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May 21, 2013

Skewed Left

The Shift's PR Problem

by Zachary Levine

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In 50 years, and that may be a conservatively distant estimate, we will hear much less talk about defensive shifts.

First of all, there might not be baseball in 50 years. It’s why I’m always hesitant to answer questions that start with “will we ever see,” because “ever” is a really, really long time compared to the current lifespan of baseball (unless it isn’t).

Assuming there is baseball and a United States of America and such good things, the reason we won’t hear as much about defensive shifts in a generation or two is not because the anti-shift contingent we’ve heard from lately will win. No, it’s because it will be defeated so soundly by proprietary technology and beyond abundant information that we’ll stop calling defensive shifts defensive shifts.

We’ll just call them defense.

If 2012—with the Rays’ propensity for the unusual and the Blue Jays putting Brett Lawrie in short right field—was the year that defensive shifts broke into the mainstream consciousness, 2013 has unsurprisingly been the year of backlash. That’s how trends work.

Much of the backlash came from the clubhouse of the Astros, who are among the foremost users of non-standard defensive alignments. According to those familiar with that clubhouse, the shifts have been largely unpopular among the pitching staff, which is getting hit hard. It’s not just Lucas Harrell, who issued the money quote on it and was called in for a talk with manager Bo Porter.

Harrell’s comments represent a fairly standard cognitive bias, as he is putting increased weight on unfavorable outcomes—I’ll let the much more qualified Russell Carleton take the psychology from here if he desires. But the controversy, which played out on MLB Now and other forums, also illustrates the superficial image problem that the shift has in baseball.

I stress “in baseball” even though it should be obvious on a baseball website, because it’s purely a baseball problem despite the fact that the shift exists in every sport with defense.

When I was young and my brother and I played one-on-one basketball or guarded each other in a traditional game, we both knew the other was much stronger with our left hand than our right hand. So I’d turn my body a little bit on defense, giving up a little more room on his right. If he went right and beat me, then good for him—it wasn’t changing what I did next time. (If he beat me several times, I’d usually change strategy either to really hard fouls or trying to make him laugh and lose the ball.)

But that’s a defensive shift, and basketball players do it all the time. They also play box-and-one or less drastically, extend a zone or drop out of a zone against a three-point shooting team. They double-team really good big men. Those are all defensive shifts, and they’ve been around forever.

No coach in his or her proper frame of mind would ever consider defending every basketball player or team the same way, yet when we differentiate in some way noticeable to the naked eye in baseball, it’s noteworthy and controversial.

Football has its quirks too, with different formations. Teams will use “nickel” and “dime” packages designed to snuff out passing options on third-and-long, and teams can put eight players instead of the usual seven close to the line of scrimmage when the opponent has a tendency to run.

For a football perspective, I asked Rivers McCown, assistant editor of the statistically angled website Football Outsiders, about reactions to different defenses in that sport and whether they draw the same level of criticism as in baseball. His answer is really what made me think that maybe it is just a matter of time before we lose the term “shift” and just call it “defense.”

I think the NFL is a bit different because substitutions have been commonly accepted in certain down-and-distance packages for a long time, much like, say, the platoon advantage in baseball. The fact that different formation patterns have generally been a part of the game for 50 years makes it harder to critique it with the burden of history. Whereas with baseball, you know, the shortstop has been standing at shortstop since the 1900's or 1890's for the most part.

That said, sure, fans complain about substitution packages plenty… Fans familiar with more advanced analysis can point out that a team does poorly in Formation X as compared to another formation and launch a critique that way. However, players and coaches tend to have a "keep it in the locker room" mentality, probably because criticism about defensive failings usually can be split between formations or specific individual players. It's not completely unprecedented for a player to call out the formations, but they are usually done anonymously. (Here's one that happened this year.) If a coach has a problem with a player, that player tends to be gone in fairly short order. It's a cutthroat business when very few players have a guaranteed contract.

It’s perfectly sensible that baseball has to catch up in this regard. However, it’s an uncomfortable feeling because as baseball people, we don’t like being behind. It’s much more fun watching analytics hit the mainstream in basketball, football, and hockey and wonder what took so long.

Maybe we can expedite acceptance through rebranding the shift. Or alternatively, through branding for the first time an alignment that has the first and third basemen a few feet off their lines and the second baseman and the shortstop playing roughly 30-40 feet from second base and behind their baselines. Call it one alignment vs. another alignment rather than one alignment vs. “normal.”

Either way, it comes down to communication of ideas. That’s always so important in successful implementation within an organization, and that’s where the Astros are starting to pick it up with that meeting.

Contrary to the Astros, the new regime of the Blue Jays has them toning down their shifts. They never shift with R.A. Dickey on the mound because they find exit trajectories off the knuckleball to be too unpredictable to do anything beyond what would best vacuum up a league-average distribution of balls. They let other pitchers have a say in case they’re uncomfortable pitching to certain targets with the way the defense is aligned.

“If our guy says I’d rather not line our guys up in certain spots, we’ll do that,” manager John Gibbons said. “Just make sure you throw it there.”

With the Astros, where it’s been more contentious, a lot of the arrows flung have been about their high BABIP allowed on one side and their double plays, which Porter used to show the shift is working. He erred in using a raw number of double plays, but their double play percentage has been the best in the American League and second in baseball to the Cardinals.

