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Are Rays' Shifts Redefining Infield Defense?

ST. PETERSBURG, FL: Manager Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays watches batting practice before play against the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
ST. PETERSBURG, FL: Manager Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays watches batting practice before play against the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
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It's the Tigers vs. the Rays, 1-1 in the bottom of the sixth inning. Phenom Matt Moore's pitching for Tampa Bay.

Ryan Raburn's coming up with one out and nobody aboard. Rays second baseman Sean Rodriguez takes up position to the shortstop side of second base. Raburn pops into shallow center, with Rodriguez drifting back to make the play.

Jhonny Peralta's up next. Same basic shift by the Rays: three infielders on the shortstop side of second base. Peralta lifts a fly to center field, where Desmond Jennings gathers it in.

Extreme defensive shifts have been around for a long, long time. The generic term is "Ted Williams shift" because Lou Boudreau deployed an extreme shift -- much more extreme, by the way, than anything you'll see today -- against Williams, for the first time in 1946. But other managers had shifted their fielders.

It used to be rare, though. And done almost exclusively against left-handed power hitters.

Joe Maddon's turned that on its ear.

From a reader, over the weekend:

Did you catch any of the Tampa Bay Rays' opening series games? Be curious to hear your thoughts on their extreme use of shifts, which seems to have reached a new level. Do you expect other teams to follow this trend and how soon?

I haven't seen any whole Rays games yet, and I suspect it's too early to say their use of shifts has reached a new level. They shifted for 221 batted balls in 2010 -- 88 times more than anybody else in the majors -- and 216 times in 2011, which was 46 times more than anyone else. They were already way out there.

And those numbers were obviously quite consistent, as if the Rays thought they had things figured out in 2010 and just kept doing almost exactly the same things in 2011. I think we'll have to wait some to see if they do push it to a new level in 2012.

The early returns are impressive, though. Last season, they shifted against the 10 most-shifted-against hitters 110 times -- which would have been big left-handed hitters (including switch-hitting Mark Teixeira), leaving 106 times against everyone else. If they're shifting against righty-hitting Ryan Raburn and Jhonny Peralta, though? And Miguel Cabrera, too? You have to think they'll clear 106 this season, with plenty to spare.

It does seem to have worked, by the way. According to John Dewan's Defensive Runs Saved, the Rays were the best defensive team in the majors last year. Also, they led the majors in Defensive Efficiency -- that's the percentage of batted balls turned into outs -- last year, and were second in 2010.

Granted, that's just anecdotal evidence. Maybe the Rays would have saved exactly as many runs and made exactly as many plays if they hadn't shifted at all. Maybe they would have saved more runs, made more plays. John Dewan and co-author Ben Jedlovec write extensively about defensive shifts, and their efficacy, in The Fielding Bible - Volume III.

Meanwhile, over at Bill James Online, Bill wrote a long rebuttal (subscriber-only) that includes this:

My belief, based on nine years of watching teams shift to try to stop David Ortiz, is that it doesn’t work, and that, while obviously the shift does lead to plays being made on balls that would otherwise get through the right side of the infield, this is offset or more than offset by plays that are lost at other places.

This is in the midst of a long (if polite) take-down of Dewan and Jedlovec's chapter in the book.

They responded quickly, of course. The nut:

Unlike the anecdotal evidence showing how shifting seems to be working for the Rays and Brewers, we consider the 40-50 point drop in batting average on grounders, short liners and bunts against the Ted Williams Shift to be direct evidence in favor of The Shift. Is it conclusive? No. Is it comprehensive? Not really. It's only two years and doesn't include all plate appearances.

Is there more research to be done? Yes. We are working on this as we speak. In particular, we are working at looking at all plate appearances, not just grounders and short liners. Nevertheless, there is good preliminary evidence that The Ted Williams Shift appears to be working, especially with the bases empty.

Oh, the Brewers. After shifting only 22 times in 2010 under manager Ken Macha, they shifted 170 times in 2011 under Ron Roenicke.*

* Rather, they were shifted 170 times when balls were batted into play; none of these numbers include plate appearances that ended in strikeouts or walks, or during which the defense began in a shift but came out of it for some reason.

It's true that the Rays' and Brewers' successes -- collectively, Milwaukee's four primary infielders improved by 56 Runs Saved from 2010 to '11, going from terrible to below-average -- doesn't prove anything about defensive shifts. But it's pretty compelling evidence, of a sort. And to get back to the question posed near the top of this page ... Yes, I do expect other teams to follow this trend, and I expect it to happen soon. I suspect that a great number of front-office types are convinced already, but haven't had much luck convincing their managers.

It will happen, though. Nobody lives forever.