There are very few teams in baseball that possess the type of home run power that can be found north of the border in Toronto. They Jays have already gone deep 31 times in just 25 games, trailing only the Braves and Yankees in the long ball department. Prolific sluggers like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion have plenty of power to put on a display, but it’s not just them. Catcher J.P Arencibia looks poised to set a new career high in homer this year, blasting 8 already this season to go along with 15 RBI and Colby Rasmus has used his pull-happy approach to knock 4 out of the park thus far.
But that homer-happy approach that the Blue Jays’ hitters are so fond of also has its negative effects as well. Toronto batters are hitting just .226 this season, good for last in the American League. The Blue Jays have also averaged nearly 8 strikeouts a game as a lineup which stands as the 3rd most in the AL and their hitters whiff three times as often as they take a walk. In fact, most of the Toronto hitters appear so intent on trying to hit the ball 400 feet that they have completely abandoned most good hitting practices.
Every season there are some players with some alarmingly large pull tendencies. These hitters, due to the fact that they show a dominant pattern of hitting the ball in one direction, should be shifted. Bill James and John Dewan, two major players in the MLB statistical community, have speculated that any hitter that pulls the ball in one direction 80% of the time or more should be shifted, but I tend to side with a more aggressive approach, and advocate shifting or shading the defense if a hitter exhibits a pull tendency 70% or more. Some classic examples of extreme pull hitters include David Ortiz, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Pena. All three of those hitters are classic sluggers who have put up big homerun numbers at some point in their respective careers. But other than those hitters, who in Major League Baseball is that pull-happy to warrant a shift on defense? Let’s take a look at a couple of players over the next few days, starting with right-handed hitters.
Albert Pujols is playing in his 82nd game as an Angel tonight against the Baltimore Orioles, and its safe to say the first half of the 1st year of the rest of his career has been a bumpy one. Pujols had the worst April of his career, taking 31 games to hit his first long ball as a member of the Angels. The team predictably struggled as well, going 8-15 in the month of April before dominating throughout May (18-11) and June (17-9). Admittedly, the MVP-level of play from Mike Trout has probably been the biggest driving factor behind the Angels success, but when your slugging 1st baseman starts doing just that it doesn’t hurt either. On the other side of the coin, is the St. Louis Cardinals, who objected to matching the lofty $240 million/10-year deal Pujols was able to net and spent their money elsewhere while hoping big 2nd halfs from David Freese, Rafael Furcal, and Allen Craig would carry over to 2012. So far each team is solidly entrenched in the playoff chase, and both sides should have reason to feel happy about the transition of the future-Hall-of-Fame 1st baseman from the Midwest out to LA.
Toronto manager John Farrell is now in his 2nd season at the helm of a big league team, and has proven to be a very adept and talented manager, particularly when it comes to the deployment of his defense. For most of the season the Blue Jays have ranked in the top 5 as one of the shiftiest teams in baseball. In terms of defensive efficiency, which analyzes the percentage of balls put into play that are converted into outs, the Jays rank 7th in baseball, turning batted balls into outs an excellent 70.3% of the time. In terms of Defensive Runs Saved, which is calculated by the very smart people at Baseball Info Solution and used to determine Baseball-Reference.com’s formula for Wins Above Replacement, the Jays have saved the most runs in baseball and it’s not even close. Toronto is credited with 81 total defensive runs saved, while the two next closest teams, the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, have each been credited with 34 runs saved. Toronto has solid defenders all around the diamond, and John Farrell has been able to accentuate that with his shifts, particularly his use of Brett Lawrie.
One trend I noticed and paid special attention to over the weekend was the use of defensive shifts by the Royals and Yankees. Both teams used a variety of shifts, mostly on left-handed hitters, successfully and frequently. These teams came into the series ranking in the top-5 in baseball in defensive shifts, using the tactic over 50 times apiece, nearly 100 shifts less the Rays. I was able to capture a few of the defensive setups and I want to discuss the variety of factors that go into playing shifts.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals frequently shifted on the Yankee lefties all series long. More than not they used the standard overshift, which looks something like this, which was used on Mark Teixeira:
The Royals played an overshift on Mark Teixeira every time he came to the plate. Teixeira was unfazed by the shift, although he had little success against it, drawing a walk and flying out a couple of times. The Royals’ defense isn’t shifted as severely as some teams shift Teixeira, (Tampa Bay would be one, playing their 2nd baseman about 20 feet deeper) but they place a fielder, in this case 2nd baseman Chris Getz, right in the hole and the shortstop plays up the middle. 3rd baseman Mike Moustakas was typically playing about 25-30 feet off the line against the lefty sluggers, and as you can see the base isn’t even in the picture.
Here’s another look at the shift they used against Nick Swisher, which was also somewhat effective:
The shift worked on Swisher once, taking away a ground ball single into hole on the right side of the infield. Swisher also hit a mammoth solo homerun in the game, so its evident that the shift didn’t bother him too much.
The shift the Royals used on Robinson Cano was even more drastic.
Kansas City played him very deep all around the infield, and pulled all of their fielders about 8-12 steps right. Cano has been a little more pull happy this season and defenses are catching on. The Royals took away a couple hits from Cano over the course of the series with the shift, but on Sunday he was able to get a fat pitch from Luke Hochevar and deposit it into the seats.
Hochevar’s poor performance, allowing 7 runs in less than 3 innings again proves that one of the most important aspects to the shift is a quality pitcher. Without one it just doesn’t work, just like on Sunday in Kansas City.
New York Yankees
The Yankees used the shift as well during this series, although not as much as Kansas City. The Yankees have used defensive shifts much more this season, ranking in the top-5 after finishing around the middle of the league last year. They have even begun to use the shift on right handed hitters like they did against doubles machine Billy Butler on Sunday.
