September 18, 2015
Ducks on the Pond
Unexpected Shift Candidates
On a recent episode of Effectively Wild, a listener named Steve sent an email to the podcast about a conversation he had at SaberSeminar with two analysts from Baseball Info Solutions who had given a presentation. Steve mentioned that in his conversation with the two analysts they discussed how every hitter has some degree of pull tendency on groundballs and line drives, making it mathematically advantageous to shift every hitter after taking into account the base/out state.
In response to the email, Sam Miller listed some reasons why such a proposition might be met with resistance, including the perception that hitters can easily adjust to the shift and the potential negative psychological effects on a pitcher if he were to allow many weakly hit balls through the open side of the infield.
I'd venture that we're still quite far away from a world in which every hitter is shifted against. Then again, it was only a handful of years ago that defensive shifts were reserved only for big, slow, power-hitting lefties like David Ortiz, Ryan Howard, and Adam Dunn. Since then, the perception of defensive shifts being a way to encourage one-dimensional sluggers to try to go the opposite way and stay inside the park has evolved into a recognition that shifting is a strategy utilized to provide the most efficient defensive alignment against any hitter, regardless of his home run total or speed.
We might not yet be at the point where shifts are used against every hitter, but there are cases of the most aggressive teams using them against players who might not usually be thought of as shift candidates. I was curious to see who stood out as some of the more surprising players who have been shifted this season, so I took to Twitter to search for an unorthodox shift candidate from every team.
If there's one thing you can always count on from Baseball Twitter, it's armchair managing. Searching "[player] shift" on Twitter was a fairly easy way to find fans up in arms about their team shifting against a light-hitting middle infielder or the slugger who had the reputation of being a "professional hitter" who could drive the ball to all fields. (Almost as common were tweets from non-baseball fans about how they couldn't wait to get off their work shift.)
There is surely a backup shortstop or two who has been shifted this season and slipped through the cracks, but all in all I think this is an interesting list. It features some superstars who might not be thought of as traditional shift candidates and also some utility types who will raise an eyebrow.
For each player, I calculated his Pulled-groundball rate since the start of 2014, using Baseball Savant, and where he ranked among all hitters with at least 50 groundballs put in play during that time. Also provided is each player's shift percentage in 2015 (full shifts and partial shifts included), courtesy of Kenny Kendrena and Inside Edge, along with a list of the teams that have used a shift against the player.
Without further ado, here are some of the more unorthodox players to be shifted this season.
We start things off with the best player in baseball, who has developed the reputation of being able to drive the ball with authority to all fields. This notion has merit, but it's largely on balls hit to the outfield; his 57 percent opposite-field rate on flyballs and line drives to the outfield since the start of 2014 puts him in the top quartile of hitters with at least 50 balls hit to the outfield over that span. In the infield Trout tends to be a dead pull hitter, which led the Orioles to deploy a full shift on Trout on August 7th. Unfortunately for Baltimore, no defensive alignment was going to contain Trout's 33rd home run of the season.
Spoiler alert: the Astros are going to show up quite a bit in this article. They kind of shift a lot. But they also employ one of the least likely star players you might expect to see a shift. Altuve has a high contact rate; he's fast; he hits for a high average; he's five-foot-six! And yet the spray charts suggest that shifting him isn't as crazy as it might seem at first blush. The Rays, Twins, and Mariners have all shifted Altuve this season, and I'd put my money on the Astros shifting Altuve too if they were playing against him.
Last year I wrote quite a bit about two-strike shifts. The idea was that pull hitters who are also skilled bunters have the advantage of defenses needing to leave their third basemen in on the grass, meaning that the opposing team cannot set up its optimal defense until there are two strikes and the hitter can only bunt to beat the shift at the peril of striking out on a fouled bunt. Coco Crisp got this treatment from the Orioles and the Yankees last season; sure enough, the former team put it in play against Crisp when they came to Oakland for a series this August.
Crisp came up to bat against Miguel Gonzalez with a runner on first and two outs in the third inning and Baltimore initially had the following defense set up.
After Crisp takes strike two, you can see Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy begin to walk over to the other side of second base.
On the very next pitch Crisp beat the shift, taking a pitch from Gonzalez the other way and past Manny Machado, who had backed off the grass to cover more ground on the left side of the infield.
I used the Orioles shifting Goins as an example in my article last week about why it might not be so crazy to envision a scenario in the not-to-distant future in which teams shift against Madison Bumgarner. Goins is the owner of a .221 career TAv and his groundball rate isn't even as pull-heavy as some of the other light-hitting middle infielders you'll see throughout this exercise.
Interestingly enough, this doesn't appear to be a case of a special hitter-pitcher matchup suggesting a different defensive alignment than usual. Goins doesn't have a noticeable platoon split when it comes to groundball rate and he doesn't really pull a higher percentage of his grounders with two strikes either. (This was another case of a two-strike shift.) Furthermore, the opposing pitcher, Chris Tillman, has a pretty standard four-seam fastball/curveball/changeup repertoire.
