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:

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.

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.

37 Responses

  1. bohdi

    Five cold months of stagnant inactivity then the Reds extend Bailey and news like this start percolating. I, for one, am very excited for this season to begin. Despite the many question marks, I think this could be a special year for the Reds. Little things like this make me very optimistic. Between now and October the little things will add up.

  2. Drew Mac

    This is great news. This is likely to be one of the (along with bullpen management) two key areas to improve the team’s performance without changing the basic composition of the team. I, for one, expect a three to five game positive impact based upon this alone.

    • Joel

      @Drew Mac: 3 to 5 more wins is probably too extreme given that the team led the NL in defensive efficiency last year. I’m interested to see if there is much of a noticeable difference in their alignment. The Reds have been very good the last few years at positioning, even if they didn’t frequently use extreme shifts.

      • Drew Mac

        @Joel: I don’t believe that defensive efficiency would have much to do with the potential impact of a new emphasis on shifts. Also, I believe that there will surely be times where we will look at a “swinging bunt” from a lefty and wish Frazier would have been playing a normal third base. However, I believe (albeit with no sure fire metrics to back it up) that there will be many more instances in which a pull-happy lefty will hit a liner/hard grounder to BP playing a shallow left field.

        I do not think it is an accident that the Pirates were able to do as well as they did last year with their “shifty” approach. Now, admittedly, they coupled their defensive alignments with some starters who could throw some mean two-seamers to induce those ground balls that everyone is after. I think that Cueto and Homer and the fellas can do the same (with, perhaps, the exception being Leake).

  3. steveschoen

    I love this kind of talk. That’s why I am looking forward to this season. I’m almost expecting an entirely new team, since it’s going to be a new man at the helm. Since this man hasn’t been there before, seeing what he did with the pitching, I think it’s going to be interesting.

    I will say one thing, though. The increase in shifting is obvious. But, does it work? That’s what the numbers need to show. So, we would need to probably see something like the overall league batting average over those same years. Or, the number of hits over those same years, whether they went increased or decreased.

    • LWBlogger

      @steveschoen: That data is out there and offense across the board has gone down quite a bit from what I’ve seen. The question that is much harder to answer and that Bill James has posed is: How much of the decrease in offensive output is due to the shift (if any), and how much of it is due to other factors (fewer PEDs, better pitching in general, more emphasis on defensive ability in general, etc)?

      • steveschoen

        @LWBlogger: Exactly, LW. I would still do shifts, because I do think they are effective. But, the use doesn’t necessarily mean its effectiveness. Speed limit signs prove that wrong.

    • LWBlogger

      @FLARed: There’s a bit of a delay when doing an interview like that but I think most of Griffey’s on air behavior during that interview can be attributed to him simply being exhausted. That’s what it looks like to me anyway.

      • FLARed

        @LWBlogger: She did make a point that he had been doing a lot of interviews for Upper Deck’s anniversary. He commented at the bottom of the post that he wasn’t feeling well.

  4. CI3J

    I’m of two minds about this.

    On one hand, I don’t think shifting would make THAT much of a difference. Consider again these Bruce spray charts I posted in another thread:


    Obviously, Bruce has a lot of hits to right field. Lets say you put on the shift and put the 2nd baseman in the gap, the SS up the middle and the 3B in the left gap. How many hits would Bruce lose on this shift? Probably a fair number.

    But, here’s the real question: How many hits would Bruce GAIN from this shift? You can see he made quite a few outs to the left side of the field. Quite a few of those would probably be hits with the shift on, to say nothing of Bruce bunting to beat the shift.

    Some would say, however, that forcing a power hitter like Bruce to bunt might be a victory in itself, and that is where I think shifting might create an avantage: Pyschological. With the shift on, Bruce would come up to the plate thinking he HAD to get a hit to the left side or else hit an XBH. Hitting in baseball is already extrememly hard, and adding this extra layer of difficulty to it might be enough of an advantage for teams to make liberal use of it against certain types of hitters.

    But as always, it’s a gamble. It’s the difference between playing a zone defense or man to man defense in other sports. One is a safe bet, a bend-but-don’t-break approach, while the other attmepts to be in-your-face-give-’em-nothing scheme which can also lead to big plays if there is a mistake or miscalculation. In the end, I think if all things were equal it would end up being about a wash, but with the psychological edge, there just might be something to using defensive shifts.

  5. preach

    Since Jr and shifting have been part of the same thread: I remember how dramatically defenses would shift for the kid. I also remembering him beating it by just tapping a ball down the third base line which was now vacated. Not a gap shot, but a base hit none the less. Of course, KJG had great bat control and an eye for hitting, that doesn’t diminish with injury/age. I agree with the shifting philosophy; I’m just a little wary of over-shifting to hitters with good bat control. That’s a cavernous gap in the infield. It’s something that I think would require great communication and practice for the defense when runners are on base. Playing the numbers to me is a no brainer, as long as they are played smart.

