Beating the Defensive Shift

Baseball folklore claims Indians manager Lou Boudreau devised the defensive shift to combat a Ted Williams hot-streak. Boudreau admitted the strategy was meant as more of a psychological ploy rather than a legitimate baseball tactic. In some sense, Boudreau’s unconventional stunt worked since Teddy Ballgame stubbornly refused to take advantage of all the open real estate he was presented with.

Even if its origin has been debunked, the defensive shift is widely accepted as a conventional baseball strategy today. Broadcasters and mainstream writers only seem to point out the gaping hole on the left side of the infield when the hitter who is subject to the shift is going through a slump. If you ask the player himself why he doesn’t lay down a bunt or attempt to hit a ground ball where the third baseman (and sometimes even shortstop) should have been standing, he’ll probably tell you he’s paid to drive the ball and hit homeruns, not bunt. The reality of the situation is runs are runs, regardless of how they’re generated. How good does a player need to be to justify continuously attempting to over-hit the shift?

Since quality offensive performance comes in many forms, this becomes a complicated question to answer. Conversely, another question that yields a similar answer is: how successful does a hitter need to be at dropping down a bunt or slapping a ball to the left side to match his offensive output with his current approach? To answer this, we have to first make a couple assumptions.

The first is that we’ll only consider situations with the bases empty. While the shift is used with runners on base, it’s less likely and these situations increase complexity. Secondly, we’ll only consider singles as a successful outcomes for a hitter’s attempt to hit left of the shift. Depending on the severity of the shift, a double is possible, but less likely. A couple weeks ago, I used the 2009 to 2011 run expectancy charts to show break-even points for stolen bases – I’m going to use these same charts for the backbone of this analysis.

If we individually divide the number of singles, doubles, triples, homeruns, walks plus HBP and outs by plate appearances over a full season, we’ll have the rates for each of those outcomes. If we treat these as probabilities (assumption number three), we can then multiple these rates by the difference in run expectancy between the situational outcome of the event and a bases empty situation.

For singles, we take the run expectancy with a runner on first and a given number of outs and subtract it from the run expectancy with the bases empty and the same number of outs – then multiply this difference by the hitter’s 1B%. This gets repeated for 2B%, 3B%, HR%, BB% and OUT% and summed to give the expected runs added per plate appearance. Once we have this number we need to duplicate the procedure for just singles and outs.

The percentage at which this curbed run expectancy added per at bat equals the total from the original calculation is the success rate of hitting left of the shift that a hitter needs to have to equal the expected value of his normal approach. Essentially, this number is a batting average. The fourth assumption I didn’t mention above is that a hitter wouldn’t accept a walk when attempting to hit around the shift. This would definitely not hold up in practice, so instead of taking the break-even rate as a batting average, we can also interpret it as an OBP instead – since a BB, HBP and single all cause the same effect with the bases empty.

Obviously this framework is unique to the player. Since I watched managers deploy the shift on Mark Teixeira all season, I ran through the numbers for his 2011 season. The table below shows Teixeira’s frequencies for each type of outcome.

The graph below shows the summed difference in run expectancy per at bat on the vertical axis and the success rate of hitting left of the shift on the horizontal axis. The colored lines are plots of how the run expectancy changes with success rate for the limited scenario of only singles and outs. The horizontal lines mark Teixeira’s run expectancy difference based on his overall season rates for each number of outs. The vertical lines pointing down to the x-axis give us the number we want. When we average these numbers, it tells us that if the Yankees’ first baseman thought he could have successfully shot a ball through the open hole on the left side of the infield more than 55%  45% of the time, he should have done just that – given the frequencies of the types of his hits.

(Update: Many thanks to BronxBaumer for pointing out I originally used the wrong set of splits. The table and chart have been corrected.) 

The disclaimer here is that this analysis isn’t an evaluation of what his season was on an event-by-event basis and does not definitively say he would have provided more value to the Yankees with this approach. Of course, over a full season, once managers notice Teixeira’s unwillingness to play into their game, the defense would return to normal alignment – which of course is advantageous to Teixeira with his regular approach.  This cat and mouse game might continue, but Teixeira will always benefit from whatever the opposing manager shows him because he can stay one step ahead.

What does this number look like when we push offensive performance into near unfathomable levels? Here’s the same chart, except using the offensive rates from Barry Bonds’ record-breaking 2001 season.

When we average these values, we see that Bonds would have had to bat .788 to justify attempting to hit left of the shift. The word “stubborn” need not apply here.

Obviously this number varies by hitter, but for hitters from earth, it suggests that they are in fact being less productive by attempting to hit over a shift – especially with fewer outs in the inning – than trying to take advantage of the gigantic hole on the left side of the infield. To take it one step further, the worse the hitter is, the less forgiving fans should be if Dustin Pedroia snatches a line drive in short-right field when a routine ground ball to the other side of the field would have done the job.




