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January 10, 2008

Schrodinger's Bat

Getting Shifty

by Dan Fox

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"You know, they used to shift to right field for me too. But I could cross them up, choke my bat and poke shots to left. Ted never will hit to left until he learns a new stance and swing. The way he's swinging now he pulls too much to right."
--Babe Ruth, on the "Williams Shift," September 1946

When asked what he did in the winter when there is no baseball, Rogers Hornsby famously replied that he would "stare out the window and wait for spring." Fortunately, these days fans of the game have plenty to keep them occupied in the cold winter months. Not least amongst the off-season events is looking forward to the baseball-oriented Christmas loot that keeps us busy until spring. While not the massive haul of our Jay Jaffe, I'll keep warm with a new Cubs fleece from my lovely wife and keep occupied with Lee Lowenfish's hefty biography of Branch Rickey titled Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman and Cait Murphy's romp through the 1908 season Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History; both additions to my library courtesy of my in-laws.

But besides the holiday reading material given to me by my family, I treated myself to a copy of THT's latest book, and spent several enjoyable hours poring over it. As you might imagine, I'm partial to the "Analysis" section and although I wasn't particularly impressed with one of the essays, it was a section of the essay "Of Home Runs and Free Agents" by Greg Rybarczyk of Hit Tracker fame that partially inspired today's column. In that essay Greg has a section titled "'Did Anyone Order a Center fielder?' Case Study: All Batted Balls by Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones," in which, as the title implies, he takes an in-depth look at the balls in play for these two players, and in doing so mentions the idea of employing an infield shift against Jones.

The idea of other players who, like Jones, might be candidates for the shift, plus a question about the defensive skills of Ryan Zimmerman, and finally the concept of shifts in general form the basis for the trio of related topics (which we'll take in reverse order) discussed in today's column.

Shifts and The Splinter

Like the invention of platooning which is often attributed to Casey Stengel and sometimes even to Earl Weaver, the history of repositioning defenders to deal with specific hitters goes back farther than most people imagine. On July 14, 1946 Lou Boudreau applied his famous shift against Ted Williams in the second game of a double header after The Splinter had hit three home runs in the opener, and a double down the right field line in his first at-bat of the second game. For many fans that event marked the introduction of this strategy. But in fact, as documented by Peter Morris in Volume I of A Game of Inches, not only had teams been shifting against Williams as far back as 1941, shifts are known from as early as May of 1877. It was then that a Louisville paper reported that the manager of the Hartford club, Bob Ferguson, would adjust his fielders by placing his second baseman on the left side of the infield for some right-handed pull hitters. He further refined the shift by incorporating a version of it for lefties as reported in May of 1879 with others following suit from time to time over the next twenty years.

In describing one such shift in the first decade of the twentieth century, F.C. Lane, editor of Baseball Magazine, quoted Cubs pitcher Ed Reulbach regarding Phillies outfielder Roy Thomas in his compilation on offense titled Batting:

He not only hit almost all the time to left field, but he was a short field hitter as well. This tendency handicapped him tremendously. When Thomas was at bat, the left fielder moved close to the foul line and came well in. The center fielder shifted away over toward left and at the same time advanced close up behind short and second. Third baseman moved over nearly to the foul line, and the shortstop followed him to a point at least fifteen feet beyond his natural position. At the same time he fell back and played a rather deep field.

He goes on to describe how pitchers like his teammate Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown would work Thomas (who surely was a "short field hitter," as only 160 of his 1,011 career hits went for extra bases):

With this combination against him, Thomas was like clay in the hands of the pitcher. Mordecai Brown was a pitcher with excellent control and he doted on just such a situation. He would shoot over a fast ball on the outside of the plate and away from Thomas, who was a left-handed hitter. In nine cases out of ten Thomas was literally forced to hit the ball to left field. There were four fielders waiting for him instead of one, or at the most two. Thomas naturally realized the force of the conspiracy against him. But if he tried to pull the ball to the other field, the nearest he could come to that aim would be perhaps to loop it over the pitcher's box.

Lane then goes on to point out that one effective way to battle the shift is to "hit hard," citing the cases of Frank "Home Run" Baker who, as a lefty, was a dead pull hitter with considerably more power than Thomas. As Roger Peckinpaugh said of his own tendency to pull the ball:

I admit I did not succeed in overcoming my natural preference for hitting to left field. On the other hand, I practiced hitting to that field, getting my full strength behind the ball. As a result I hit hard and I don't believe my batting average suffered.

