One of the most interesting things about extreme infield shifts is how unextreme they are. They are like some lame grownup’s idea of extreme, a little bit of flash and inconvenience but ultimately very safe. The shift was invented by sane people. Real extreme comes from insanity, and it makes us deeply uncomfortable.
Everybody’s talking about the football coach who never puntsâ€‹—4th and 15 at his own five-yard line, he’s going for it. That’s fearless. It’s hard to think of a baseball equivalent, one that would work or even one that might work. Russell Carleton this week explored the listener-suggested idea of having the left and right fielders swap, depending on batter handedness, to make sure the better defender gets more attempts to field the ball. The gory math supports the use of the relatively conservative proposal, but Carleton concludes what we can't help but conclude:
In United States culture, it’s not nice to look like you’re trying too hard, especially for such a small reward and when you look weird doing it. As the infield shift has become more and more popular, I find it interesting to hear some of the reactions from teams that don’t shift. Usually, they have moralistic underpinnings. We’re gentlemen here. We don’t shift. We could, but that’s for the riff-raff to do. Brian McCann would totally shoot this down. Still, they’re leaving runs on the table. I have to wonder at what price come pride and tradition.
Meanwhile, Grantland/Crashburn Alley writer Michael Baumann recently came out against defensive shifts. Baumann’s rationale is a bit complex: He thinks it’s actually too easy to beat, and considers hitters’ refusal to beat it a self-destructive act of stubbornness that requires paternalistic intervention. More simply, though, we might say he considers the whole business annoying.
So Baumann is against shifts. Let’s say I’m for them. This is not an inconsequential divide. We’re each likely to live about 50 years more, and in those 50 years the shifts quite possibly will get more extreme. When they do, there will be people who want them outlawed, particularly if they work. It’s time to choose a side, people.
I’m on the side of disruption. The key to disruption: small steps.
Step 1. Corner outfielders swap positions in sacrifice fly situations. There might not be a lot of teams with substantial mismatches between their left and right fielders’ overall defense, but it’s not hard to find three-grade differences in throwing arms—Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford in Los Angeles might be a five-grade difference. Batters go the other way two-thirds of the time on fly balls, Russell found, and one might hypothesize that batters trying to hit a fly ball in a sacrifice situation would go the other way even more often, since pulling the ball is a good way to roll over it. The unambiguousness of throwing ability, and the ease of implementing this tweak—one switch per game isn’t nearly the time burden of eight—makes this a very low-stakes strategy. It’s also unlikely that a manager would have to worry about being second-guessed.
Big Change because: It breaks down the idea that players are affixed to their positions. As it is, even the radical infield shifts are matters of shading, not redefining (with one exception being Brett Lawrie; as a former second baseman, his shift from third base to shallow right field is the exception that proves the rule). If players were moving hundreds of feet from play to play depending on situation, the idea of a “position” would be watered down, if not endangered.
Step 2. Shortstop plays third base in bunt situations. There are really only two plays in baseball in which a team can say it knows what its opponent is going to do. When the catcher stands up and holds out his glove, we know with 99.9 percent certainty that the next pitch will be a ball—but, as the entire point is to keep a play from happening, no countermeasure is really possible. But when the batter is a pitcher and he squares for a bunt, we can say with better than 90 percent certainty that he's going to try to bunt. Defenses are arranged based on uncertainty, on the probability that the ball is going to be hit to some locations more often than others but that there’s way too much variance to leave any square footage uncovered. The team’s best defender plays where the shortstop plays because it’s slightly more likely that a batted ball (particularly one requiring his particular skills to field) will go there than anywhere else. When the opponent declares that to no longer be true, the defense should adjust by putting its best defender where the ball is going. No matter who the Braves have playing third base over the next five years, Andrelton Simmons will be better at charging bunts, better at fielding bunts, better at throwing to first and better at getting the lead runner out. It’s a very small gain, but also a very low-effort one to pursue.
Big Change because: It changes the shortstop’s role from that of a defensive back (responsible for covering one thing well) to free safety, covering any part of the field most likely to require his standout skills. If a fly ball pitcher is facing a fly ball hitter in a fly ball situation, that might mean the outfield. It might mean second base. In a bunt situation, it’s certainly third base.
Step 3. Four outfielders in a no-doubles situation, a fly-ball situation, or an infield shift situation. In any shift that leaves a big part of the field uncovered, there’s a tension between the OBP and the SLG components of offense. Late in games, when defenders hug the lines to avoid extra-base hits, teams are more likely to give up single because they’re out of position, but they weigh the value of each, and they make that choice. If they really wanted to prevent doubles, they could do it—everybody plays outfield!—but each double prevented means more singles, fewer outs, etc. Clearly, six outfielders is too far, but there’s no reason to think that teams’ current modest concessions are exactly far enough. How about this dumb thing:
As for infield shifts: Ryan Howard hit, if Brooks Baseball is to be believed, 15 groundballs to the left side of the infield in the past two years. Five were hits—one was a double—and the other 10 were outs. (Some of these were probably hit in non-shift situations.) Meanwhile, he hit 95 fly balls that stayed in the park, and 17 of those were hits—13 of them doubles. Assume for a moment that he has no ability to hit more groundballs against the shift than he has shown. Turn those 10 groundball outs into singles but eliminate eight of the 13 doubles, and the defense would clear a small profit.
