In 50 years, and that may be a conservatively distant estimate, we will hear much less talk about defensive shifts.
First of all, there might not be baseball in 50 years. It’s why I’m always hesitant to answer questions that start with “will we ever see,” because “ever” is a really, really long time compared to the current lifespan of baseball (unless it isn’t).
Assuming there is baseball and a United States of America and such good things, the reason we won’t hear as much about defensive shifts in a generation or two is not because the anti-shift contingent we’ve heard from lately will win. No, it’s because it will be defeated so soundly by proprietary technology and beyond abundant information that we’ll stop calling defensive shifts defensive shifts.
We’ll just call them defense.
If 2012—with the Rays’ propensity for the unusual and the Blue Jays putting Brett Lawrie in short right field—was the year that defensive shifts broke into the mainstream consciousness, 2013 has unsurprisingly been the year of backlash. That’s how trends work.
Much of the backlash came from the clubhouse of the Astros, who are among the foremost users of non-standard defensive alignments. According to those familiar with that clubhouse, the shifts have been largely unpopular among the pitching staff, which is getting hit hard. It’s not just Lucas Harrell, who issued the money quote on it and was called in for a talk with manager Bo Porter.
Harrell’s comments represent a fairly standard cognitive bias, as he is putting increased weight on unfavorable outcomes—I’ll let the much more qualified Russell Carleton take the psychology from here if he desires. But the controversy, which played out on MLB Now and other forums, also illustrates the superficial image problem that the shift has in baseball.
I stress “in baseball” even though it should be obvious on a baseball website, because it’s purely a baseball problem despite the fact that the shift exists in every sport with defense.
When I was young and my brother and I played one-on-one basketball or guarded each other in a traditional game, we both knew the other was much stronger with our left hand than our right hand. So I’d turn my body a little bit on defense, giving up a little more room on his right. If he went right and beat me, then good for him—it wasn’t changing what I did next time. (If he beat me several times, I’d usually change strategy either to really hard fouls or trying to make him laugh and lose the ball.)
But that’s a defensive shift, and basketball players do it all the time. They also play box-and-one or less drastically, extend a zone or drop out of a zone against a three-point shooting team. They double-team really good big men. Those are all defensive shifts, and they’ve been around forever.
No coach in his or her proper frame of mind would ever consider defending every basketball player or team the same way, yet when we differentiate in some way noticeable to the naked eye in baseball, it’s noteworthy and controversial.
Football has its quirks too, with different formations. Teams will use “nickel” and “dime” packages designed to snuff out passing options on third-and-long, and teams can put eight players instead of the usual seven close to the line of scrimmage when the opponent has a tendency to run.
For a football perspective, I asked Rivers McCown, assistant editor of the statistically angled website Football Outsiders, about reactions to different defenses in that sport and whether they draw the same level of criticism as in baseball. His answer is really what made me think that maybe it is just a matter of time before we lose the term “shift” and just call it “defense.”
I think the NFL is a bit different because substitutions have been commonly accepted in certain down-and-distance packages for a long time, much like, say, the platoon advantage in baseball. The fact that different formation patterns have generally been a part of the game for 50 years makes it harder to critique it with the burden of history. Whereas with baseball, you know, the shortstop has been standing at shortstop since the 1900's or 1890's for the most part.
That said, sure, fans complain about substitution packages plenty… Fans familiar with more advanced analysis can point out that a team does poorly in Formation X as compared to another formation and launch a critique that way. However, players and coaches tend to have a "keep it in the locker room" mentality, probably because criticism about defensive failings usually can be split between formations or specific individual players. It's not completely unprecedented for a player to call out the formations, but they are usually done anonymously. (Here's one that happened this year.) If a coach has a problem with a player, that player tends to be gone in fairly short order. It's a cutthroat business when very few players have a guaranteed contract.
It’s perfectly sensible that baseball has to catch up in this regard. However, it’s an uncomfortable feeling because as baseball people, we don’t like being behind. It’s much more fun watching analytics hit the mainstream in basketball, football, and hockey and wonder what took so long.
Maybe we can expedite acceptance through rebranding the shift. Or alternatively, through branding for the first time an alignment that has the first and third basemen a few feet off their lines and the second baseman and the shortstop playing roughly 30-40 feet from second base and behind their baselines. Call it one alignment vs. another alignment rather than one alignment vs. “normal.”
Either way, it comes down to communication of ideas. That’s always so important in successful implementation within an organization, and that’s where the Astros are starting to pick it up with that meeting.
Contrary to the Astros, the new regime of the Blue Jays has them toning down their shifts. They never shift with R.A. Dickey on the mound because they find exit trajectories off the knuckleball to be too unpredictable to do anything beyond what would best vacuum up a league-average distribution of balls. They let other pitchers have a say in case they’re uncomfortable pitching to certain targets with the way the defense is aligned.
“If our guy says I’d rather not line our guys up in certain spots, we’ll do that,” manager John Gibbons said. “Just make sure you throw it there.”
With the Astros, where it’s been more contentious, a lot of the arrows flung have been about their high BABIP allowed on one side and their double plays, which Porter used to show the shift is working. He erred in using a raw number of double plays, but their double play percentage has been the best in the American League and second in baseball to the Cardinals.
If the BABIP remains high over a much more significant sample, the alternative shouldn’t be—as pitchers have grumbled for—getting rid of the shifts and going back to one-defense-fits-all. It should be making them better.
Like many things in the sabermetric movement, it might be an easier message to get across with better branding.