Grounders in the Age of the Shift

The last factoid I can recall off the top of my head is that there were about three times as many infield shifts in 2013 as there were in 2011. And, in 2014, there have only been more shifts still. The shift, of course, has existed in some form for decades, but I don’t need to overwhelm you with a bunch of specific numbers — it’s common knowledge, at this point, that defensive shifts are in. More teams are doing it than ever, and more teams are doing it more than ever. It’s a part of the game, and it’s gotten to the point at which a shifted alignment isn’t even thought unusual. When the Astros got mad at Jed Lowrie for bunting that one time, part of my defense for Lowrie was that the Astros shifted him, so he should be permitted to use strategy back. Yet the more I thought about it, was shifting a strategic ploy for the Astros, or was it just the Astros playing 21st-century baseball?

But, to cut right to the point, I want to show you a couple graphs. The data comes from Baseball-Reference, and while they don’t split their fields in even thirds, the Play Index does allow one to select balls pulled, balls hit up the middle, and balls hit the other way. I’m showing data only from 2011 onward, because it appears that something changed between 2010 and 2011 that had more to do with the record-keepers than the game itself. Anyway let’s just get to the images.

allgrounders

Groundballs. Groundballs overall, and not just groundballs hit with a shift on. So this is an indirect look, but we know there have been way, way more shifts in 2014 than there were in 2011, so if there’s a signal, it ought to show up. Four years ago, grounders went for hits 23.7% of the time. This year, they’ve gone for hits 24.2% of the time. That’s more of the time! Pulled grounders have been less successful, but there have been more hits up the middle. It’s curious, to put it one way.

But we can easily go a little deeper. Righties are getting shifted now, too, but righties don’t get shifted nearly as often as lefties, so why don’t we look at the same graph, except only for left-handed batsmen?

lhbgrounders

Overall grounder success has remained unchanged. Batting average on pulled grounders has dropped from 2011’s .220 to 2014’s .186. Yet, up the middle, the average has increased each year. The other way, the average has increased each year. Based on this, the shifts have been working, in that they’ve cut down on hits to the most frequently-populated side, but then that’s been negated by more grounders finding space elsewhere. While, again, this is only an indirect glance, if shifts are way up this year, they haven’t made grounders less successful league-wide.

There’s not much evidence that hitters are getting better at going the other way. In 2011, 7.6% of left-handed grounders were hit to the opposite field. That climbed to 8.1% in 2012, but there it’s remained, and that’s a difference of just one grounder per 200. Fairly trivial. We’re not seeing hitters survive by aiming toward left — we’re seeing them survive because there are still holes. It was already hard to get a hit on a pulled grounder, and adding a defender can make only so much of a difference. And a shift opens up other areas, and just because those areas don’t see that many grounders doesn’t mean the abandoned area won’t lead to more hits. There’s no reason to believe the traditional alignment is the optimal alignment, but today’s alignments don’t seem to be doing all that much better.

As you know, it’s complicated. Some teams shift differently from others. Hitters are aware of the shifts before they’re thrown pitches. Shifts aren’t totally just about scooping up grounders, as there are also certain line drives that can be defended against. Shifts can change a hitter’s approach. Shifted defenders might still be getting used to playing in somewhat unfamiliar spots, which is the kind of thing you’d expect to improve. Shifting, overall, is a work in progress, as it’s still considered sufficiently novel that it gets remarked on during broadcasts. As Jeff Luhnow has said before, it’s not like today’s shifts look identical to the future’s shifts. More and more will be known, and more and more will be taken into consideration.

But here’s maybe the simplest way to put things: there’s been a dramatic trend in baseball, toward a far greater rate of infield shifts. There hasn’t yet been any corresponding dramatic statistical trend. Lefty groundball batting averages with the bases empty:

2011: .220
2012: .220
2013: .227
2014: .222

It seems to me, shifting is obvious. It seems to me, shifting should’ve gotten popular ages ago. It seems to me, the numbers don’t indicate what I’d expect. I can’t explain it, I don’t think, but I can sure point to it. I don’t know why these are the numbers, but I know damn well the numbers are interesting.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


27 Responses to “Grounders in the Age of the Shift”

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  1. Mookie says:

    Mike Fast posted this on twitter the other day:

    “Do some rough arithmetic and see how often shifts would need to happen before you could detect it in BABIP…think like a physicist–not required to know exact number. Guess. Is it .100? .050?.010? And what pct of BIP involve grounders against a shifted infield? Form those two numbers can get BABIP effect.

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    • Oz says:

      I’m confused about what .100, .050, and .010 are. Is that the percentage of time a shift is employed. Or is it a threshold batting average difference between shift and non-shift?

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  2. rusty says:

    One analysis I’ve always wanted to see is a breakout non-“shift”, non-“traditional” infield alignments — like “double-play positioning”, or certain runner-holding scenarios.

    Obviously, it’s not as easily / frequently tracked as the full shift, but there are certain scenarios that it seems reasonable to start from — say, Ricky Henderson on with an open base in front of him — to at least start to look at how hitters have traditionally attacked non-bases-empty/non-full-shift infields. Or haven’t, I guess.

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  3. Ken says:

    I think part of shifting is to entice the batter to go the other way. If the defense can do that, it will take away some power from the batter.

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  4. BMac says:

    You only looked at grounders, but I have heard that part of the benefit of shifting is to get the hitter ‘off his game’. You can have the single going the other way, if that means you aren’t aiming for the fences.

