The Problem With the Shift

The concept of “the shift” has become more widely used throughout major-league baseball. While some teams shift more than most, others are shifted against more than most. The Shift Era is still relatively new as teams dive deeper and deeper into the analytical realm to increase winning percentage. However, is using the shift actually effective?

I believe that there are certainly situations where the shift should be utilized. Players such as David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Brian McCann, etc. generally are the style of players to shift against. Older players generally rely more on pulling the ball because they are able to generate more power. These styles of pull-only hitters are usually prime targets for shifting against. My question is, why haven’t these players adapted their swing against the shift?

When learning swing mechanics, you’re taught to square up the baseball and drive the ball where it’s pitched. When shifting, pitchers are forced to make very selective pitches to avoid batters driving the ball the other way through the shift. This is hard for pitchers because it takes away some of their effectiveness. Hitters are beginning to find ways to beat the shift and steal easy hits. If a batter is in a shift situation, they can essentially eliminate pitches towards the outside half of the plate. Knowing the pitcher’s pitch arsenal, the batter can then be selective in his approach. Depending on the count, the batter can determine the next pitch, whether it’s offspeed or a fastball. Obviously a tailing fastball in on the hands is hard not to roll over into the shift, but that’s just good pitching.

Batters are finally beginning to grasp that they can beat the shift by simply putting down a bunt down the line. Or, they can create longer bat lag from their hands letting the ball travel deeper in the zone and taking the ball to the opposite field. The best hitters in baseball are those who can hit to all areas of the field. Charlie Blackmon was shifted against 121 times this year; he hit .412 against the shift. Why in the world would teams shift against him 121 times? Kris Bryant was shifted against 210 times; he hit .364. Players like this who are able to adapt their swing progressions at the plate should not be shifted against this often. Teams are simply giving them easy hits, which lead to runs. The whole point of the shift is to avoid baserunners, right?

Again, there are some batters against whom shifting works. Brian McCann was shifted against 248 times and still hit .243 against the shift, which is still pretty good considering it’s towards the bottom of the league. Lucas Duda was shifted against 241 times, hitting .243; still not terrible. Again, there are situations you can get away with shifting. The only time teams should shift should be with no runners on, strict pull hitters, and with a pitcher who’s comfortable with pitching inside.

When teams shift with runners on, I believe it’s a terrible strategy. It’s considerably difficult turning a routine double play with players out of their positions. Also, it’s difficult to catch runners stealing when you have a third baseman trying to find the bag and make the tag. Players like Dustin Pedroia have taken advantage of teams using the shift with runners on to take the extra base with the third baseman out of position. Players are beginning to find holes in the shift and are taking advantage, leading to runs.

When shifting, I believe the best option is to leave the shortstop between 2nd and 3rd, the second baseman shaded up the middle towards the bag, and the third baseman moving into right field between 1st and 2nd. With the third baseman in this position, he can create the same angle to 1st as when he’s at 3rd. This way players are in more comfortable standard positions, keeping the double play a more viable option. Shifting works in certain situations, but teams need to be more careful as hitters begin to adapt their approaches and steal easy hits, using the shift against the enemy.



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BigChief
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BigChief

Few Comments:
Is there any real evidence that pitchers really change their approach that much due to the shift? I’ve seen this mentioned a lot, and it makes sense, but I have a feeling that this is something that is not done nearly as often as we may think.

Batting average is not a good way to think about offensive production. So to answer your question about the whole point of this shift, it’s not to avoid baserunners, it’s increase the teams likelihood of winning. Say someone like Bryant is projected to have a higher batting average when you are shifting them, say projected .290 vs .310, it could still very well be the best strategy since his projected wOBA could still be lower. Say him shooting the ball the other way decreases his project ISO from like .240 to .180. Maybe in one run games with a guy on it makes sense not to shift but you’d have to think about how the production impacts WPA. It’s just way to simple to see a couple of guys with high AVG on shift and make any conclusion about shifting vs not-shifting.

I think it’s much more difficult to change a swing/approach than we may think. More players will work on it, and I think the shift will become less and less common as beating the sift becomes a part of player development, but not every player is all of a sudden going to start directing where they want to hit the ball.

You’re absolutely right when you say teams should be aware of players that can adapt to beat the shift. Players doing this will be fundamentally different than they were previously when teams developed models on how to align their defense against them. It’s fair to question how a shift is currently being used, and if it’s the best strategy, but nothing you said here is justification for your blanket rules of thumbs on shifting.

Dominikk85
Member

Two things: shift is mostly about grounders because elevated balls go over the swing. Due to the nature of the swing (swing goes slightly uphill so if you are early you are more likely to get on top) grounders are pulled way more often than fly balls https://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-pros-and-cons-of-pulling-the-baseball-2/

That means even most hitters are grounder pull happy even if they spray in the air (like ryan Howard).

To hit grounders the other way consistently you either unnaturally have to change swing path to chop down or be super late on your normal swing so you catch it on the down arc of the swing which both leads to weak exit velo.

Now you could target elevating the other way like the prolific travis suggested but while that is a little better than grounders it is a lot less productive than pulled fly balls in the power department.

Most lefties are not willing to trade 10+ hr for 10-15 babip and obp points