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46 Responses to “Beating the Defensive Shift”

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  1. jacob says:

    So, for Adam Dunn this past year he should always have been bunting to the left?

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Aren’t the percentages you’re starting out with (Mark Teixeira’s 15.7%, 3.2%, 0.5%, 6.9%, 11.6%, 62.0%) based on all plate appearances, rather than just plate appearances where he faced the shift? If the shift works (I’m sure it does to some degree), then that first number should be lower, and the overall win expectancy should be lower.

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        The other thing is that, for the other half of the equation, the run expectancy is frequently much more than one base. Do you know how often, when a 3Bman has to run in on a bunted ball and make a rushed throw to 1B, he throws the ball over the 1Bman’s head?

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      • Josh Goldman says:

        Yup, I address this lower down in the comments.

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    • MikeS says:

      If Dunn would have learned to bunt, he might have hit .200!

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  2. Adam D says:

    Dear Josh Hamilton…

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  3. JT Grace says:

    One thing I love about Brian McCann is that he isn’t afraid to drop down a bunt when the opposing manager employs the shift. It’s shocking that more players don’t do the same thing.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      It is shocking. How do you not bunt against a shift like this? http://farm1.static.flickr.com/69/199275080_8ed84939e3.jpg

      I think part of the problem is that big left sluggers (the guys who face the most extreme shifts) never practice bunting and there’s a good chance they’d embarrass themselves by popping up or striking out.

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      • Bryz says:

        At least with Jim Thome, he would always practice bunting during batting practice. Granted, his stance was horrible and it was clear he was half-assing it, but he still laid down his bunts like everyone else before he started hacking.

        I think it goes back to Josh’s suggestion in the article: Sluggers are paid to hit the ball. These guys would rather go for the high-risk, high-reward extra-base hit instead of the low(er)-risk, low-reward bunt single.

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  4. test says:

    Does anyone have a good idea of how often a hitter can, on purpose, hit a grounder to a spot on the infield? A lot of MLers can’t even get a bunt attempt in play that often. And pitchers often attempt to pitch to the shift as well, although maybe this is overstated by announcers.

    55% seems very high for a hitter like Texiera to break even, but I guess that’s a sign that the article is adding useful analysis – it surprised me.

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    • Colin says:

      I think while it seems high, if the 3b is over in the SS spot, assuming Teixeira can get a bunt somewhat close to the line he’s not going to have a play. My guess would be that a pitcher is going to have to make the play most of the time in these situations and that success will largely be determined by Teixeira’s ability to place the ball close to the line and less on the defense he is facing. I actually wouldn’t at all be surprised to see >55% against a shift if he is any competent with bunting.

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  5. sheath1976 says:

    Great piece, thanks for writing it. I Kinda hope the Sox don’t resign Ortiz cause I am so sick of watching him line rockets at the short rightfielder time and again. Especially when their is absolutely no one on the leftfield side of the infield. Cincho don’t set up and Papi don’t bunt. I think he’s afraid of tearing a seam in his pants sprinting torwards first. I can remember one of the Bill James abstracts talking about the value of bunting at a lousy third basemen who can’t field bunts and have a propensity for throwing the ball into the first base dugout. Seems it would be even a surer bet bunting at an open pasture.

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  6. Corey says:

    Maybe I missed something, but you used their averaged season performance to get the rates of singles, doubles, walks, etc. Yet those rates are lower hitting into a shift. I would think you would need to find out what any given player hits with a shift on rather than what they hit overall to figure out their needed success rate to hit against the shift. If I’m misunderstanding what you did here please let me know, because I think this is a really interesting topic.

    Another thing I was wondering about this is whether pitchers pitch the same way with a shift on. If we imagine a dead pull hitter under normal conditions, pitchers are generally going to tend to work the outside part of the plate against this hitter to prevent him from pulling the ball. Yet with a shift on, working the outside corner increases the likelihood of the batter hitting the ball well to the opposite field. So I guess what I wonder is whether as a result of the shift, pitchers might actually throw into the batter’s strength when they otherwise wouldn’t because they’re afraid of allowing him to hit to the open hole easily on the opposite field side. If I’m a batter with a shift on against me and the pitcher is throwing me inside pitches, there is no way I’m going to try to hit against the shift, but if he’s working me on the outside half I’m more than happy to hit the ball to the opposite field and take the single.

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    • Colin says:

      I agree with most of this. However, I would think a pitcher would still tend to pound the outside part of the plate against a dead pull hitter even with the shift on. The idea being that they do that anyway against these hitters and that they still pull the ball an ungodly amount of the time so why not keep doing it and stay out of their power zone down and in (for most of these players).