(We assumed for a moment that Howard has no ability to hit more groundballs against the shift than he has shown. This is an assumption that Baumann won’t make—he assumes hitters are just refusing to adjust, and shirking their game theory obligations. I’m not sure that I agree. One of the unknowns is whether Howard and his ilk are actually capable of hitting the ball toward an abandoned position. Some hitters can, but it’s not clear that Howard can.)
Big Change because: Four outfielders! Once there are four outfielders, it doesn’t look like baseball anymore, and anything’s possible.
Step 4. Switch third and first basemen depending on batter handedness. This one gets tricky. Unlike swapping the left and right fielders—both of whom can play either position without shaming himself—this sets up a situation where one player would be a tremendous liability. Prince Fielder playing third base. Maybe even a left-handed player playing third base? And, because a third baseman doesn’t have the time to let a ball bounce off his chest and still recover, a higher percentage of plays at third are in the margin where a good defender makes the play and a bad one doesn’t. Probably doesn’t work! But the pull/oppo tendencies that Russell found in fly balls are way higher for groundballs.
He ran the numbers for me, and this is how big the gap is: There are roughly four times more gounders hit toward the corner infielder on the pull side than hit toward the corner infielder playing the other way. (This includes grounders fielded by the corner infielder or the corner outfielder, but not the second baseman, shortstop, or center fielder.) So, when a left-handed batter is up, he’s four times more likely to hit it toward Chris Davis than toward Manny Machado. This seems like an absurd waste of resources.
This is the same basic construction as the [fly ball] article, except more profound. If you could make the jump that two fielders could be proficient at both first and third, and that one would be comparatively better than the other at both positions, it would make sense to flip them around.
Wow, that's powerful in terms of its effect size because the ball is pulled so much more on grounders than on fly balls… it's probably harder to pull off than the corner OF, but logically, the only thing that you'd have to sell me on is that, all things considered (range, arm, etc.) Smith is both a better first baseman than Jones and a better third baseman than Jones. (I'd also have to buy that the constant switching, both mentally and physically—jogging across the diamond—wouldn't be a net loss.) The difference might not be worth much, but it would be net positive value to have them switch back and forth. I could probably run similar numbers for the SS and 2B.
In theory, you could make the case that there could be a team where the proper thing to do as the batter's handedness switched is to flip six positions around, leaving only the battery and center fielder (and DH) in their proper places.
Big Change because: Unlike corner outfielders, who are essentially mirror images of the same position, infielders’ position identities are strong and specific. This would go much further to breaking down the idea that the position after a player’s name on the lineup card means anything. It’s also an easier shift—it can be done without delaying the game—and so it could make position switching a relatively painless custom.
Step 5. Five-man infield when the pitcher is hitting. Maybe even when the pitcher isn’t hitting, but especially when the pitcher is hitting, and especially when he’s hitting against a hard-throwing pitcher.
In Clayton Kershaw’s career, opposing pitchers have put roughly 115 balls in play. Of those, seven—slightly more than one per year—were either line drives pulled or fly balls pulled. Once per year, a pitcher pulls the ball in the air against Kershaw. The pitcher batting against Clayton Kershaw is 10 times more likely to hit a groundball than to hit a fly or liner to the opposite field. (He’s four times more likely to hit a fly or line drive to center or the opposite field than to pull it.)
Meanwhile, Kershaw has allowed 10 groundball singles through the infield. And of the six non-deep line drive singles he has allowed, at least some (one of two I spot-checked) would have likely been caught in a five-man infield.
Strangely, of the seven balls that pitchers have pulled in the air, six have been hits, two of them going for doubles. If we believe that rate then we’d say there’s practically nothing to lose here; a few singles turn into doubles, but singles turn into outs. Would have to assume that the high rate of hits on pulled flies is a fluke, though. At most, seven outs turn into seven doubles. At the very most. Meanwhile, the five-man infield has between 10 and 16 chances to turn hits into outs. There’s hope here.
What seems more certain is that a fifth infielder should be brought in when the pitcher is bunting. We’d have to hypothesize that there’s practically no chance that a pitcher could pull a fly ball or a line drive against Kershaw in a butcher-boy attempt, so once that bat is squared the left (or right) fielder is totally out of the play. Even if the pitcher doesn’t square early, though, we already know how hard it is for pitchers to pull the ball in the air against Kershaw; it would be especially so if Kershaw were specifically pitching away from this possibility. With five infielders, the corners could crash to just an absolutely ludicrous degree. If the offense adjusts and decides to swing away with such low chances of bunting success, then the hitting team’s manager has had his preferred tactical weapon taken from him.