  6. ebienen

    This might be the homer in me speaking, but I feel like proper shifts should be worth around a win (at least) over the course of 162 games. Do you have any data on this Steve?

    • Steve Mancuso

      @ebienen: I haven’t seen anyone quantify it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there somewhere. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone took the data and figured out how many runs in prevented (net) in a year – maybe all the Pirates shifting last year – and assume the standard 10 runs = 1 win formula.

      • greenmtred

        @Steve Mancuso: But, Steve: How would one quantify it? As Bill James pointed out, there are enough other factors that the effect of the shift couldn’t be isolated. I suppose a simple, pragmatic view (we got a lot of guys out and won the game) could be employed, but it still is a guess, since we can’t know what would have happened on that day if we didn’t use the shift. Seems worth trying, though. Certainty is impossible in many things.

      • Steve Mancuso

        @greenmtred: You’d have to get really granular about it, but yes, tedious and still not 100% accurate. Example, take the Pirates 2013 season, chart all the ground balls and figure out which ones they got to because of defensive shifts and how many of those affected runs scored. Basic stuff like runner at third, two outs, shortstop gets to the ball because of the shift. Saves one run. Some of that data is collected already to determine defensive efficiency stats.

  7. al

    The thing that blows me away is why it’s taken teams this long to figure this out. For a long time in baseball, you never saw a shift on the infield for anyone but a David Ortiz type power-hitting lefty.

    But it’s painfully obvious to me every time Zack Cozart goes to the plate that he’s trying to pull the ball. So why not shift on him too?

    Or think about how many hits Votto gets right up the middle. A few teams shifted up the middle on him last year, and I remember those games well because the centerfield camera would be on Votto, he’d rip one up the middle, I’d think it was a solid hit, and then he’d be out by 40 feet.

    I’m glad the Reds are catching up. They are a good defensive team, especially on the infield, so why not maximize a strength?

    • Drew Mac

      @al: Great point about Votto and his “up the middle” tendencies. If he had been hitting against his own team, the middle would have been open more often than not. This is the kind of information that leads me to believe that being a bit more shift happy will lead to a few more wins.

    • Steve Mancuso

      @al: A big part of the resistance comes from pitchers. They want the freedom to work inside and outside at will and not be straight-jacketed by the defensive positioning to throw to a certain part of the plate. The articles I’ve read about the Pirates situation always mention the importance of getting buy-ins from the staff. The Cardinals apparently give veteran pitchers veto power over shifting, but not to their younger pitchers. That’s an interesting approach.

  8. Andrew Ryan

    I know a few teams have been doing this for a couple years now and whether the shifts add any wins or not it’s just awesome to see that Price is willing to try new things to get some wins. Hopefully this is just one of the many things Price is willing to try with new data.

  9. TC

    I love listening to Price’s pregame chat with Marty. He’s thoughtful and I think a secret user of this blog. He sounds like one of us.

    Which one of you guys are really Bryan Price? Come one. Fess up.

  10. Drew Mac

    A couple of things now that I have the time. The shifts, themselves, are certainly not the sole reason why scoring is down. Surely, fewer PEDs and the new conditioning methods for pitching that are driving up velocities have much to do with this. However, I do believe that shifts, when coupled with particular pitching approaches, can work in tandem to maximize the likelihood that a hitter will do what the pitcher/defense want him to do.

    Think of it like this. How many times does Homer (or Latos or Arroyo the past couple of years) throw that little front door two-seamer to a LHB with the intent of either freezing the hitter (Homer and Latos), getting a loud strike in the form of a hard hit foul (Arroyo and, to a limited extent, Latos), or sawing the hitter off completely (Homer and Latos) and inducing a dribbler or short pop to the pitcher or to the first base side of the pitcher? . . . Other pitches are also somewhat predictable when a good pitcher is on the mound. Now, nobody wants to give away the store by shifting wildly between pitches based upon what sign is put down, but if certain hitters are prone to doing certain things with certain pitches, why not take advantage of these tendencies?

    I believe that a “shifty defense” is particularly helpful to a pitching staff like the Reds. These guys hit their spots more often than not. Even Leake, who I would consider the fifth starter at this point, is typically effective with location. I am tickled that they are going to leverage this strength of the pitching staff in order to accentuate an already solid defense. Again, this is not just about the fielders. This is about pitch execution and the Reds’ starting five can certainly execute pitches.

  11. ToddAlmighty

    Jeeze, has anyone blown up THIS badly once hitting the AAA level like Corcino has? Not only did his ERA jump from 3.01 in AA to 5.86 in AAA, but in his 3 appearances now in Spring Training, he’s gone 2 innings of 8 hit, 13 run, 7 walk ball. Such a short time for someone’s value to absolutely tank like that.

    http://www.minorleagueball.com/2012/1/8/2691712/cincinnati-reds-top-20-prospects-for-2012 …has him listed at #3 in 2012.
    http://cincinnati.reds.mlb.com/mlb/prospects/watch/y2012/?c_id=cin … has him at #4.