Another player who was regularly shifted against and who also refused to alter his style was lefty slugger Fred "Cy" Williams, a mainstay of the Phillies teams in the 1920s. As former opposing manager Bill McKechnie tells it, Phils manager Arthur Fletcher "would even order Cy to bunt toward third" but that "Cy would listen to Fletcher's pleadings and orders and then just go to bat and take his usual swing and slam the ball to right."

Although oft-derided by old-timers like Ruth, Ted Williams wasn't quite so proud and would occasionally attempt to hit through the vacated left side, as he did to end an 0-for-17 slump against Washington in 1954. Further, there is evidence that in his later years Williams perhaps wasn't the prodigious pull hitter he was when Boudreau and company first implemented the shift.

Using Retrosheet data from 1956 through 1960 we find that Williams put 1,498 balls in play for which Retrosheet records a fielder or position to which the ball was hit (including home runs). The breakdown of his final five seasons is shown in the table below, where CPP stands for Center Pull Percentage defined as the percentage of balls fielded up the middle (catcher, pitcher, center fielder) or to the pull side (third, short, and left for right-handed hitters, and second, first, and right for lefties). Also provided is an accompanying chart that shows the aggregate percentages.


Year     BIP     L      M      R    CPP
1956     341    28%    22%    50%   72%
1957     343    23%    24%    54%   77%
1958     332    27%    22%    52%   73%
1959     222    23%    24%    52%   77%
1960     260    23%    21%    56%   77%

Figure 1: Ted Williams' Balls in Play Distribution, 1956-1960

Ted Williams BIP 1956-1960

So in his final five seasons, three-quarters of the time Williams hit the ball to the center or right side of the diamond, which turns out to be not all that different from the rest of those who swung from the left side during those five seasons shown in Figure 2. The biggest left-handed pull hitter during that time period was actually Roger Maris, who hit the ball to center or right 82 percent of the time and against whom I've not heard it said that teams shifted. From the right side Harmon Killebrew was the most extreme pull hitter, doing so 85.6 percent of the time.

Figure 2: All Left-Handed Batters' Balls in Play Distribution, 1956-1960

LHB BIP 1956-1960

The similarities between Williams and the rest of the league's left-handed hitters in terms balls in play distribution likely indicates that later in his career either strategically or out of necessity as he aged, Williams did indeed look to spray the ball a bit more. Anecdotal evidence to support this notion can be found in this snippet from an article by Boston Globe writer Hy Hurwitz after Opening Day, on April 17, 1956:

With his two doubles going into the left field area, and his single to center field, Ted hinted after the game he might go more to left this year to break-up the so-called Williams Shift.

The attention that the Williams Shift garnered ensured that variants of it would be tried on other hitters such as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. It also made sure that the strategy would remain in almost continuous use for 130 years.

Let's Turn Two

From the perspective of the defense, the shift is utilized to raise the probability that a fielder will find himself in the path of the ball. What is less often remembered, however, is that this also has the side effect of forcing some fielders into unfamiliar positions and therefore into situations that they may not be accustomed to.

This point was brought home recently when on our internal email list Christina Kahrl noted that Nats third sacker Ryan Zimmerman had been the pivot man on seven double plays in 2007. That factoid in service of larger points forms the basis for Zimmerman's player comment in the soon-to-be-released Baseball Prospectus 2008:

Of the 33 DPs turned (but not started) by all major league third basemen last year, Zim turned seven, the most in a single season of any third baseman in our database (going back to 1959). That was a reflection of Acta's aggressiveness in every phase of the game, as the skipper played the shift on lefty pull hitters more than any manager of recent memory, a gambit which paid off in part because of Zimmerman's shortstop-level athleticism. Six were 4-5-3s (three hit by Ryan Howard, two by Carlos Delgado, and one by Adam Dunn), and the last was 6-5-3 hit into by Barry Bonds. Zim isn't perfect--he could do better charging bunts--but he's already among the best gloves at third in the game today, and he has the gifts to become one of the game's historic greats with the leather. ...

Those seven double plays represent an amazing 5.2 percent of all ground-ball double plays turned by the Nats when Zimmerman was on the field. To put that in perspective, since 2000 only 94 times has a third baseman made the turn at second on a double play (19 times in 2007, including Zimmerman's seven) representing just 0.3 percent, or one of every 330 ground-ball double plays.

It should then come as no surprise that Zimmerman leads all third baseman in turning DPs on the shift with nine since 2000, while Eric Chavez (eight), Troy Glaus (five), Aramis Ramirez (five), David Wright (four) and Chipper Jones (four) are next in line.