Big change because: No four-man infield and three-man outfield construct anymore. Just a nine-man defense, as it should be.
My guess is that Steps 1 and 2 work but to an extremely small degree; that step 4 would work to a fairly sizeable degree, at least on a lot of teams; that step 5 would work, but maybe wouldn’t; and that step 3 is stupid. The point isn’t necessarily that any would work. It’s that there’s got to be something out there that would, something that would make me and Michael Baumann a little uncomfortable, and I’m in favor.
Thank you for reading
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The thing that worries me is whether we're assigning players based on their abilities to make particular iconic plays positionally (the guy with the big arm HAS to play RF because he might have to make a throw to third once a week) vs. placing them based on whether their abilities match what will be most often asked of them. We're scared to take an action that might make one position (or the chances of making one type of play) worse, even if the corresponding improvement is a net gain.
Ted Williams always said he could beat the shift if he wanted to, but felt his approach and role demanded he rage against it. That statement has colored all subsequent discussion, with people who don't like the shift pointing to it as evidence that the failure to beat the shift is voluntary.
I reject that completely. Even if Williams could have beaten the shift, which we don't know for certain, that was the greatest hitter of all time, speaking at a time when pitchers didn't throw nearly as hard. I firmly believe that the swing hitters must maintain in order to succeed in the Majors today precludes major pitch-to-pitch adjustments. You can't have a shift swing and a regular swing. You'd just get beat over and over, trying to poke the ball the other way. I'm sure there are guys who can do it, but very few of them, and most of the ones who can are poor hitters.
So I guess I disagree that "you can't have a shift swing and a regular swing". The best players, during their hottest stretches, tend to "use the whole field".
I'm as astounded as Baumann is that these guys can't take the time to figure out how to beat the shift.
P.S. Is there any evidence that 'hot hitters use the whole field' or am I just mindlessly repeating things?
Seriously, this is an intriguing article, particularly if you apply #4 to high school baseball or the nonprofessional levels.
As an aesthetic matter, I'm in favor of shifts precisely in order to make hitters beat them. I like the ethos of the "complete ballplayer" and strategies that punish players for incompleteness or un-adaptability. If defenses offer hitters a practically free single if they can push a decent bunt, I like hitters who take the freebie (and who have practiced the skills that allow them to pull it off). In my perfect world shifts would be rare because most hitters would beat them on average, making them self-defeating. Reality may look like forcing hitters to adapt to get there by shifting until they do.
Isn't the batter solution to major shifts to learn to bunt? It is a completely different approach, not a different swing (though some hitters already shorten their swings with 2 strikes and many used to choke up so I am not sure that the different swing issue is a real problem). Yes I have seen Ryan Howard try to run, but if you bunt past the pitcher even he could walk to 1B against the shift. Pretty sure I saw Strawberry do this at least once.
Of course that doesn't work when the other team is shifting agains the bunt, and it would not work every time but if done often enough it might ruin the utility of the shift by changing the calculus.
Also if there are base runners the shiftiness is limited by the need to cover bases, of course.
Here's a super-hypothetical derived from Step 5. Assume in the Kershaw situation that your two outfielders are in approximately left-center and right-center, with the CF playing the opposite field since that's where the batter is most likely to hit the ball in the air. If a ball is pulled down the line, how long does it take the OF to catch up to it and throw it back in? Why couldn't the hitter end up with a triple, or (for a fast guy) an inside-the-park home run?
Lastly, we're 1,000% sure no one in like the 1870s with a sweet mustache tried some of these things?
I'm confused about #4. What is the advantage of switching the third and first basemen to put the better fielder on the pull side versus just using a shift? If most batted balls are hit to the pull side, isn't that just an argument for using a shift?
When the batter is lefthanded, what do you really gain by moving (say) Prince Fielder to 3B and A. Beltre to 1B versus just leaving Fielder where he is and moving another infielder (Beltre or Andrus) to the right side? I suppose it may be more of an option in a scenario with base runners, where a shift would normally not be an option? When the batter it right handed, of course, 1B cannot be left uncovered... but how many teams have a 1B who is a better fielder than their 3B... I would guess few, unless you are open to the possibility of a LH fielding 1B, but would the cost of that be greater than the advantage of having the better fielder on the pull side?
Options #1, #2, #3 and #5 are simply brilliant and it is almost surprising that they have not been attempted more often.
I do recall a game years ago where the Red Sox were forced to play OF Damon Buford in the infield in extra innings, and they shifted him back and forth between 2B and 3B depending on the hitter:
Joe Morgan (the Red Sox manager not the 2B) occasionally used OF Mike Greenwell as a 5th infielder in key late game situations:
And perhaps he got the idea from the Brewers, who did it with Robin Yount: