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August 20, 2013

Overthinking It

Stephen Drew, Defensive Shifts, and Fighting the Fear of Failure

by Ben Lindbergh


Out here on the internet, the things we know for sure about defensive shifts are easily outnumbered by the unknowns. We’re still mostly in the dark about some pretty fundamental information: how often shifts are used, how effectively they’re implemented, and how much hitters can alter their approach to combat them. What data we do have indicates that shifting is becoming more common, and some anecdotal evidence suggests that it works. But there’s still considerable cause for skepticism and, judging by the dramatic team-by-team differences in the rates at which shifts are applied, nothing close to an industry consensus.

One thing we know with some certainty is that the shift can be almost as frustrating for defenders as it is for batters who have to hit into it. Earlier this year, Astros starter Lucas Harrell expressed frustration after a loss in which he felt that the shift had hurt him, saying,

We're trying some new things with our defense, and I thought they worked against me tonight. The ball that [Andy] Dirks hit was up there forever, and I thought someone might have caught that one. He hit it hard, and that's my fault, but I was hoping someone would get there.

This is Dirks’ double, and the locations of center fielder Robbie Grossman and right fielder Jimmy Paredes when the broadcast cut to a camera with a view of the field:

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