The defensive shift is having a moment. It’s of course being used more than ever, and now even by certain crotchety types who’d previously resisted it. Royals manager Ned Yost, for example, is skeptical of statistics that support use of the shift, and in fact is vocally in favor of the shift being banned altogether; also, his Royals have deployed the shift more than all but one team in baseball. Teams are on pace to deploy something like 32,000 defensive shifts in 2018, a potential increase of around 10,000 over last season.
But that’s only part of the moment it’s having. Where everyone now knows what defensive shifts do to balls in play—BABIP this season and last against defensive shifts is about .281, versus .299 against standard defensive alignment, per Mike Petriello of MLB.com—it’s also looking increasingly like those gains tell only part of the story, and perhaps overrate the value of defensive shifts at the vastly more important job of keeping batters off base. ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle recently compiled various analyses that show, perhaps counterintuitively, that batters in some circumstances have had more success getting on base against shifts than you’d expect:
The shocker was this: Pitchers walk more batters when throwing in front of a shift. In fact, the extra number of walks exceed the number of singles saved by the strategy.
Once you factor in the walks and the slightly higher home run rates (i.e., the increased launch angles meant to hit the ball over the shift), batters have put up a .336 wOBA against the shift versus a .334 on non-shifted players.
The basic idea is that baseball is played differently by pitchers and batters when the defense is aligned differently around the yard. Batters bring a different approach to the plate, in some cases looking more selectively for pitches up and prioritizing launch angle—Justin Turner summed it up by saying “you don’t beat the shift by hitting around it or through it, you beat the shift by hitting over it.” And pitchers—not all of whom are in favor of realigning the defense behind them—might be attacking hitters differently, eschewing use of the whole plate in favor of pitches that would tend to induce contact into the overloaded half of the field. This push and pull—pitchers trying to pitch into the shift, batters trying to avoid it—has produced the unexpected result that batters—especially righties, who see the more dramatic decrease in BABIP against the shift—are slugging better and producing a higher weighted on-base average against the shift.
But the shift is now so ingrained in the way baseball is played in the majors, and the BABIP gains are so decisively in favor of the pitching team, that teams are nowhere close to abandoning it over a few pesky details, especially since, armed with new analysis, teams can continue tinkering with new strategies to reverse the wOBA problem. Shifts are here, and if anything they’re getting more dramatic. For example: A whopping 85 percent of the pitches Rangers first baseman Joey Gallo has seen this season have come again a shifted infield, and he’s faced a league-high 29 pitches against the ultra-rare four-outfielder alignment. The Astros—who do more shifting than any other team in baseball—famously broke out the four-man outfield against Gallo back in late March, to a collective oh REALLY; it is now spreading to other clubs. The Rockies—not an especially shift-happy team, having deployed it a whopping 599 fewer times than the Astros this season— debuted their own four-outfielder look against Gallo last night, shifting Nolan Arenado not just vaguely into left field, but deep into the outfield, as a by-God fourth outfielder:
Sadly, this single at-bat will not illuminate anything new about the subtleties of the shift. Gallo didn’t fly out to the fourth outfielder; he didn’t punch a grounder into the loaded right side of the infield; he didn’t fist one through the left side; and he didn’t walk. He struck out, which is boring and conventional. The numbers supporting the shift will continue to evolve, especially as the teams that suck at it—looking at you, Phillies—figure out what the hell they’e doing. There may even come a time when some combination of ever more detailed analysis and a new exploitable inefficiency in batters who know how to spray the ball around leads to the shift sliding out of favor, without Yost having his way and MLB cracking down on it. But in the meantime, it looks like the four-outfielder alignment, the shift’s newest and most radical mutation, is spreading.