While double plays turned by third baseman is a clear indication that a shift was put on for a left-handed hitter, we have no such clue in the play by play data for right-handed hitters. So although Vladimir Guerrero is the target of shifts from time to time, as he was when hitting against the Rangers in 2007, in almost all cases the scoring of double plays is not affected, so the shift is invisible in the play-by-play record. It should be noted, though, that shifts aren't employed as much against right-handers because the first baseman of necessity needs to remain within hailing distance of the bag. Therefore, if we look at the other side of the coin we'll find ten sluggers, all lefties, who are primary objects of the shift based on the number of shift double plays they hit into:


Name          Bats        DPs
Barry Bonds      L         12
David Ortiz      L         12
Jim Thome        L         11
Jason Giambi     L         11
Carlos Delgado   L          9
Ken Griffey Jr.  L          8
Ryan Howard      L          5
Adam Dunn        L          2
Mo Vaughn        L          2
Rafael Palmeiro  L          2

Because the sample size is very small, and with managerial changes and unbalanced schedules, the play-by-play data won't tell us which managers used the shift most often. But for what it's worth, Washington does lead all of baseball in shift double plays turned since 2000 at nine, with the Blue Jays (eight), Mets (eight), and A's (eight) on their heels.

Bring on the Shift

As mentioned in the introduction, Rybarczyk dissects the 2007 balls in play for both Andruw Jones and Torii Hunter in his essay using his Hit Tracker analytical engine. Those familiar with his excellent site will know that his engine uses an aerodynamic model to recreate the trajectory of baseballs in flight in order to estimate the actual and standardized (taking out the effects of wind, temperature, and elevation) distance, speed off the bat, the angle and direction the ball took, the apex, and the impacts due to wind, temperature, and altitude. Using this model, we can learn that Aramis Ramirez hit the longest home run in 2007 in terms of actual distance at 495 feet on September 21st, but the very next day Chris Young hit the longest homer in terms of standard distance at 476 feet.

In the essay Rybarczyk adds to his repertoire a model for ground balls based on dynamic friction and timing the ball from the time it leaves the bat until it is fielded, which he does in order to estimate speed off the bat in addition to direction for grounders. He then plots all of the grounders for both Jones and Hunter noting their outcomes. After calling attention to the plots he has this to say:

The first thing that jumps off these plots is the distinct lack of hard-hit ground balls to the right side of the infield by Jones. John Dewan's "Stat of the Week" at ACTA Sports for April 27, 2007 [actually it was April 24, 2007] described Andruw Jones as a candidate for an infield shift, and this plot certainly supports that. . .

He goes on to note that of the 178 ground balls Jones hit in 2007, only three would have required normal positioning by a second baseman, and then argues that by moving the second baseman just to the shortstop side of second, as many as 15 of Jones' hits could have been eliminated.

While tools like my BIP Chart software (the 2007 ground ball plot for Jones is shown below and you'll notice that he got eight hits up the middle in 2007) and the list that Dewan provides in his stat are evidence enough that teams should at least consider employing a shift against the likes of Jones, adding the granularity of the speed off the bat and more precise direction in terms of angle can either make the case air-tight, or tilt the decision the other way.

Figure 3: Andruw Jones' Groundball Distribution, 2007

Andruw Jones Groundball Distribution, 2007

We don't yet have such detailed data to pour through, but be that as it may, we'll finish up with a short list of candidates for an infield shift using the same data the BIP Chart software uses.

The first table below lists the top 20 players who hit more than 20 grounders (excluding bunts) and includes ground ball percentage (G%) ordered by Center-Pull Percentage (CPP). Keep in mind that CPP is not the same as a strict pull percentage since a ball fielded by the center fielder may in fact pass through the infield on either side of second base.


Name             Bats      Year      GB     G%    CPP
Brad Eldred         R      2005      35   .190   1.000
Alejandro Freire    R      2005      25   .250   1.000
Jose Cruz Jr.       L      2006      49   .433    .980
Nick Swisher        R      2005      35   .167    .971
David Dellucci      L      2007      61   .214    .967
Mike Mahoney        R      2005      28   .400    .964
Doug Mirabelli      R      2007      27   .304    .963
Mark Bellhorn       R      2005      25   .261    .960
Chris Young         R      2006      25   .294    .960
Eli Marrero         R      2006      24   .211    .958
Franklin Gutierrez  R      2006      47   .417    .957
Chris Heintz        R      2007      23   .571    .957
Aaron Guiel         L      2006      41   .313    .951
Eli Marrero         R      2005      40   .320    .950
Carlos Beltran      R      2005      38   .425    .947
Morgan Ensberg      R      2007      75   .246    .947
Craig Wilson        R      2005      56   .269    .946
Kelly Stinnett      R      2005      35   .344    .943
Russell Branyan     L      2005      35   .176    .943
Jose Cruz Jr.       L      2005      86   .299    .942

There are three interesting things about this list.