The Orioles are one of the most frequent users of the shift and one of the advantages they have that allows them to implement shifts against even hitters like Ryan Goins is Machado. The 23-year-old came up through Baltimore's system as a shortstop and the club is confident enough in the youngster's range that they gave him a couple of starts at the position earlier in September, when Hardy was on the disabled list. With essentially two shortstops in Hardy and Machado, the Orioles can implement full shifts against left-handed hitters knowing that they not only have the entire right side of the infield covered but also a good portion of the left side.
Peterson has three bunt hits this year. Nick Ahmed made sure this wouldn't be one of them.
Dave Cameron recently took a look at how Carpenter has completely revamped his approach this season, trading some of his high-contact skills for additional thump when he does put his bat on the ball. Carpenter has also become more of a shift candidate this season, pulling 79 percent of his grounders this season compared to 72 percent of them in 2014.
Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press noted during a game on June 21 between the Twins and Cubs that Paul Molitor's club waited until a 3-1 count before shifting Coghlan. This could be similar to a two-strike shift, with the Twins being willing to let Coghlan try his luck at a bunt to beat the shift in such a favorable hitter's count. Another factor in play could be that Coghlan's pulled-groundball rate since the start of 2014 rises to 84 percent when the count is in his favor.
As shifting within counts becomes more common, communication with fielders on where they're supposed to be pitch to pitch is going to be more vital. It didn't make much of a difference here but the last thing a pitcher is going to want is for his fielders to be moving around while he's in the middle of his windup. (This was another two-strike shift.)
Urshella had been up for barely a week and a half before the Rays started using full shifts against the glove-first infielder. With teams compiling spray charts and even shifting in the minors, rookies with minimal big-league experience are no longer immune to the shift.
Many fans were introduced to Cano as a shift candidate when he famously pushed a bunt double down the third base line to beat the shift against the Red Sox back in 2013. Cano is most often thought of as a player who can use all fields; sure enough, his pulled-groundball rate is in the bottom half of the league. However, a handful of teams have recognized that even a hitter with Cano's spray chart can warrant a full shift. Here's a shot of the Rockies utilizing one against him on August 3rd.
Prado exemplifies the clichéd title "professional hitter." He rarely strikes out, he uses all fields and he's certainly one of the last players you would expect to get shifted. A cursory look at Prado's spray chart or Pulled-groundball rate makes you scratch your head as to why the Pirates would shift him like they did on August 26th.
Prado's pulled-groundball rate is among the lowest of the players in this exercise, but Pittsburgh's reasoning makes more sense when you consider that left-hander Jeff Locke was on the mound. Prado's pulled-groundball rate against right-handed pitchers since the start of 2014 is 61 percent, compared to a 69 percent rate against southpaws. That latter rate is still among the lower in this exercise but there is at least a precedent for teams using full shifts against players with that type of pulled-groundball rate.
Darling might have had the right idea but like many of our unorthodox shift candidates, Tejada's opposite-field ability is mostly in the air. He boasts a 58 percent opposite-field rate on line drives and flyballs since the start of 2014, ranking him in the top quartile of the league. With Tejada hitting three out of every four grounders to the left side during that same span, the Rays were comfortable giving him the full shift treatment.
Espinosa is a capable bunter, so when the Rays used a full shift against him on June 16th they left Evan Longoria in on the grass at third base. The Nationals' middle infielder did something you don't see very often: He bunted into the shift for a base hit.
Last year I wrote about the cat-and-mouse games that teams like the Astros, Pirates, and Orioles had to play with Kiermaier, whose speed and bunting prowess forced them to keep their third baseman in on the grass early in the count. It's more of the same this year with Kieramier, but when you drop down bunts this good it hardly matters how close to the line the opposing team's third baseman is.
I'm starting to think it might be better to compile a list of the players the Astros haven't shifted this season.
I'm going to take you to June 15th, to an at-bat in which the Tigers were playing Joey Votto to pull. Jose Iglesias was the lone man on the left side of the infield for Detroit and on the first pitch he was positioned in toward the grass. After Votto took the first pitch for a called strike, the broadcast caught the tail end of Iglesias backing up toward his traditional shortstop position.
Votto glanced multiple times at Iglesias as he backed up toward deep short
and on the very next pitch he bunted the ball where Iglesias had been moments earlier.
Remember when shifts against right-handed batters were such a big deal? Now we live in a world in which the Twins are shift-happy and using them against Escobar. Oh how the times have changed!
Mauer's opposite-field tendencies on balls to the outfield have prompted teams to utilize outfield shifts against the Twins' first baseman. While Mauer doesn't have the strongest pull tendencies on groundballs, he has gotten his share of partial shifts in the infield this season and will drop down a bunt. Here is one of his four bunt hits this season.
Shuck has hit one fewer home run in his career than Madison Bumgarner has hit this season.
If teams want to shift the speedy Gardner they clearly need to keep their third baseman honest due to the threat of a bunt. Full shifts against Gardner are still few and far between despite a spray chart that suggests that maybe more teams should be considering shifting against him. The Orioles are one team that has utilized the two-strike shift against the Yankees' outfielder this season.
Special thanks to Kenny Kendrena and Inside Edge for research assistance.