      My guess would be that pitchers would probably just avoid throwing change ups (or curve/slider for LH) on the outside part of the plate more often and just stick with outside FB.

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    • Josh Goldman says:

      Your point is definitely valid. The method I presented includes when the opposition shifted, but isn’t limited to just those situations. I don’t have the associated data for when teams shifted and when they didn’t, so I would have had to just assume teams always shifted with the bases empty. I figured this was a safer method and presents more of a worst (or best, depending on how you look at it) case scenario. If the defensive shift does suppress offensive performance (which it more than likely does), then the break-even batting average (or OBP if you want to say a hitter would still take walks) would be lower.

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      • Josh Goldman says:

        Also, looking at the full plate of data probably gives us a better representation of true talent level and sample size becomes less of an issue.

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        I think “bases empty” would be a better baseline than all plate appearances. You could also expand your time period to multiple years to alleviate sample size concerns.

        Doesn’t MLB’s gameday system include a notation when the shift is on? Or maybe I’m just thinking of the notations for “runner going” and “bunting”.

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      • sheath1976 says:

        I know the Yankees never seem to shift against Ortiz. Is their any data out their telling us whom shifts against whom or which managers use the shift most often?

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      • Corey says:

        Thanks for the response. I don’t have a problem with assuming that the bases are empty, at some point you have to narrow things down just to make it comprehensible, I do think that the unstated assumption that the shift doesn’t work is a bit problematic, I like what you did here though, I would just pull the baseline success rates from in-shift situations rather than total situations. I have no idea if it’s even possible to get that data.

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  7. Ben says:

    The shift has hurt specific players of this generation while others have overcome it. Ryan Howard fell into the shift trap, seeing his K’s go up, average down, and OBP down. David Ortiz was feeling the heat from the shift at one time, but has adjusted his approach to combat the shift and still produce great numbers last season. Ortiz’s percentage of ground balls and line drives were up last year and his fly balls were down. Howard’s line drives and fly balls were down last season but his ground balls were up. These stats show that Ortiz is either doing something to combat the shift or is ignoring it but hitting the ball harder, thus making it more difficult for fielders, even in a shift to get to the ball. Howard’s numbers show that he has yet to find a way to beat the shift as he consistently hits grounders (that go to the right side into the shift). I agree that these players need to work on hitting the ball the other way. It is pathetic to see players like Howard and Teixiera hit into the shift game in and game out while the other side of the infield remains vacant. Players don’t have to bunt to the left side, they just need to put in the effort to learn how to hit the ball that way. Lefties need to learn how to take breaking balls away and hit them, sometimes with less power, to left field. They don’t need to become spray hitters. Hitting the ball to the left side once in a while should be enough to stop defenses from shifting.

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  8. Bryz says:

    This seems like an article that should be revisited when Field F/X becomes available.

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  9. bisonaudit says:

    It seems like this should create a fairly powerful incentive for all but the greatest left handed power hitters to get better at bunting and then advertise that fact against the shift. If they can improve their bunting skills to anywhere close to the necessary level defenses will be forced to abandon the shift and by virtue of deciding last the hitter will benefit in all cases.

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    • Barkey Walker says:

      I was thinking the same thing. Develop the bunt and prove you can use it a few times and the shift is gone for awhile–you can go back to having a more open right side.

      Once you have done this, the opposing team manager risks sever embarrassment using a shift against you. The most likely place to employ it would be late in game 1 of a 4 game series when one team is way out in front. In this case even an emergency pinch-hit for you tells them everything they need to know.

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  10. Phantom Stranger says:

    Someone should really take a look at the Rays, they seem to be the team that employs the most aggressive shifts and a wider variety than other teams. Employing shifts is one way teams can attack the BABIP of hitters without changing their players.

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    • Bryz says:

      The Brewers supposedly committed to using more defensive shifts in 2011. I think Ron Roenicke said something to the effect of, “We’ve got the numbers (of where hitters hit the ball), we might as well use them.”

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  11. BronxBaumer says:

    Josh, your box “Mark Teixeira, 2011 v R” actually contains his stats as a RH hitter vs LHP, when he does not face the shift. He had about twice as many PAs versus RHP as a LH hitter. Those are the times he faced the shift and he was much, much worse.

    I didn’t read all of the comments, so maybe somebody mentioned this already, if so, pls ignore.

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  12. Nivra says:

    What about failure attempts? Attempting a bunt is a per pitch decision, not a per PA decision. A failed bunt results in a strike even on a ball that would otherwise have been a ball. What effect does this have on the analysis?

