How Many Runs Are Joe Maddon's Shifts Really Saving?

ARLINGTON, TX: Manager Joe Maddon #70 of the Tampa Bay Rays during batting practice before the game against the Texas Rangers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images)

There's a funny Twitter feed called The Times Is On It, basically mocking The New York Times for being late to the party on a lot of stories (for example, being an unpaid intern can be a real drag).

In fairness, while the Times might not be first on a lot of stories, they're often the best. Or close enough, anyway, that we keep reading. Case in point: the Tampa Bay Rays and their radical use of infield shifts. Hunter Atkins:

If aggressively shifting fielders around will help get the Rays to the postseason for the fourth time in the last five seasons, why wouldn’t they keep doing it? Already, they have used a shift 153 times this season — including 29 times in that opening series against the Yankees — or nearly twice as much as the team that ranks No. 2 in that category, Buck Showalter’s Orioles, according to Baseball Info Solutions, a research group that provides major league teams with advanced information about defense.

--snip--

The Rays shift against the usual suspects — like Boston’s left-handed designated hitter David Ortiz and the switch-hitting Teixeira, who has been a dead-pull hitter when batting lefty. Both are dangerous offensive players with long-established power numbers.

But the Rays have also used extreme shifts on far less prominent players, like Seattle Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager and Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Eric Thames, who are in their second major league season.

Of course that's what's so interesting about what the Rays are doing: It's not just the usual suspects any more. They shifted against Ryan Raburn, for goodness sake.

Is it "working"? According to Baseball Info Solutions' John Dewan, the Rays have already "saved" 28 runs this season; not all of them via the shifting, but generally speaking. Last year they saved 85 runs, tops in the majors. That's a huge number of runs, by the way; remember, for every 10 runs, you win another game (and if you don't believe me, here's the math).

On the other hand, according to Baseball Prospectus's park-adjusted defensive efficience (PADE) -- essentially, how often the defense turns batted balls into outs -- the Rays rank just 19th in the majors this season ... after ranking first (by a million miles) in 2011 and second in 2010.

So perhaps the jury's still out on this new, radical degree of shifting. The Rays are really smart, though. The smartest thing is to generally assume they know what they're doing.

Meanwhile, here's an interesting little tidbit, via Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long:

Long pointed to Teixeira — whose average has plummeted the last two seasons at least in part because of widespread shifts deployed against him — as the one hitter who could have trouble again this week.

Teixeira has struggled to drive the ball the opposite way when batting left-handed. Long said that when Teixeira attempted to hit the ball the other way against the Rays last year, he grounded to Evan Longoria, the Rays’ repositioned third baseman, every time, adding to the frustration.

"He’s just not real good at it," Long said of Teixeira’s ability to hit the other way left-handed. "He doesn’t have a good feel for it."

Long said that he had worked with Teixeira on having a positive frame of mind on beating the shift by hitting the ball where the fielders aren’t, but that "we’ve kind of hit a dead end with it."

Mark Teixeira was (and remains) a supremely talented hitter. He spent only 86 games in the minor leagues before graduating to the majors for good. He's enjoyed an enormous amount of professional success and has presumably been doing things almost exactly the same way for many years. It wouldn't be surprising if he found it difficult, both mentally and physically, to make some significant change.

In other words, Tex might be a lost cause. And he's probably not alone.

But my guess is that the shifts won't work forever. There was a time when the shifts probably wouldn't have worked well at all. In fact, I think it's possible that Joe Maddon's a pioneer because this frontier simply wasn't available in decades past; that players weren't swinging as hard and would have routinely beaten the shifts. We've seen a significant increase in strikeouts in recent seasons, which suggests that hitters are sacrificing bat control for bat speed.

Which doesn't mean the trend must continue forever. It might take a while to sink in, but if managers keep putting three infielders on one side of second base, eventually many and perhaps most of the hitters will learn to hit the ball where the fielders aren't. And maybe, as a bonus for those of us who actually enjoy all aspects of the great game, the torrent of strikeouts will slow down some.

Bottom line, though? Shifting probably does help, but you won't have a good infield defense without good defensive infielders. The Rays' defense might have saved 85 runs last season, but only some small fraction of that number was probably due to all the shifting. As for this season, we'll have to check back in a few months.

Here's a good discussion of the shifts and their theoretical impact on defensive efficiency, saving runs, etc.

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