    • Shchi Cossack

      @ToddAlmighty: I was really hoping that Corcino would shake off last season and reestablish himself this season with a clean slate. Quite frankly, I don’t see a spot on the AAA roster for him at this point and Corcino is still occupying a spot on the 40 man roster. The best thing for him and the Reds might be for WJ to find someone willing to swap train wrecks and hope that a change of organizations might push the players back on the right track. Of course the last time Cincinnati swapped train wrecks, they got Volquez and gave up Hamilton.

      • ToddAlmighty

        @Shchi Cossack: I was hoping that Corcino could have been slipped into a trade as an additional piece before Spring Training started. I guess maybe they hoped with a good spring training his value to rise back up some? Either way, I think you might be right about seeing about trading wreck for wreck. Are there any other formerly high ranked prospects who’ve tanked in AAA for other teams out there that anyone knows about?

        (Side note: 2 HR for Heisey today. Obligatory Free Heisey! mention.)

  12. Shchi Cossack

    Nice to see Winker come over from the minor league complex for for the B game and hit a 2B in 2 AB.

    Ludwick and Votto are notoriously slow starters in spring training. I don’t think anyone with any baseball sense is concerned about Joey being ready to start the season, but question marks surrounded Ludwick even before the start of spring training. Heisey is mashing the ball with a slash line of .316/.316/.895 in 19 PA. That’s an .895 SLG with an OPS of 1.211! How long do we go before the discussion about the starting LF position becomes deafening? Heisey is a better defender in LF and a better base runner than Ludwick. Just sayin’.

    After today’s games, Phillips is carrying a .353 OBP and Hamilton is carrying a .471 OBP. I’m not delusional in thinking that Hamilton will continue his mercurial hitting into the regular season, but that’s the kind of performance we want out of the top of the order, right? Phillips has a BB% >11% and Hamilton has a BB% >17% this spring.

    There’s still a couple weeks before the final roster starts taking shape, but Santiago sure looks like he’s playing himself off the roster. The final two utility positions look like a contest between Soto, Bernadino and Diaz right now, depending on WJ ‘s and Price’s emphasis on offense or defense in the utility IF role.

    • TC

      @Shchi Cossack: I find myself really pulling for Soto this Spring. He’s always just been one of the prospects that never really excited me. But now it’s different. He looks ready.

    • greenmtred

      @Shchi Cossack: I agree: Heisey is decent outfielder and an aggressive player, but the problem with him is the same as always: He’ll briefly look like a dangerous hitter (this is spring training, though), but he really doesn’t maintain it when he gets into the lineup. If Ludwick fails, and I hope that he doesn’t, I expect that Heisey will be given another chance to confirm that he’s a utility outfielder, not a starter. And, of course, he might prove the opposite. But it seems unlikely.

  13. TC

    The shift works best when working in conjunction with the pitcher. If the pitcher throws low and inside to a right handed pitcher, the hitter has three options. One, open up the hips and drop a hard grounder to the left side, two, inside-out his hands and hit a line-drive to the opposite field, and three, lay a bunt to the open spot between the pitchers mound and 1st base. So, if you bring the 1st basemen forward, drop the second baseman back into shallow right, left the 3B hug the line and bring the SS closer the 3rd. Meanwhile move the outfield closer the right, the chances of a ball finding an open spot is extremely low.

    The pitcher takes away options, the field covers the options. For a hitter to beat the shift they have to chance up their rhythm. Swing early, swing late, whatever. Do something they don’t do naturally. It’s forces a hitter to be uncomfortable. Doesn’t let him find his balance, his stroke.

  14. Shchi Cossack

    I just checked in on the game today…ugh! 1st inning, Hamilton walks. Hamilton steals 2B. Hamilton steals 3B. Votto walks. Bruce walks. Cozart, hitting in the #2 hole for the 2nd game in a row (WHAT!!!), strikes out. Frazier strikes out. Mesoraco pops out in the infield. No runs scored. This is starting to sound like a broken record Reds fans.

    I know it’s spring training, but Cozart has no business hitting in the #2 hole ever. He’s a free-swinging slugger, not an on base aficianado. At least one of the RH hitters has to hit the ball and drive in some runs.

    • ToddAlmighty

      @Shchi Cossack: Yeah, I am hoping it’s just Spring Training, but I have seen an awful lot of Cozart/backup SS batting #2 and Ludwick batting #4 in between Votto and Bruce. Was under the impression that kind of stuff was supposed to stop. I’ll wait until the end of Spring Training though before I make any proper judgement/complaint.

  15. ken

    Great piece – would love to see the Reds take a more progressive approach towards defense. Though they haven’t been as shift-averse as you might think. They were 4th in the NL last year (spreadsheet from Jeff Zimmerman). They’ve gone from 43 to 78 to 226 in shifts used over the past three years.