (HITf/x with angles and velocities off the bat, BIS times of flight and grounder-ball speed, and possibly FIELDf/x with full trajectories of batted balls) would allow them to extensively (and quite precisely) analyze the potential benefits and shortcomings of employing a four-outfielder defense. Given the data we have at hand, we can only formulate a few hypotheses by looking at the above scatter plots.

First of all, we should note that defenses already employ a form of the four-outfielder shift on Howard, as one of the infielders usually plays way deep in the grass. However, that’s not the alignment we’re talking about, as the extra player manning the outfield in that scenario is mainly responsible for rocket grounders.

If teams tried to use a regular alignment on the right side of the infield (two players) and move one of the men usually patrolling the left side to the outfield, some of the groundouts would become hits to right field. How much of that loss (plus the one teams are already conceding on the left side with the current shift) would be made up by having the outfield territory covered by four men? That’s hard to tell given the information we have.

The homers would still be homers, since you can’t play your extra outfielder beyond the fences. (At most, maybe one or two hits which would otherwise barely leave the park would be within reach if four outfielders were employed.) Most of the remaining fly-ball hits, as seen on the above charts, are either in warning track territory or in front of the outfielders.

It’s hard to tell how many of those could be turned into outs thanks to the extra ground covered by the additional outfielder. In fact, we don’t know how many of the warning track hits actually hit the wall at a height unreachable by any outfielder, no matter how well positioned. Neither do we know which of the shorter hits are zipping liners that would never be caught unless the fielder is perfectly placed.

Are we ever going to see the Tebbetts shift employed? And if so, when?
As I mentioned earlier, teams do have the crucial information that we are missing, so one of them could have done (or could now be doing) the necessary analysis to evaluate if and when the unorthodox alignment would work.

Given their zealous use of special defenses, I would pinpoint the Rays as the club most likely to employ the formation, if they find it worthy for any particular situation. There is one more element that would make Joe Maddon’s team a good candidate for a Tebbetts shift: in Ben Zobrist, they have a player who already alternates between the infield and the outfield.

Thus, the ideal setup would be:

  • Zobrist playing second (so that when he is moved for the special defense, there would be four regular outfielders playing);
  • A fly-ball pitcher on the mound: Jeremy Hellickson has a career ground-ball rate well below 40 percent; Kyle Farnsworth ranks a bit higher at around 40 percent, but over a longer career. One of them would work for this purpose.
  • Despite the Rays’ aggressiveness in using shifted defenses, we should probably be looking for a situation similar to what Tebbetts himself indicated. I would say late in the game (thus Farnsworth on the mound is more likely than Hellickson), tying run at the plate, two out.
  • A hitter with the characteristics described in the previous section. Unfortunately, aside from being injured, Ryan Howard plays in a different league, so we should look for a similar hitter, possibly in the American League East.

Bautista, anyone?
Jose Bautista could be our man, despite not being the perfect fit that Howard seems to be. He has not always been a fly-ball hitter during his career, but he has been one in the last couple of years (basically since he became the great Jose Bautista).

He scatters his fly balls all over the outfield, despite showing more power on the pull side, and he is likely to pull his grounders.

However, the right part of the infield could not be neglected with Bautista at the plate, as you can see from the above chart. To complicate things further, you have to keep in mind the existence of a constraint that does not play a big role on shifts against left-handed hitters but is quite important when positioning the infield against right-handed pull hitters: there has to be a player within reach of first base to take care of assists coming from the other infielders.

How far from the bag can the first baseman play? Here are the Rays playing shifted against A-Rod on Opening Day.

Carlos Pena is between one third and half of the way toward second, so let’s suppose he can handle that. Leave the shortstop and the third baseman where they are (or move them slightly toward second) and send the second baseman to play with the outfielders. You now have a Birdie Tebbetts shift.

Will we see it any time soon? Put your opinion in the comments below. The first encounter between the Rays and the Jays will take place on April 17.

A final note for the broadcast networks: the pitcher-batter confrontation is the centerpiece of the game but, hey, there are seven defenders on the field. Please, take the time (just one second would do) to show us how they are positioned for each at-bat, especially when they’re in an usual alignment. That’s an interesting part of the story.

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