Let's Talk About Defensive Shifting

St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Fernando Rodney (56), shortstop Sean Rodriguez (1), shortstop Elliot Johnson (9), first baseman Carlos Pena (23) and infielder Will Rhymes (10) react after they beat the Seattle Mariners at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Seattle Mariners 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Defensive shifting is more popular within the game of baseball than it's ever been. Who's doing it the most? Who's doing it the least? What kind of difference does it actually make?

In some ways, this article is late to the party. There have been a lot of people who've written about the trend toward more defensive shifting, but what they wrote was written weeks, months, even years ago. It's not really a "fad", because it isn't going to go away, but people are familiar with the trend, now. They get that shifting is here to stay, and they've come to terms with that, not that it's something you really need to come to terms with.

But John Dewan recently wrote something that's making the baseball Internet rounds. Plenty of people will have already seen this article by now. Plenty of people probably will have not. The people I personally pay attention to have seen it, but I selected those people carefully, and they aren't representative of the greater population.

Anyway, Dewan wrote about the trend toward more defensive shifting. That isn't the interesting part. The interesting part is the data that he provides. As much as we've come to learn that this is a thing, numbers have been hard to come by. Dewan tells us that in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, baseball teams used about 1,900 defensive shifts. In the 2012 season, though, teams are on pace to use about 3,800 defensive shifts. In case you are terrible at math, we might refer to that as "double", which of course doesn't help you much because you are terrible at math. If you're that bad at math you should probably just get out of this article now because the numbers aren't going to stop.

A total of 3,800 defensive shifts represents only a fraction of all opportunities to use a defensive shift, but it's clear that teams are embracing this. Some more than others, and some not at all, but generally speaking, shifts are on the upswing. Teams have more data at their disposal, and one use of that data is to position the defenders according to the tendencies of the batter. It makes perfect sense, and you can tell it makes perfect sense because baseball teams are doing it. Sometimes baseball teams are a little slower to respond to data.

It isn't going to surprise you who's shifting the most. The Tampa Bay Rays are shifting the most, and they've already used nearly as many shifts in 2012 as they did in the previous two seasons. The Baltimore Orioles are in second, having already shifted 20 more times in 2012 than they did in 2011, and while you can't just say "the Baltimore Orioles are winning because they're shifting their defense," it doesn't hurt the case of people who recommend shifting the defense. "Look, look at what the Orioles are doing! Look at how they've changed!"

Then you get the Cleveland Indians, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Kansas City Royals ... Dewan lays out the top ten so I don't need to repeat it for you. The Rays are far and away the champions of the shift, but they're definitely not the only team doing it. One notes that the Milwaukee Brewers became particularly shift-friendly when they switched from Ken Macha to Ron Roenicke.

At the other end of the spectrum, Dewan presents the five teams who are shifting the least. The Colorado Rockies and the Philadelphia Phillies have each employed one shift. One shift, which seems so lonely and peculiar on its own. Then you have the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago White Sox, who have yet to shift at all. Mike Matheny and Robin Ventura are new managers with those teams, and if defensive shifting is considered somewhat radical, than neither Matheny nor Ventura should be considered radical, at least not in this regard. They're content to play things traditionally, for better or for worse. The Cardinals have been very good as a team, and the White Sox have been competent. Again, it isn't fair to draw those relationships, but look, I already did it.

So about that shifting - what does it do? One figures we'd see the most significant effect on groundballs. With that in mind, here are the league batting averages on groundballs over the past five seasons:

2008: .236
2009: .236
2010: .234
2011: .237
2012: .227

In 2012, teams are shifting more than ever, and in 2012, we see a reduced batting average on grounders. However, the sample is limited - we're just 23 percent of the way to last year's groundball total - so we'll have to see how it shakes out at the end. It would not be surprising to see that increased shifting drives batting average on grounders down. It would not be surprising for the effect to be modest.

If you look at the current raw data, you might raise your eyebrows. The Rays shift like nobody else, but their batting average allowed on grounders ranks 19th. The Cardinals haven't shifted at all, and they rank 16th. The White Sox rank 22nd, but just .003 points behind the Rays. The Phillies rank 14th. The Rockies rank 11th. But there's a lot that's packed into this data. This data isn't just measuring the effect of defensive shifts. It's capturing the effect of defensive shifts, but it's also presently based on limited sample sizes, different batted-ball distributions, and different personnel. The question isn't where the teams might rank. The question is where the teams rank, relative to where they might rank if they shifted a lot more, or if they shifted a lot less. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the Rays get more good out of their shifting than bad.

It's intuitive and uncomplicated. Hitters have tendencies. Match the defense up with those tendencies and in the end the hitter will be worse off. It isn't quite that simple, of course. A hitter can observe a shift and perhaps change his approach. He might try to hit the ball the other way, or he might drop a bunt down the line, the way Carlos Pena likes to do. Hitters have overall tendencies, but they might have different tendencies when they observe that they're being shifted. For this reason and others, shifting is never going to drive offensive levels down into the ground.

But it'll help more than it'll hurt. That's almost absolutely certain. In time, everybody's going to appreciate that, and in time, everybody's going to shift like they've never shifted before. As with all things, there are trendsetters, and it's the Rays who're the trendsetters with shifting. But this'll go so mainstream that everyone will jump aboard, because there's no good reason not to. "Turn more balls in play into outs? I don't think so!" said nobody, ever. Guys like Mike Matheny and Robin Ventura don't think shifting is worth the effort right now. They will.

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