If you’re desperately hoping that the new boss ain’t the same as the old boss, look no further than Bryan Price’s view of defensive shifts. Citing “pretty dramatic” data, the Reds’ first-year manager recently said the team will take more advantage of hit-chart data to shift their defensive alignment (Mark Sheldon).
“I think we’re going to be a little bit more inclined to set our defense in the areas of the field where the highest percentage of balls are hit based on the hitter. It makes sense. There will definitely be times where the hitter beats the shift. But the data is pretty dramatic.”
The skyrocketing number of defensive shifts in the major leagues makes the overall trend crystal clear. Here is the raw data (Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com):
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.
In November, I wrote (Will the Reds Shift Their Ground?) about the growing trend among baseball teams to put more emphasis on defensive shifts, including examples from Washington and Detroit of organizations hiring what amount to defensive coordinators.
John Dewan, an authority on defensive analytics in baseball (he authors The Fielding Bible), recently wrote: “Defense in baseball has gone unnoticed for a long time. I expect that there will come a time in baseball where shifting by batter and even by count and pitch type will become as commonplace as NFL defensive changes based on the down and distance situation. The Tampa Bay Rays are getting close to that now, and as they continue to succeed, other teams will begin to emulate their success, as they have begun doing.”
Price and the Reds appear to have found their Mike Zimmer in new bench coach Jay Bell, who worked on the Pittsburgh Pirates coaching staff last year. The Pirates’ aggressive use of “optimized defensive positioning” was credited as a factor in their breakout 2013 season. Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle is so convinced of the benefits of shifting he intends to do it even more this season (Castrovince):
The Pirates, meanwhile, essentially ignore the publicly available data and insist they used “optimized defensive positioning” on literally every plate appearance by the opposition. They are convinced that infield shifts were so instrumental in the progress of their pitching staff in the organization’s first winning season in 21 years that they plan to expand their use of the shift this season to incorporate more aggressive outfield positioning, as well. “There’s not a doubt in anybody’s mind,” said Bucs manager Clint Hurdle, “that this was a gap-closer for us.”
Run production in baseball overall was at a twenty-year low in 2013. The exact contribution of defensive shifting to that trend line remains controversial, with skeptics residing even inside the sabermetrics community, including number-crunching pioneer Bill James. How much of “fewer runs scored” is due to optimizing defensive alignment or how much is due to factors like declining use of PEDs and greater pitching velocity is unclear.
What is clear is Bryan Price’s welcome openness to take a good, honest look at the data.