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.
If Paredes or Robbie Grossman had been positioned in a different place, one of them might have caught that ball, but as Harrell mentioned, it was hit hard regardless. The primary problem with the pitcher’s complaint—aside from the fact that he aired it publicly—is that the shift’s worth can’t be determined by assessing its impact on any one game, let alone any one ball in play. As Astros manager Bo Porter said the next night in defending his defensive tactics, "You have to be able to take the good that comes with it, and you have to take, sometimes, the bad that comes with it." If the Astros’ analysis is correct, the shift is helping Harrell and his teammates over the long run, even though it could cost them on a particular play. Of course, it can be difficult for a competitive pitcher or position player to take the long view when it’s so easy to imagine what might have been.
At the Saber Seminar in Boston this past Sunday, Red Sox manager John Farrell told a story that perfectly illustrates the human element underlying the shift. The previous night, Yankees first baseman Lyle Overbay had gone 3-for-4 against the Sox, singling on grounders to left and center and doubling on a deep line drive to right. And according to Farrell, the second single could have been avoided if Boston shortstop Stephen Drew had had a shorter (or a longer) memory when positioning himself for Overbay’s fifth-inning plate appearance.
Farrell told the Saber Seminar audience that Overbay tends not to hit grounders hard the other way, and that his grounders that go for hits are almost always pulled or up the middle. Overbay’s spray chart supports that assertion. Here are the fielder contact locations for all of the groundballs Overbay hit from Opening Day through last Friday, the day before his 3-for-4 performance:
Through the first four-and-a-half months of the season, Overbay had five hits on grounders to the left of second base, only one of which made it to the outfield. That one was well-hit; the others (the first of which came against the Red Sox) were dribblers or soft grounders, some of which weren’t intentional:
Overbay did hit quite a few grounders to the left side of second that were converted into outs, so it’s not as if fielders defending against him should abandon that area entirely. But since he doesn’t make much hard contact to that territory, the shortstop can consider shading him up the middle, cutting off some of those potential up-the-middle hits while still retaining the ability to get to most of the weaker balls in play headed to the opposite field. The goal would be to do what Yunel Escobar did on May 25, cutting off a ball that was ticketed for center and making Overbay shake his head on his way back to the bench:
The Red Sox have been frequent shifters this season thanks to new third-base coach Brian Butterfield, who’s become a kind of Johnny Appleshift, spreading the shifting gospel wherever he goes. Farrell explained that Butterfield studies spray charts and formulates a wide array of infield alignments, which he assigns unique names and explains to his infielders in spring training. By now, the Sox have internalized all of those alignments, so it would have been second nature for Drew to shade to his left as Overbay approached the plate for the first time on Saturday.
On the second pitch of that second-inning at-bat, Overbay hit a grounder between third and short, and Drew, who was pinched toward the bag, couldn’t quite get to it:
The proper response for Drew would have been to forget that batted ball ever happened. Every now and then, playing Overbay to pull will work in his favor, but assuming the strategy is sound, the shift imparts the greatest benefit to Boston if it’s applied consistently, regardless of the result of the previous plate appearance. Even though Drew’s positioning might have hurt him in the second, he shouldn’t have allowed that outcome to affect his position when Overbay returned to the plate in the fifth.
According to Farrell, though, that’s exactly what he did. Frustrated by the fact that he could have had the second-inning single if he’d been stationed in his usual spot, Drew moved back toward the hole for the fifth. And then this happened:
Granted, that would’ve been a tough play under any circumstances, but Farrell felt that Drew would have gotten an Escobar-like out if he’d stuck to the positioning plan. Instead, he let a small sample sway him, to the detriment of the team. As Farrell concluded,
They have to begin to trust and understand where the hard hit is versus the one that’s mishit. And the tendency, or the instinct, or the gut feel to go back to where they normally play. So that’s the constant battle we have with our guys.
We don’t know for sure how well the shift works, but we do know that whatever advantage it could confer on a team is contingent on complete buy-in from the players. As Rays manager Joe Maddon told Tim Britton earlier this year, “It’s an acceptance thing. It’s no secret: You have to have everybody on board to make it work.”
And it’s not necessarily an easy sell. In Farrell’s words, “To move [Dustin] Pedroia two or three steps to his left would be like taking Jon Lester to the other side of the rubber. It’s uncomfortable for them.” It’s even more uncomfortable when those two or three steps sometimes turn out to be in the wrong direction, and a fielder gets burned because of them. Players have to have the mental fortitude to accept that the sacrifice was worth it. As Jim Leyland said between expletives in an incredible rant in response to Harrell, "When it goes where someone would have been if they hadn't shifted, well, they shifted. You can't have it both ways."
It’s possible that this discomfort could nullify some of the theoretical advantage to be gained by the shift. It’s easy to say that a team could save a certain number of runs by repositioning players from batter to batter, but if those fielders make less accurate throws or get later breaks because they’re used to making throws and seeing balls come off the bat at different angles, the plan won’t work as well as a simulation might suggest. So that’s the lesson to learn from two consecutive Overbay at-bats: to the extent that the shift works, it works not just because a team has the creativity to try it, but because its players and coaches have the conviction to stick with it when it fails.