Some More Information on the New Shifting Zeitgeist

Yesterday, Corinne Landrey wrote about the Phillies’ intent to utilize defensive shifting more often during the 2014 season after ranking 29th in shifts used last season. I came across two recent articles regarding shifting which may be pertinent to the Fightins.

The first is from MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince on Tuesday:

As far as the metrics are concerned, the numbers of defensive shifts on balls in play tracked by Baseball Info Solutions’ (BIS) video studies over the last four seasons were as follows:

2010: 2,465
2011: 2,358
2012: 4,577
2013: 8,134

A 94-percent jump from 2011-12 is eye-catching, in and of itself. A 245-percent rise from 2011-13 is meteoric.

“I would say it’s in large part due to much more attention being paid to the data,” said a National League advance scout. “Even something as simple as spray charts include much more information than what was previously available.”Anthony Castrovince, MLB.com

Castrovince adds that, as the shift has become more in vogue over the last couple of seasons, opposite-field BABIP has risen dramatically, perhaps a function of teams valuing players who are immune to the shift more than they had in the past.

Also of interest — the Nationals and Tigers hired new managers in Matt Williams and Brad Ausmus. Both are forward-thinking and accepting of the data-driven way the game is played now. Their respective teams have hired someone who is more or less a “defensive coordinator” — someone providing input on proper positioning based on scouting and play-by-play data.

The Phillies aren’t there yet, but this is a good foreshadowing of the way baseball will be played going forward. Let’s hope they’re not three years late to the party adapting the latest and greatest ways teams are getting a leg up on the competition.

Next up, WEEI’s Alex Speier wrote about reliever Burke Badenhop’s plea for shifting:

“I go back and look through the Rolodex of all my outs for the year [2011 with the Marlins], nowadays we have access to some good stuff and I can pull up how many outs the third baseman makes, whether a five-unassisted or 5-3 or 5-4, and I think it was five plays. Our third baseman was positioned where he fielded five ground balls after the fifth month of the year? What’s the point of him being out there? I’d rather him cover some of those dinky balls in the six-hole. He might as well be hitting off the tee getting ready for his next at-bat if he’s fielding one ball a month.

“I know when I brought that up to our infield coach in Miami,” Badenhop conceded, “he wasn’t as receptive as other places I’ve been.”

The Red Sox — who acquired Badenhop during the offseason in exchange for 20-year-old Luis Ortega — represent a different sort of organization, as did Badenhop’s more recent teams (Tampa Bay under Joe Maddon and Milwaukee under Ron Roenicke). The reliever has already begun the conversations with members of the Boston staff to discuss defensive positioning behind him. It’s a conversation in which Badenhop is more than happy to engage as he tries to maximize his middle-innings impact as a right-hander who gets grounders in volume, particularly from right-handed hitters.Alex Speier, WEEI.com

On MLB Network Radio on Sunday, GM Ruben Amaro noted that he signed “the number one and number two ground ball guys in the league”. He embellished a little: Roberto Hernandez has the fourth-highest ground ball rate (57.7%) in baseball since he started pitching regularly in 2007, trailing Brandon Webb, Derek Lowe, and Tim Hudson. A.J. Burnett has the 27th-highest ground ball rate since 2005 at 51.2 percent. Also on that list: Aaron Cook (7th, 57.5%), John Lannan (21st, 52.9%), Roy Halladay (24th, 52.3%), and Joel Pineiro (30th, 50.7%). All of them have spent time with the Phillies recently, so the club has shown at least some appreciation for worm burners even if they haven’t helped them out with the appropriate defensive alignments.

Here’s a look at Hernandez’s spray charts against left- and right-handed hitters last season, illustrating how shifting can help:

And Burnett:

In the sidebar of Castrovince’s article, he notes that Ryan Howard took the fourth-most at-bats against the shift (218). His BABIP without the shift was .533 compared to .312 with the shift on. Howard is one of the most obvious candidates for the shift. All you have to do is look at his spray chart:

While the Phillies are focusing on shifting their defense, they should also be encouraging Howard to try to beat the shift. It’s not as if Howard has always been a pull hitter. In his prime, Howard was among the leaders in home runs to the opposite field, frequently dunking home runs just over the fence in left field at Citizens Bank Park. As he has gotten older, however, he has become pull-focused, as I noted in 2011. Not only should Howard work on hitting to the opposite field, but he should lay down a bunt every so often to keep opposing defenses honest. That will force them to weigh the pros and cons with an additional wrench thrown in — they can shift, but they risk Howard slicing a ground ball or a line drive down the left field line and they risk Howard dropping down a bunt towards the vacated third base bag for an easy infield single. Following that, the defense may not shift as heavily, which will open up new opportunities for Howard to get hits to the right side.

Shifting has and will continue to become a meta-game in baseball. It’s relevant to every pitcher and every hitter on every pitch in every at-bat. Teams have been slow to come around on it because the application of widely-available data is so new, but as teams eye the success the Pirates and Rays, for example, have had recently, they’ll be implementing it in rapid-fire succession and the Phillies are among them.