The struggling Eric Hosmer also saw a form of a shift from the Yankees defense. When he came up to the plate the Yankees shaded him to pull the ball left. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter each moved about 5-10 feet left, giving Hosmer the 3rd base line and taking away more up the middle. Cano and Teixeira played fairly standard on the right side, and they Yankees were able to continue Hosmer’s frustrating season. Here’s an example of the shade the Yankees played:
Hosmer appears to be uncomfortable at the plate right now, so it was tough to tell if his struggles were due to a mechanical problem, or if the scouting report has caught up to his talent. The Royals should still continue to play Hosmer every day and let him work through his struggles in order to regain his .300 hitting ability.
Teams across the league seem to be catching on to what Tampa Bay has been doing for years. Its not just the little guys either. The most expensive baseball franchise, the Yankees, are also seeing the value in defensive positioning and is taking advantage of the new information available. It should also be a positive sign in Kansas City that the front office is using the information available and is actively trying to get the Royals back to the playoffs. It was interesting to watch in person how the defenses were moving and adjusting based on scouting reports, and its just another sign of the information age in baseball.
Joe Maddon has employed many different varieties of shifts this season and I’ve tried to watch as much of the Rays as I can so far this season to gain a feel whether the shifts are working or not. From what I am seeing so far, the result tends to be a net positive, because very few hitters actually hit the ball to beat the shift, plays usually result in an out. This is just an early estimation, and because defensive numbers are so unreliable, particularly with a small sample size, we will have to put that judgment off for another day.
First let’s take a look at a few reasons Tampa can use the shift more liberally. One of the big reasons is that Tampa Bay has an excellent, hard-throwing pitching staff that ranks 4th in the American League in strikeouts. A couple of their pitchers, Jeremy Hellickson and James Shields like pitching to the shift, and will even position infielders themselves, based on which pitch sequence they want to throw. This caliber of pitching staff tends to further exaggerate the success of the shift a little bit, but could also play a role in getting inside hitters’ heads.
It is also difficult to weigh the mental effect the shift has on hitters, because when many hitters see the shift they change their approach and get frustrated. After seeing the shift during the Opening Series in Tampa, Nick Swisher said, “Righties, lefties, it doesn’t really matter. It feels like there’s 15 guys on the right side of the infield or the left side of the infield.” Other hitters, such as Albert Pujols, have also appeared frustrated by the shift after seeing a normal base hit go directly toward a fielder.
The numbers are interesting as well so far, with the Rays having shifted 125 recorded times so far this season, according to ESPN. According to baseball prospectus, the Rays rank 2nd in baseball in defensive runs saved. However in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the number of balls put in play that are turned into outs, they only rank 20th. It’s way to early to put stock into any of those numbers, as defensive efficiency and defensive runs saved require very large sample sizes. Tampa used the shift more times than any other Major League team a season ago, and produced a fantastic defense, so Maddon’s decision to use it even more this season isn’t too much of a surprise, just him pushing the envelope.
So we have 125 cases over the course of the 1st month of the season. Let’s take a look at a few of the times the shift has worked this year, and a few of the hitters that Maddon has had particular success with, and why.
He has grounded into 2 outs this season on the left side of the infield, and 17 times he has hit a grounder to the left side for an out. This is not a recent trend either, because Granderson has always been a pull hitter, especially on ground balls. Joe Maddon knows this and intelligently deployed his shift, taking away multiple base hits from the Yankee centerfielder. In this particular video, Maddon places Sean Rodriguez, the shortstop, just to the right of 2nd base. He has his 2nd baseman, Elliot Johnson, playing deep in the hole with 1st baseman Carlos Pena holding the runner. The Rays ended up winning the game by 1 run, 7-6, and this double play was a rally killer for the Yankees. Rodriguez also took another hit away from Granderson, in nearly the same spot later in the game as well.
Maddon has also taken his shifts one step further this season, employing them nearly as often on right-handed hitters as lefties. Pujols saw the shift in all the games of a recent series. Maddon placed his 3rd baseman Evan Longoria on the line, his shortstop was planted deep in the hole, and his 2nd baseman was located on the left side of the base, shaded toward the middle. It was the perfect alignment for the struggling slugger because Pujols has been a pull hitting machine this year.
Pujols has 2 total outs to the infield on the right side this season, and is making outs all over the place on the left side of the infield. Maddon’s wisely deployed shifts stole hits from Pujols as well. One rocket line drive down the line was snared by a waiting Evan Longoria, taking away a double, and a sharp hit grounder in the hole was easily handled by Elliot Johnson. Again the Rays played a couple of close games in the series against Los Angeles, and Maddon’s maneuvering could be giving the Rays a slight edge.
The Rays also employ various shifts for switch-hitters as well. Mark Teixeira, the Yankees slugging 1st baseman, saw infield alignments that included 3 players on both sides of the infield, depending on which way he was batting. As you can see from Teixeira’s spray charts, he is a dead pull hitter when he hits the ball on the ground, and Maddon played him that way.
The Rays were able to turn multiple hits into outs on Teixeira as well. Teixeira hit a hard liner that was right at shortstop Sean Rodriguez, who was playing up the middle, and the Rays also took away a grounder in the hole with the shift.
Maddon is particularly adept at calling these shifts against the Yankees, and in the Opening Series of the season, he was able to successfully use the shift on half the New York lineup. This is an encouraging sign for Tampa Bay, because any advantage they can get on their wealthier rivals helps.
Over the course of the season I plan on looking at cases where the shift fails, the Rays pitchers who like the shift (particularly Hellickson), and the variety of shifts which Maddon will employ.