    It may also mean that some teams are not shifting effectively. I think we should have sufficient sample size to see look at it on a team-by-team basis.

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    • frivoflava29 says:

      I was thinking the same thing. A la Matt Adams getting more base hits in exchange for a dramatic power drop off and another example maybe being Jose Bautista losing his pull power.

      And as for your second point, you would expect that if some teams are terrible at defense, they probably aren’t very good at the shift, either. Maybe as players get more familiar with it in high school, college, MiLB, etc, we’ll see some better results. Or we’ll just have a lot of players who are bad at shifting.

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      • LukeNalooshe says:

        In no way/shape or form has Jose Bautista lost his pull power. There was an article on him just a few days ago. Come on man.

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        • frivoflava29 says:

          Sorry, didn’t mean power was gone, meant he wasn’t pulling as much. As per said article.

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  5. Astrosbuddy1985 says:

    I have seen some figures of BABIP & SLG% that make the shift a must. If you compare batter’s BABIP & SLG% shift vs no shift you will see the most drastic results. We may have enough data by the end of this season that the shift use doubles again next year.

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  6. Jon L. says:

    I would agree with a couple of the other commenters that shifting doesn’t just affect batting average on ground balls. If a slugger is going to hit for a lower average if he pulls the ball, he may look to go the other way more often and hit for less power.

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  7. 21_22 says:

    avg on BIP ignores Ks and Ks are increasing. if you are “getting a hitter off his game” by getting him to try to go the other way, perhaps you are increasing the probability he strikes out? it would be cool to see if Ks are up against shifted D vs “normal” D

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    • joser says:

      Only a fraction of PAs are made facing a shift, and only a fraction of those end in a K… it’ll be quite a while before we can say anything statistically significant about that.

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  8. Hey Jeff, I have been doing a lot of shift research for THT, including similar research on ground balls. Instead of looking at BABIP, I have been looking at run values on those ground balls that were playable by the infield. The drop in an average pulled ground ball’s run value for both righties and lefties has been pretty significant from 2008-2014 (almost -0.05 runs). If you want more details, feel free to email.

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    • I think it’s pretty clear the pulled grounders are worse off, even just using basic data — I’m personally interested in the whole picture. Because, obviously, there are other openings, and maybe the shift doesn’t cut down on pulled hits quite enough. Maybe it will evolve that way.

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      • True, the whole picture is a good way to see it — and this article did a good job of doing that. The fact that overall GB production hasn’t really changed for the most shifted player’s in baseball, speaks to the inefficiency of the increased shifting against the unusual suspects —like a Donaldson who seems to split the shift with relative ease. Anyways, like you hinted at, there are a lot more questions than answers in the public domain… so if you ask me what’s the next way to plug those openings, it would have to be more effective outfield shifting.

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    • Anon says:

      Fangraphs uses average to judge success in this article. What is next, RBIs?

      Using run values makes more sense to me.

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      • All grounders are already balls in play. Pretty much all of them go for singles. Batting average is fine. It’s not perfect, but it’s not like using batting average for other evaluations.

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        • Anon says:

          It would be interesting to see what the ISO of groundballs is.

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        • vecnyj says:

          Couldn’t respond to Anon below, but ISO by batted ball type can be found here on bref.

          Bunt: .003
          GB: .019
          LD: .304
          FB: .341

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        • Anon says:

          Thanks vecnyj.
          I looked at the last few years, and they are similar ~.019 GB ISO. Between 7% and 8% of groundball hits are extra-base hits. I don’t know if the shift changes those rates.

          Also as stated in the article, looking at only GB ignores the effect of the shift on LD.

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      • Bip says:

        I think using BA makes sense here, because we’re kind of assuming that batters are not really hitting the ball harder or softer than usual, for this exercise. We’re assuming that the primary difference is that when the batter hits a ball, there is more likely to be a defender there. So, what we want to know is how often does the batter reach base on a grounder. If batters are getting more or fewer extra base hits from grounders, it may point to some other effect, like more fast runners, which is not related to shifting.

        The main thing I would change about the methodology is that I would want to include runners that reached on an error. It might confound things, being as infielders as a whole probably experience variation in the number of errors they commit. However, I think that ultimately the shift may have some impact on the number of batters who reach on error independently of the variation of defenders.

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  9. MrKnowNothing says:

    May wanna look up the definition of “factoid”…

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  10. Payroll says:

    On what % of GBs are shifts employed vs. 2011? That seems to be a critical piece of missing info.

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  11. Antonio Bananas says:

    Can we match this with the heat maps of pitchers? Pitcher should “pitch into the shift” but if you have a guy with bad control, that probably negates some of the shifts effectiveness right? Or not?

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    • Bip says:

      A guy with bad command may be equally likely to throw the ball anywhere in zone. In that case I would think the hitter’s natural tendency is the deciding factor, so I would expect the shift to be effective.

      I often hear commentators complain how for some batters, the defense puts a shift on and the pitcher proceeds to pitch the hitter outside. My feeling is that that pitcher probably is not the only pitcher who pitchers that batter that way – it’s probably well established that that is best way to approach that batter. Given this fact, if we still observe that the batter pulls the majority of his ground balls, then it’s still probably not likely the hitter hits an opposite field grounder even when pitched outside.

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  12. A-Bomb says:

    I’m curious about team- and batter-specific effects. Which teams are employing the shift most effectively? Are there bigger drops in GB batting average for some teams as opposed to others? Are some batters being really hurt by the shift?

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