    What if we changed the analysis to 0-0 count run expectancy charts? Then use league average bunt results to determine the expected results(BIP/foul/strike/ball). Calculate the change in RE given a certain BIP%. Now, take a look at batter performance for 0-0 bases empty. Do the same thing. I would presume more 1-0 counts for the latter and more 0-1 counts for the former. That strongly affects RE for the rest of the plate appearance.

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  13. CircleChange11 says:

    Also, with Teix batting LH he’s facing a RHP who generally fall off to the 1B side and whose glove is also on the 1B side. In other words, it may be difficult for them to field a bunt that’s not right at the mound.

    FWIW, Mike Fast recently presented average velocity off the bat and Ryan Howard led all hitters with ~78.6 mph. The key for Howard is to not pull outside pitches and go the other way like he did during his big years.

    Depending on their buying prowess, teams still might put on the shift with the mindset of “Hey if their big bat wants to bunt, we’ll take it”. The worst case scenario is a below average runner on 1st half the time (or less).

    Anyone look at charts to see how many hits the shift robs guys like Howard? It might not be as drastic as we think, and the easy singles via bunts might not be as high as we estimate. There might just be a whole lot of easy outs.

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  14. J says:

    You wrote “whole” when you meant “hole.”

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  15. John DiFool says:

    I’ll just note that the former advantage that LHH’s used to have over RHH’s (considering BA only) has pretty much evaporated over the last 10 years:

    1970:LHH +4 points
    1980: LHH +17 (wonder how much of this is George Brett by himself?)
    1990: LHH +12
    2000: LHH +5
    2010: LHH +1

    I suspect that the now common practice of shifting has been the major factor involved here, since you can’t really shift like that against a RHH pull hitter.

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    • Also the diminution of speed in the game. A lot of bad left-handed slap hitters used to rack up .283 batting averages every year. A lot more bad right-handed pitchers also used to get longer looks.

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  16. Carlos Pena bunted for eight hits in 2011 in 10 tries. He could have doubled that and still not have been doing it enough.

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  17. Newcomer says:

    I think the pitching team would typically prefer to give up more singles in these situations rather than more extra base hits. Considering that we’re usually talking about high-power left-handed sluggers, these are batters that the pitching team would sometimes consider intentionally walking. If they know the batter is going to bunt against the shift, then they should apply the shift whenever they’d consider walking the batter. Now the batter has to try to bunt in order to get the base the pitcher almost gave them anyway, and there’s a good chance he’ll get himself out in the attempt. The pitching team would rather convert a power threat into a slap hitter, even

    Obviously this is situational and wouldn’t always apply.

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  18. It’s not like Barry Bonds still wouldn’t have outhit the shift according to your charts if he bunted every time. .788 would not be a high outcome in the situation of the shift. His average would be closer to 1.000, if not 1.000. All you have to do is hit towards third base. Not even finely. Just hard enough to get past the pitcher.

    Though I’m also not sure about it for the San Francisco Giants teams he was on. The offense behind him was pretty wretched. Though being on base does turn the batting order over, and since it would only be when no one was on, he would still get a chance to drive others in situations when his doubles and homers would be worth more.

    Still, in most game situations, bunting was probably a better option.

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  19. Melkman says:

    Don’t forget how it can affect a pitcher to go from pitching out of the windup to pitching out of the stretch, there are a lottttt of pitchers out there whose BAA are much higher withg runners on than bases empty.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      In general, hitters fare much better with runners on. It’s a combination of things: pitching out of the stretch, selection bias (if there are runners on, it may be because that pitcher is struggling at the moment), defensive positioning (even if there is no ‘shift’, defenders will be holding the runners on), the fact that the batter no longer has 100% of the attention of the pitcher and defenders.

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  20. Another thing to consider is the 3B playing closer to SS is going to charge when the LHB squares around. He’s not going to just stand there as the ball rolls toward the 3B position.

    The batter also has the bunt it far enough away from the catcher so he doesn’t jump up and throw the runner out.

    So it has to be away from the catcher, away from the pitcher, bunt not hard enough that the 3B has a play on it … and he can’t square around too early.

    So essentially the batter has to bunt it down the line and beat the throw to 1B. That’s not an easy feat for the average batter let alone for one that would have limited practice.

    I’m not sure this is as easy as “bunt and get on half of the time” as some might think.

    Baseball players in general are kind of a “stick it to ya” type, and we’re not the only guys to think of bunting against the shift. I’d imagine quite a few guys have tried it in BP and found it to be much more difficult than it looks.

    I still think that defenses would welcome Thome, Howard, Dunn, Hamilton and Company laying down a bunt. Even with the shift I think the defense likes their chances.

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