Here’s Why Baseball Looks Nothing Like Five Years Ago
Thanks to MLB’s sabermetrics revolution, the defensive shift has changed the basic principles of the game. So what does the data tell us about baseball’s future?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we must beware the all-knowing baseball forecasting genius.
Anyone who grew up playing pickup baseball knows all too well the benefits — and dangers — of the defensive shift. “Leftyyyy!” the children scream as a left-side brute lumbers into the batter’s box. On command, the fielders shift — favoring the right side of whatever blacktop or sandlot is playing host that day, taking away the slugger’s pull side. It’s an age-old strategy, and stubborn adolescents aren’t known for making plate adjustments. Turns out, neither are their modern-day major league heroes.
MLB teams used 26,705 defensive shifts last season — 19,823 more than in 2013.
Defensive shifts are now far more common in major league ballparks than on the playground. Lefties, righties, switch hitters — it doesn’t matter. Every team has a binder full of data explaining opponents’ tendencies, and the pace — and specificity — of defensive shifts has reached an all-time high.
As a strategy, the infield shift dates to the 1920s and was famously used against Boston legend Ted Williams throughout the 1940s, but it’s only become commonplace in recent years. The sabermetrics craze of the past two decades has led to an all-out information revolution in baseball. Even organizations with reputations for being old school have embraced the benefits of empirical data. Thus, countless adaptations of baseball strategy have become the norm with the most visually obvious mutation being the shift.
“The battle has been won by the shifters,” says MLB Network host Brian Kenny about what was once one of baseball’s most contentious debates. “It’s just funny that it’s been a century in the making.”
It may have taken a century for traditional baseball minds to yield their hearts to numbers, but the truly progressive developments are taking shape now. Front offices and managers have accumulated so much data that “hyperspecific profiles” are attached to every batter in the league, says Kenny.
So, when Chicago slugger Kris Bryant comes to the plate, it’s no longer just the infielders who shade to one side. Outfielders know exactly how deep to position themselves, infielders shift into specific coordinates based on Bryant’s ball placement percentages and the pitcher’s game plan plays to those spots. “Balls are being scorched, but there’s already a defender standing there,” says Kenny. “Defensive range is not nearly as important today.”
While the exponential frequency of shifts may be a mere signifier of a larger trend — the specificity of defensive placement, for instance — there’s undoubtedly a reason why so many shifts are occurring. One obvious reason is to diminish left-handed sluggers. Last season, on balls put in play to the pull side, left-handers reached base at a frighteningly low rate of .197. A left-hander’s only hope of reaching base is the home run or opposite field hit, and “not many batters are going the other way,” says former infielder Mark DeRosa.
Another reason? Young, former ball-playing managers are being hired by front offices that totally embrace analytics. Three rookie MLB managers — Boston’s Alex Cora, the Mets’ Mickey Callaway and Philadelphia’s Gabe Kapler — inherited clubs ranked near the bottom in shifts last season. Add fellow first-timers Aaron Boone (Yankees) and Dave Martinez (Nationals) to the mix, and that makes five new managers who all played in the era of emerging sabermetrics. Expect to see even more frequent and specific shifts in coming seasons.
Besides the implications that accompany the death of the base hit, one thing to consider when monitoring the shift is how pitchers respond to the new style of ball. “You’d be a fool not to use the shift if the numbers don’t lie,” says DeRosa. “But I’m a big believer in positive psyche.… If seeing a ball roll through the left side of the infield is going to mess with the pitcher, then we have a problem.”
So far, the only surefire means of defeating the shift is for batters to hit the ball the other way. Even bunts can be effective. But for reasons ranging from monetary to manhood — bunting against the shift is largely viewed as cheap, and batters know that today’s most valued players are unrelenting home run hitters — a leaguewide counter strategy has yet to be embraced. “If I’m a manager, I’m bunting until the cows come home,” says Kenny. “Eventually someone will take advantage by bucking the trend.”
Until then? Get used to long balls, corralled rockets and a lack of action on the basepaths.