  • The dead pull hitters do not include Andruw Jones.
  • The percentages are higher than I had expected; Brad Eldred and the little-remembered Alejandro Freire managed to "center pull" every ground ball in 2005, and Jose Cruz Jr. managed to do so in 49 of 50 tries when batting left-handed
  • Two-thirds of the 20 hitters are right-handed

The first two observations can be explained by the fact that all of these players were either part-timers or switch-hitters, so if we restrict our list to players who hit 150 or more grounders in a season as shown in the table below we find that Jones makes the list in each of the three seasons, but also find that Jason Bay and Mike Cameron also become prime candidates for an infield shift. As previously noted, with right-handed hitters teams will naturally be more wary to use an extreme shift, since the first baseman cannot afford to move too far towards second base.


Name             Bats       Year      GB     G%    CPP
Jason Bay           R       2006     175   .288   .931
Mike Cameron        R       2007     154   .279   .929
Morgan Ensberg      R       2005     154   .282   .929
Andruw Jones        R       2007     173   .236   .919
Andruw Jones        R       2006     180   .259   .917
Khalil Greene       R       2007     177   .206   .915
Jimmy Rollins       L       2006     193   .305   .907
Chris Young         R       2007     157   .292   .904
Melvin Mora         R       2005     166   .308   .904
Adam LaRoche        L       2007     164   .257   .902
Jason Bay           R       2005     171   .240   .901
Craig Monroe        R       2006     160   .277   .900
Jason Bay           R       2007     154   .263   .896
Mike Lowell         R       2006     200   .255   .895
Curtis Granderson   L       2006     168   .316   .893
Alex Rodriguez      R       2005     213   .381   .892
Mike Cameron        R       2006     157   .331   .892
Garrett Atkins      R       2007     166   .253   .892
Andruw Jones        R       2005     201   .227   .891
Alex Rodriguez      R       2007     199   .290   .889

As far as the third observation goes, it should remembered that right-handed hitters naturally pull grounders more frequently. From 2003-07 they center-pulled 79.1 percent of ground balls, whereas left-handed hitters did so only 76 percent of the time. When coupled with the greater percentage of right-handed hitters (59 percent in the sample above) you get a predominance of right-handers. The next lefty who makes the list, at spots 25 and 31, is Grady Sizemore at 88.4 percent in 2006, and then 88 percent in 2007.

Finally, let's take a peek at the aggregated 2005 through 2007 CPP leaders for players who hit 250 or more ground balls:


Name            Bats          GB     G%    CPP
Morgan Ensberg     R         342   .272   .930
Eric Hinske        L         285   .266   .912
Jason Bay          R         500   .263   .910
Andruw Jones       R         554   .241   .908
Khalil Greene      R         410   .245   .907
David Dellucci     L         269   .263   .903
Nick Swisher       L         300   .238   .890
Alex Rodriguez     R         603   .333   .889
Moises Alou        R         418   .326   .888
Mike Cameron       R         405   .321   .886
Mike Piazza        R         386   .279   .886
Craig Monroe       R         499   .298   .886
Jimmy Rollins      L         532   .298   .876
Pedro Feliz        R         618   .286   .874
Adam LaRoche       L         467   .221   .872
Corey Hart         R         252   .352   .869
Curtis Granderson  L         390   .289   .864
Jeff Kent          R         439   .264   .861
Troy Glaus         R         387   .259   .860
Edwin Encarnacion  R         357   .301   .860

Morgan Ensberg takes the top spot at 93 percent, while lefty Eric Hinske (91.2 percent) takes second. As Dewan mentions, Jimmy Rollins when batting left-handed has a tendency to roll over on the ball, although it turns out that when batting right-handed he center-pulls 90 percent of the time (although he had just 227 grounders and so didn't make the cutoff). Here we also see new White Sox outfielder Nick Swisher when he's batting from the left side, as well as everyday lefties Curtis Granderson (86.4 percent) and Adam LaRoche (87.2 percent)

Come on Baby, Let's Do the Shift

Given the relatively high percentages shown here and the ever-increasing ability to accurately track hit balls along several axes (as illustrated in Rybarczyk's essay), you would expect that defenses would in fact become more specialized in their fielder placement in the future. This is analogous to the promise of more targeted pitch selection as technologies like PITCHf/x become available. For we lucky fans, all of it will continue to increase the level at which the game is played.

Acknowledgements: The short but wonderful thread titled The Ted Williams Shift on Baseball Fever.com included scans of several of the articles mentioned here.

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