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14 comments

    • Gabor Kari

      March 06, 2014 11:07 AM

      I believe he has bunted once last year… and everybody laughed at him. Maybe he’ll pick it back up this year.

      • Phillie697

        March 06, 2014 12:46 PM

        He gets paid $25M a year to help us win, not to do everything he can not to get laughed at. What is he, 8 years old?

  1. Bill Petti

    March 06, 2014 09:39 AM

    It will be interesting how deep they go with the shifts and how they prioritize hitter-pitchers match ups. They shifted on Freeman, but he’s not a huge shift candidate based on where his GBs have gone the past two years. At least, not as drastic as Howard: public.tableausoftware.com/shared/N24K76SWH?:display_count=no

    Granderson is probably a better shift candidate than a guy like Freeman: public.tableausoftware.com/shared/Z5S5G5Y6D?:display_count=no

  2. Bob

    March 06, 2014 11:07 AM

    Hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult skills in all of professional sports. Hitting a 90 mph fastball or an offspeed pitch the opposite way with any sort of consistency is even harder. To suggest that Howard has the ability to take balls the opposite way at a rate consistent with his pull numbers at this stage of his career is wishful thinking. To hit opposite field homeruns, one must (1) be in prime physical state, (2) get lucky, or (3) have chemical assistance. It’s just that hard. I haven’t looked at all the data – or very much frankly – but the Phillies leading HR hitter had exactly zero oppo-boppos last year. I believe Ruf had two with one being less than 350 feet. Out of 11 homeruns last year, Howard hit 4 the opposite way, which is actually a good rate. I’d be more than happy if he put up a similar rate in 2014.

    • Bill Baer

      March 06, 2014 11:19 AM

      A player is more likely to hit to the opposite field when he gets older and worse because he’s losing bat speed. You need bat speed, or to swing way too early, to pull the ball.

      • Bob

        March 06, 2014 11:40 AM

        So what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t read too much into his rate of opposite field homeruns last year because they could’ve been unintentional and just due to declining bat-speed? How would you know then whether he changes his approach to hit opposite field homeruns in 2014 like you suggest or whether it’s the result of declining batspeed? I guess based on these past few injury plagued years we’ll never have enough data to truly know.

      • Bill Baer

        March 06, 2014 12:26 PM

        I was just pointing that out because you stated it matter-of-factly.

        As I linked in the body of the article, Howard has been more pull-happy in recent years compared to the past. It seems like a combination of his own intentions as well as the way pitchers are approaching him. You’re not going to be depositing many sliders low-and-away over the fence in left field, even if you are Ryan Howard.

        Percentage-wise, Howard didn’t hit as many HR to the opposite field anyway:

      • Phillie697

        March 06, 2014 12:51 PM

        Are we seriously discussing “trends” and “rates” based on 11 ABs? How about noticing the bigger elephant in the room in that he went from hitting 31 and 33 HRs to 14 and 11? I really cannot wait for Ryan Howard to actually stay healthy for an entire season so that those who still have “faith” in him will realize he’s not worthy of your “faith” anymore.

      • Bob

        March 06, 2014 12:55 PM

        From the illustrations, it looks like he hit 11/31 the opposite way in 2010 for about 35%. In 2011, he hit about 8/33 for 24% – maybe 9 if you want to stretch it a little. In 2012, he hit 5/14 for 35% and, in 2013, he hit 4/11 for 36%. Based on this limited sampling, it appears as though Howard hits about 35% of his homeruns the opposite way in the past 4 years. At what rate do you think he should hit opposite field homeruns? I think 35% is pretty solid. Not Chris Davis or Miguel Cabrera like, but decent.

      • Bob

        March 06, 2014 01:38 PM

        A little bit more . . . in 2006 Howard hit about 27/58 the opposite way for 46%. In 2007, he hit 12/47 the opposite way for 27%. In 2008, he hit 24/48 the opposite way for 50%. Lastly, in 2009, he hit 16/45 the opposite way for 35%. I didn’t breakdown percentage hit to either center or right and I included marginal HRs that were left of center as opposite field for the most part. Used ESPN’s homerun tracker. Roughly from 2009-2013 he hits opposite way at about 35% clip. I still say that’s good.

      • Bill Baer

        March 06, 2014 01:47 PM

        Focusing only on home runs is missing the forest for the trees anyway, because Howard still needs to hit doubles and singles to maintain a respectable average and on-base percentage. Even if he’s not hitting home runs to the opposite field, driving singles and doubles between the left field line and center field was and still is crucial to his success.

      • Bob

        March 06, 2014 02:27 PM

        I don’t disagree with that. I think my posts have reflected my take on the notion of Howard hitting homeruns – not singles and doubles – the opposite way. I thought that is what we were discussing with respect to my initial post particularly when you posted only homerun totals in the illustrations. If you’re saying the data set that I looked at is borderline irrelevant, I’ll take your word for it. You’re the expert; not me.

  3. Scott G

    March 06, 2014 04:48 PM

    Is Burke Badenhop my new favorite player?

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