5/12/14, "Who’s on Third? In Baseball’s Shifting Defenses, Maybe Nobody,
" NY Times, David Waldstein
more than 100 years
, baseball looked pretty much the same from the
grandstands. There were three players spread in the outfield, a pitcher
on the mound, a catcher behind the plate, and four infielders neatly
aligned, two on each side of second base.
a radical reworking of defensive principles is reshaping the way the
old game is played, and even the way it looks. If you cannot find the
, he might be the one standing in shallow right field. The
second baseman? That’s him on the other side of the diamond, next to the
baseball positions as they have long been known are changing before our
eyes. The cause is the infield shift, a phenomenon exploding this year
as more teams are using statistical analysis and embracing a dynamic
approach to previously static defenses.
armed with evidence that shows how a batter has a propensity to hit the
ball to certain parts of the field, teams will position their
infielders accordingly — at times taking them far from their traditional
|1866, Atlantics v A's|
“The shift is on the verge of
becoming the norm,” said Joe Maddon, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays
and one of the early leading proponents of the shift. “When you’re not shifting now is almost going to be the anomaly defense.”
2010 to 2013, infield shifts steadily increased, according to research
by Baseball Info Solutions, which tracks every shift and the number of
runs it saves. But from 2013 to this season, the rate of shifting in the
major leagues has mushroomed.
year there were 8,134 shifts on balls in play. Through the weekend,
teams had already shifted 3,213 times, putting them on pace for nearly
14,000 for the season. Teams that shift regularly are lowering opposing
teams’ batting averages by 30 to 40 points on grounders and low line
do it because it works,” said Mark Teixeira, the Yankees first baseman.
As a batter, he has been a victim of the shift for the past few years,
perhaps explaining, in part, why his batting average went from .290 over
his first four years in baseball to .249 since 2010, when teams began
shifting on him regularly.
Jedlovec is the senior vice president for product development and sales
at Baseball Info Solutions, a company that was started by John Dewan,
the author of the book “The Fielding Bible.”
The company tracks every
pitch and every play and provides software and tools to about two-thirds
of major league teams.
“There’s no end in sight,” Jedlovec said about teams’ willingness to employ the shift.
first, the natural targets of the shift were sluggers like David Ortiz,
Jim Thome, Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard — all big left-handed hitters
regularly pull the ball to the right. Now, with statistical analysis
influencing more managers’ decisions, even lightly regarded hitters like
Kelly Johnson of the Yankees might see fielders shifting against them,
and more right-handed hitters are seeing the shift as well.
isn’t big on change,” said Dewan, who began advocating defensive shifts
about 10 years ago. “But once other managers and teams saw the Rays
doing it successfully, perhaps they didn’t feel as if they were going
out on a limb so much, and wouldn’t be criticized when someone happens
to get a hit against the shift.”
Following the Rays, the Houston Astros
have embraced the shift
with zeal, from the depths of their minor
leagues up to the majors. As of the weekend they had employed 368
shifts, more than one per inning and far more than any other team, even
“It’s an epiphany,” Maddon said. “I much preferred it when all the other teams didn’t want to do those things.”
Astros began employing the shift early last year. But the pitchers
saying they did not feel comfortable with a defense overloaded
to one side of the infield and a gaping hole on the other. The Astros’
management backed off, but it did not give up.
spring training, the Astros’ general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and his
coaching staff came armed with data, presented it to the pitchers and
discussed why they wanted to embrace the shift. That analysis included a
look at the improved defense of the Pittsburgh Pirates
previous two seasons.
Pirates had mostly the same infielders those two years, and in 2012
they turned 339 double plays, 13th in the National League. But in 2013,
with the shift, they turned 419, the fourth most in the league. Their
pitchers’ earned run average dropped to 3.26 from 3.86.
Astros pitchers were persuaded
, and Baseball Info Solutions estimated
the shift had saved them 11 runs so far this year.
Houston now uses the
shift all the way down to its Class A club. “We’re confident that it’s
helped us get more outs than we would have without it,” Luhnow said.
|Recent Yankee shift v Mariners|
Yankees are second to the Astros
with 223 defensive shifts in 2014.
They were already steadily increasing their shifts over the past few
seasons, but during the off-season their quantitative analysis
department, headed by David Grabiner and Michael Fishman, was assigned
to the matter.
They eventually proposed a comprehensive plan that now has players in the majors and the minors shifting like never before.
as much as the shift is blossoming this year, it is hardly a new
phenomenon. There is evidence of the shift going back more than 130
years. Artwork suggests that before the 1880s, basemen would stand on
top of the bases. According to Tom Shieber, a historian at the Baseball
Hall of Fame, that was because of different foul-ball rules that made
first and third basemen responsible for greater swaths of foul
those rules changed in the mid-1880s,
players took up the now familiar
positions. But even back then, there were innovators. Shieber said that
one of his colleagues at the Hall of Fame, Bill Francis, recently
discovered evidence of an infield shift in a June 25, 1870,
The New York Clipper of a game between the Atlantics of Brooklyn and the
Cincinnati Red Stockings.
Cincinnati fielders moved about in the field, according as the
different batsmen came to bat,” the Clipper story said, noting that it
most famous shift of the 20th century was used by Cleveland Indians
Manager Lou Boudreau against Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox
left-handed slugger, in July 1946, although there are accounts of a
shift against Williams dating to 1941.
earlier Williams, Cy, was a victim of the shift in the 1920s, and in
Japan teams used the Oh-Shiftu against Sadaharu Oh in 1964.
In his memoir, Boudreau said the shift was about not only defense but also the batter’s psychology. Maddon agreed.
are trying to split someone’s desires, his concentration, his
thoughts,” Maddon said. “It’s a psychological ploy as well.
They grew up
looking out from the batter’s box and the infield had a certain look to
it. Now when you look out there, people are in different places. How’s
that going to affect you in that at-bat?”
What are the risks of shifting? “None,” Maddon said.
might disagree. Last year at Fenway Park, Robinson Cano bunted
an empty third base against a Boston Red Sox shift and ended up with a
double. But Maddon pointed out that if Cano or any other dangerous
hitter preferred to bunt, that was O.K. with him. Better a bunt than a
the head of Baseball Info Solutions, said said his company did not recommend shifting in the outfield because the
data suggested that even pull hitters tended to hit the ball in the air
to the outfield either straight away or even to the opposite field
roughly 54 percent of the time. And the risks can be too great. A ball
that lands against a shifted outfield could conceivably go for an
inside-the-park home run by the time anyone runs it down.
the Astros’ general manager, said that as teams saw more of the shift,
they might discover ways to beat it. Bobby Valentine agrees. When he
managed the Mets in 1999, he had his infielder run to set positions as
the pitcher was delivering. He said that could be put into use by teams
who want to disguise their defense until the last moment, much like a
football team hiding its blitz.
“Someone will come up with something new,” Valentine said. “It will probably be Joe Maddon.”"
Second image: "The Atlantics of Brooklyn and the Athletics of Philadelphia in 1866 had infielders play nearer the bases.
Photography Collection, The New York Public Library," via NY Times