Why Would A Pitcher Pitch Against The Shift?

On April 10 in an outing against the Toronto Blue Jays, Dallas Keuchel was pitching Jose Bautista outside in the fourth inning.

That much isn’t really surprising, because since September of 2009, Bautista has done the bulk of his damage by pulling the ball. What was curious to me, however, was that Keuchel was pitching Bautista well outside despite the fact that the Astros defense was employing a heavy shift. It seemed counterintuitive, since I had assumed – though I hadn’t previously given it much thought – that a pitcher would be best served by pitching into a shift and giving the batter something he’s more likely to pull.

As it turns out, Keuchel was probably using the proper approach.

For some background, here is Bautista’s spray chart since September of 2009, courtesy of Bill Petti’s awesome spray chart tool.

bautista spray

Two things are clear here: avoiding Bautista pulling the ball is ideal, and he hits a great number of groundballs to the left side of the infield. Considered separately, pitching outside and shifting both make sense, though, again, my assumption was that a team would employ one or the other.

The Astros employed both.
bautista shift
bautista pitch1 bautista pitch2 bautista pitch3
In this particular example, the result didn’t really matter – Keuchel missed outside three times and then didn’t come anywhere close to the strike zone with a 3-0 pitch, walking Bautista on four straight. But the process here is the curiosity, not the result.

As mentioned, the Astros were probably smart to employ a shift and then pitch “out” of the shift by dealing away. Last year, Bautista took 27 outside pitches to the opposite field while pulling 64 outside pitches. More importantly, he hit groundballs to the right side on just six occasions compared to 49 pulled groundballs.

In other words, even with an outside pitch that should theoretically be easier to take the other way, Bautista is pretty unlikely to hit a groundball to the right side, meaning the cost of shifting isn’t very high at all. Sometimes pull-push percentages can confuse the fact that teams don’t care about pull rates on the whole when shifting, they only care about where groundballs are hit (since, obviously, flyballs and even linedrives are less likely to land where shifted players are or are not).

This got me curious as to whether this was Bautista-specific or a league-wide phenomenon. Well, thank godby for Daren W and Baseball Savant, as the PITCHf/x search there allowed me to dive into league-wide rates from the 2013 season.

To establish a baseline of how often pitches get pulled, shot up the gut or taken the other way with pitches in certain locations. That is, I first wanted to see if my initial logic that an outside pitch is easier to take the other way was true or simply something that made sense in my head but didn’t happen in practice. As it turns out, outside pitches are taken the other way far more often than pitches down the middle or pitches on the inner part of the plate, which a batter would have to inside-out to hit to the opposite field. This also presents itself in each hand-versus-hand iteration.

INSIDE Pull Pull % Middle Middle % Oppo Oppo % Total
RHH v LHP 5013 59.66% 2113 25.15% 1276 15.19% 8402
RHH v RHP 9261 58.72% 4012 25.44% 2498 15.84% 15771
LHH v LHP 1666 56.02% 754 25.35% 554 18.63% 2974
LHH v RHP 5885 60.66% 2290 23.60% 1527 15.74% 9702
TOTAL 21825 59.23% 9169 24.88% 5855 15.89% 36849
OUTSIDE Pull Pull % Middle Middle % Oppo Oppo % Total
RHH v LHP 4035 38.87% 3441 33.14% 2906 27.99% 10382
RHH v RHP 6396 39.53% 5307 32.80% 4479 27.68% 16182
LHH v LHP 1770 39.01% 1457 32.11% 1310 28.87% 4537
LHH v RHP 9218 39.44% 7435 31.81% 6719 28.75% 23372
TOTAL 21419 39.32% 17640 32.38% 15414 28.30% 54473
MIDDLE Pull Pull % Middle Middle % Oppo Oppo % Total
RHH v LHP 3291 49.95% 1906 28.93% 1391 21.11% 6588
RHH v RHP 8973 57.54% 3800 24.37% 2821 18.09% 15594
LHH v LHP 1305 46.23% 885 31.35% 633 22.42% 2823
LHH v RHP 5599 50.35% 3171 28.52% 2350 21.13% 11120
TOTAL 19168 53.06% 9762 27.02% 7195 19.92% 36125

To tidy it up, here are the aggregate results by pitch location, regardless of hitter-pitcher match-up.

Pull % Middle % Oppo %
INSIDE 59.23% 24.88% 15.89%
OUTSIDE 39.32% 32.38% 28.30%
MIDDLE 53.06% 28.70% 22.33%

What this tells us is just what I assumed earlier – that it would make sense to pitch a batter inside if you’re going to shift, given the overall pull rates league-wide. But again, it’s only really groundballs we’re concerned with when it comes to shifting the infield.

So here are the numbers again, focusing on just groundballs.

INSIDE Pull % GB PULL % GB Oppo %
RHH v LHP 59.66% 31.12% 1.81%
RHH v RHP 58.72% 34.38% 2.57%
LHH v LHP 56.02% 35.27% 4.44%
LHH v RHP 60.66% 27.91% 2.70%
All Inside 59.23% 32.01% 2.58%
OUTSIDE Pull % GB PULL % GB Oppo %
RHH v LHP 38.87% 28.35% 5.74%
RHH v RHP 39.53% 29.76% 6.01%
LHH v LHP 39.01% 28.01% 6.81%
LHH v RHP 39.44% 27.64% 6.70%
All Outside 39.32% 28.45% 6.45%
MIDDLE Pull % GB PULL % GB Oppo %
RHH v LHP 49.95% 28.22% 2.57%
RHH v RHP 57.54% 23.87% 2.63%
LHH v LHP 46.23% 27.67% 4.64%
LHH v RHP 50.35% 26.76% 2.65%
All Middle 53.06% 26.95% 3.06%

Once again, those are mostly to show that the trends here hold for all hitter-pitcher possibilities. To put it in a more digestible form, here are the aggregates for each pitch location, comparing groundball pull and opposite rates (as a percentage of all balls in play, plus home runs) compared to the overall rates.

Location Pull % GB PULL % Oppo % GB Oppo %
INSIDE 59.23% 32.01% 15.89% 2.58%
OUTSIDE 39.32% 28.45% 16.10% 6.45%
MIDDLE 53.06% 26.95% 16.42% 3.06%

The important cell is the middle row, in the right-most column. Even given outside pitches, batters only hit groundballs to the opposite side 6.45 percent of the time last season.

It seems that on average, and not just with Bautista, pitching outside with a pull-shift on isn’t all that risky. That won’t hold for all players, of course, and 6.45 percent isn’t zero, but if you see a pitcher who appears to be pitching “out” of the shift, that’s why.

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Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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Fred Fotch
Fred Fotch

Because you play to win the game.