If the BABIP remains high over a much more significant sample, the alternative shouldn’t be—as pitchers have grumbled for—getting rid of the shifts and going back to one-defense-fits-all. It should be making them better.

Like many things in the sabermetric movement, it might be an easier message to get across with better branding.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Defense,  Blue Jays,  Shift,  Football,  Astros

12 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Andy Cochrane

Very interesting thoughts. Why indeed does a shift make such news in baseball when football regularly has different alignments.
Cricket fielding positions change regularly due to the batsman, how long left in the game, to put pressure on and so on. No one thinks that is particularly noteworthy. It's just seen as part of te game.

May 21, 2013 04:14 AM
rating: 0
 
Matthew Avery

The interesting problem with shifts is that, when you just use a hitter's spray chart, you're basically assuming that their approach to hitting will be the same against a "traditional" defense as against a "shifted" defense. While this may be the case for a lot of guys (hitting a baseball is hard regardless even when you're not trying to hit it to the spot you normally try to hit it to), one would imagine there would also be players with sufficient bat control to go "against" the shift.

All this is to say, it's not obvious to me that shifts are going to be the default defense in the future. It could be that you'd show a hitter multiple looks throughout the course of a game or over the course of a series to try to get them to alter their swing. The shift could evolve into something like a "change of pace" zone defense like college basketball teams some times employ to keep the offense off balance rather than the permanent 2-3 Syracuse zone that's used every minute of the game.

May 21, 2013 06:01 AM
rating: 0
 
Behemoth

That's largely why you shift against those players who have failed to demonstrate the ability to use all parts of the field.

May 21, 2013 07:06 AM
rating: 4
 
Matt Trueblood

This calls forther a related question I have wondered about in the past: How far into the future before the notion of set positions seems silly in itself?

We have the information now. We know which players hit to which areas of the field most often. We know certain guys could almost walk off the field with certain batters at the plate. So why not always have your best defenders in the spots most likely to see action on a given play? Andrelton Simmons should play second base with Joe Mauer at bat. Mauer hits a ton of sharp ground balls to the right side; Simmons is likely to get to 10 percent more of them than Dan Uggla. Jose Bautista pulls a ton of fly balls, so many that it probably makes sense to play your best defender against him in left, not center.

Put your best defensive players in the spots where they're likely to be needed most. It's that simple. Then, of course, over time, you could select really superb defenders, stick them at the bottom of the order and not worry about what they do with the stick, because they can have an impact on the game against every batter (not literally, but you see the point), not just two or three times per game.

May 21, 2013 09:44 AM
rating: 6
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

The trouble is you have baserunners, and that dictates a fair amount of your fielder positioning. And learning a defensive position is much different than learning how to play in a series of defensive schemes.

May 21, 2013 12:36 PM
 
Matt Trueblood

Sure, but I'm not talking about massive changes to WHERE guys play. I'm saying you change WHO goes to each spot. This is one way of letting players be defined by their strengths, not their weaknesses, like a platoon or a LOOGY. You can use standard defensive positioning while moving an elite defender all over to make the maximum possible number of plays, and that will go almost as far as almost any shift or change in the overall array of fielders.

May 22, 2013 07:35 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

Right, but that assumes that fielding is independent of position on the field -- in terms of stuff like range maybe kinda sorta that's true (although I doubt it), but especially on the infield stuff like which base do I cover when each ball goes where, do I need to be in position to cut off a throw from the outfield, etc. is all stuff that's going to be affected by the idea of moving fielders around based on spray charts and the like.

May 22, 2013 11:24 AM
 
Matt Trueblood

I take the point, but reject one of its premises: Baseball players can't possibly be so dense that they're unable to learn new responsibilities for relay throws and base coverages. Football players are meatheads with accumulating head trauma, and they memorize more different responsibilities and choreographies than baseball players.

May 23, 2013 13:14 PM
rating: 0
 
Pat Folz

All true, though I foresee quite a bit of whining like relievers when their "roles aren't defined" or whatever. Still, if Lawrie can put up with alternating 3B and basically OF, anyone can deal.

May 21, 2013 14:22 PM
rating: 1
 
RationalSportsFa

I have often wondered why teams with one great defensive corner outfielder and one awful defensive corner outfielder do not flip them mid-inning based off spray charts of various hitters. Just too much running? Delays the game too much? Simple tradition?

May 22, 2013 11:36 AM
rating: 1
 
BurrRutledge

Baseball's acceptable 'defensive alignments' that spring to mind:

Double-play depth
No-doubles
At the warning track
Corners in / bunt prevention
Playing to pull

Defenders in their traditional positions are almost always making subtle (and not so subtle) adjustments based on the game situation and the batter/pitcher tendencies. 'The shift' is simply another of the less subtle alignments. And it's very effective in the right situations.

Would it be wrong to call it the lefty play to pull on steroids, or does that bring back bad memories?

May 21, 2013 17:02 PM
rating: 1
 
Bob Stocking

This is what came to mind for me, too ... were there ever shortstops years ago who resisted "double-play depth" positioning? And what TV director can resist the visual of a bench coach gesturing to his outfielders, extending the narrative of the manager as chess player? I'll bet we'll see lots of that shot during the CWS.

Also, I'd add the drawn-in infield to this list.

Jun 15, 2013 08:37 AM
rating: 0
 
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