The use of defensive shifts is an increasingly contentious topic among MLB fans. Many of whom believe shifts limit action and therefore suck the fun out of baseball. It’s an understandable sentiment also shared by some members of the media covering the sport. Their solution to the shift problem is simple – ban them.
Despite the recent groundswell of support for doing away with shifts, I continue to resist the notion of placing restrictions on the defensive countermeasure. For me, nothing about shifts is straightforward. Therefore, taking decisive action without a clear understanding of whether doing so will improve a situation is impractical.
Ironically, much of what I’ll be showing you will seemingly justify regulating shifts. Nevertheless, the basis for my refusing to jump onboard the “ban the shift” bandwagon should become clear by the end. Perhaps you won’t agree with me – that’s okay. Respectful discourse and sharing of ideas can generate reasonable recommendations and sustainable solutions.
What’s a shift?
Intuitively, we know the purpose of defensive shifting is to put fielders in the best position to record outs. Thanks to advanced metrics and cutting-edge technology, clubs can accurately determine the tendencies of individual hitters and then devise a strategy that positions the defense for the greatest chance of success.
Think about it. If there were an 80-percent likelihood that a batter hits a ball to a specific zone of the field, why wouldn’t teams consider setting its defense accordingly? Wouldn’t you at least be tempted to gamble with such favorable odds at a Vegas casino?
So what exactly is a shift? For our conversation, I’ll be using the Baseball Savant definition, plus two other basic shift-related terms:
Standard alignment: All four infielders standing in their traditional spots.
Shift: The three or more infielders positioned to the same side of second base. This extreme alignment is the impetus for our conversation.
Strategic shift: One player out of position. Example: the second baseman moving into right field.
Guarding the lines against doubles, playing the infield in, or at double play depth fall within the standard alignment category. If you want to learn about more about Statcast’s shift classification, you can find information here.
We won’t be discussing the use of a fourth outfielder because this defensive oddity is rarely used. Last year, teams used four outfielders 115 times – 0.2-percent of all plate appearances. The two players seeing the tactic most often were Cavan Biggio (24 plate appearances) and former Mariner Justin Smoak (14).
Moving forward, the focus will be on the standard alignment and the shift only. Clubs used the strategic shift accounted on less than 10-percent of plays last year, plus it’s essentially a modified standard alignment. Besides, it’s extreme shift causing the stir.
Now, let’s turn our attention to shift-related numbers.
Shifts are up, but not as much some believe.
Teams employed a shift during 34-percent of all plate appearances last season. That’s a steep increase since the beginning of the Statcast era in 2015.
Despite this huge increase, extreme shifts were in place for a minority of all plays. The standard alignment remained the most used at 52.1-percent.
Lefties see way more shifts.
The focus of our conversation is on the entire league. But it’s worth noting left-handed hitters faced shifts much more often than their right-handed hitting counterparts did.
MLB – 34-percent
LHH – 50-percent
RHH – 21.7-percent
The universal DH created more shifts.
The jump in shifts between 2019 and 2020 may have been less dramatic without the universal designated hitter last year. In 2019, NL pitchers and designated hitters faced a shift during 185 plate appearances – just 0.39-percent of all shifts employed in the majors.
In 2020, NL DH plate appearances accounted for six percent of all shifts. Slightly more than half of the 8.6-percent climb in shifts from 2019 to last year was attributable to the universal DH. Therefore, MLB may see a noticeable drop in shifts in 2021.
The count matters.
It’s become routine during MLB games. Pitcher throws a pitch; the infielders realign their position afterwards. Yes, that’s right. Teams literally determine whether to shift based on the ball-strike count.
Even someone like me, who’s averse to restricting shifts, has to admit the aesthetic awkwardness of infielders constantly repositioning is a tedious feature of today’s game.
Shifts may affect the amount of balls put in play.
One reason I’ve previously railed against curtailing defensive shifts is the recent decline in balls in play. Since 2015, balls in play (BIP) have incrementally dropped from 70.9-percent to 66.3-percent last year. How could shifts affect that?
Well, research for this piece led me to realize the BIP rate with shifts deployed was lower than with standard alignments.
The anti-shift faction may see this discrepancy as proof of the negative influence extreme shifting has on game action. However, nothing about this subject is straightforward.
Since 2015, BIP has decreased by 2.7-percent when shifts were in use. On the other hand, drop during standard alignments is larger (3.9-percent). My takeaway, shifts influence batter and pitcher behavior on some level. However, defensive positioning isn’t the only factor affecting the dip in BIP.
Shifts also influences batted balls.
We’re also seeing changes in how batters are hitting balls. The following illustrates the rates for the four types of batted ball classifications Statcast uses – fly balls, pop-ups, line drives, and ground balls.
