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:
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:
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.