We see evidence shifts lead to batters hitting more fly balls and fewer grounders. Is that a bad thing?
How are shifts affecting stats?
We now know batted balls are decreasing and hitters are putting more balls in the air. How does that translate to player stats? There are obvious changes, plus a few surprises. Please note all rates expressed below are per/plate appearance.
Counter to what opponents believe; the shift hasn’t led to a large increase in strikeouts. The difference between shifts and standard alignment last season was rather small – one percent. We’ll return to the strikeout issue later.
A stat some shift-haters use as proof of the damage the shift does is batting average. It’s true AVG was considerably lower for batters facing a shift. However, OBP was slightly higher with SLG even better. There was also a notable uptick in home runs and walks.
Once again, we encounter numbers suggesting pitchers and hitters behave differently when teams deploy shifts.
Base runners remains unchanged.
The preceding table illustrated a noteworthy decline in hits and AVG. This ignites the concern shifts disproportionately limit the number of men on the base paths. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. The following illustrates the percent of all plate appearances with a runner on base.
|Runner on 1B|
|Runner on 1st only|
Despite a steep climb in defensive shifts since 2015, the amount of men on base with a hitter at the plate remained stable. Again, nothing about shifts is straightforward.
Shifts alone didn’t increase strikeouts and homers.
We’ve already noted the jump in home runs and strikeouts with shifts in place last season. However, this increase isn’t solely attributable to shifts. Both were climbing long before teams began embracing shifts. To demonstrate this, I put together the following table illustrating the dramatic rise in home run and strikeout rates over the past five decades.
It’s amazing how strikeouts have nearly doubled since the Seventies. I’m sure none of us was surprised to see the spike in home runs during the Nineties. Yet, strikeouts didn’t appreciably increase during the decade dominated by steroid use. This changed with the new millennium.
Some teams shift a lot more than others do.
MLB had a 34-percent shift rate in 2020. However, shift usage varied greatly between teams. Maybe the level of disdain a fan feel towards the shift depends on their favorite club’s approach.
Considering the large delta between the World Series champion Dodgers and the Braves, perhaps the league finds a middle ground on shift usage without help from MLB rule-makers. Then again, maybe not.
What about the Mariners?
This piece is focusing on MLB, but I thought I’d quickly mention the Mariners since Prospect Insider’s primary reader base hails from the Pacific Northwest.
As we saw above, the Mariners were mid-pack with their overall defensive shifting. However, Seattle used shifts more aggressively against lefty hitters ranking fourth highest in the majors behind the Dodgers (77%), Tigers (74%), and Reds (72.1%).
Conversely, Mariner hitters faced a shift in 26.8-percent of their plate appearances. Here are the individual rates for prominent players from last year’s squad:
Please note the numbers for France and Torrens include their time with the Padres last year. Among 193 players with at least 150 plate appearances, Seager’s 76.5-percent shift rate ranked 19th highest in the majors. At the other end of the spectrum, Lewis ranked 178th.
What should be done?
The shift is aesthetically unpleasing. Therefore, it’s an easy target for people trying to identify what’s wrong with baseball. Yet, it remains unclear to me whether banning shifts would improve the game from an entertainment/excitement perspective.
Yes, singles will increase. But we’ve seen the number of runners on the base paths probably won’t change much. There may be fewer home runs, although that’s not a certainty based on decades-long trends we discussed.
Limiting or banning shifts won’t fix baseball’s “strikeout problem.” We should remember hitters from this era believe it’s more helpful to their team from a run production standpoint to strikeout than hit a grounder into a double play. They’re not wrong.
Even if MLB banned shifts, would hitters abandon trying to put balls in the air? Remember, slugging gets players paid – not hitting singles.
At some point, restrictive measures on shifts might make sense. But not right now for me. That said, I do have a compromise suggestion that could potentially curtail extreme shifting without direct intervention by MLB.
Perhaps instituting a 20-second pitch clock, like the one the minor leagues already use, would have the second order effect of limiting the constant re-shifting between pitches. That’s something I’d support. MLB wouldn’t be dictating how teams deployed defenders. However, the time crunch between pitches may compel clubs to re-position less often. In the end, this may lead to less shifts league-wide.
As I said earlier, I’m okay with people disagreeing with my rationale. But please consider this whenever debating about baseball. Our views about the game probably depend on the era we became fans, so our opinions can vary drastically. Even when we disagree, we still share a common bond – an affection for the game.
With that in mind, I’ll continue listening to others’ ideas with an open mind – even if I don’t initially agree with them.
Maybe I’ll learn something new.
My Oh My…
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