There seems to be a narrative out there that the Cincinnati Reds need to stop shifting on defense. Why this narrative exists is tough to understand. First, teams aren’t doing it while facing the information that they are costing themselves outs. If the data showed that it wasn’t working, they would stop doing it. But the data is very clear: It’s working. Yes, we can all remember the ground ball that would have gone right to the third baseman had he been playing in a “normal” positioned spot. And that’s probably why the narrative exists: Humans remember the negative far more than the mundane and normal. The “easy” play isn’t remembered. And many of these shifted outs that are converted look easy. And they look that way because shifting is actually working.

Baseball Info Solutions Andrew Kyne took a look at the data in 2019 thus far on a team by team basis. What he was looking for was how close fielders began the play to where the ball ultimately crossed the players area (based on a gridded field). Kyne looked at all ground balls have gone, and how close each teams fielders were on them at the start of the play, versus how close they would have been in a “normal” spot for a non-shifted fielder would be.

The Cincinnati Reds rank 2nd best here, trailing just the Arizona Diamondbacks. 39% of the ground balls hit against the Reds saw their fielders begin the play within a 3° angle. A traditional alignment, based on Kyne’s data, would have had the Reds defense with only a 28% rate. The 11% difference represents an increase of 39% over the “normally played infield defense”. The Reds are seeing a significant improvement in the likelihood that their fielders are going to make a play by shifting. Only one team in baseball, the Boston Red Sox, were actualyl doing worse in this break down. They were at a 0.6% difference between shifting versus a normal defense.

The data is clear. Shifting works. And for the Cincinnati Reds, their shifting and positioning has given them a larger advantage than 28 other teams in baseball versus a normal defensive alignment. Remember that the next time a routine grounder goes into the outfield that would have been fielded by a normally positioned guy that even though that happened, the shift is still working out more than it’s not. And that is what matters in the end, as frustrating as you may get seeing the times that it didn’t work out.

29 Responses

  1. Pete

    Run prevention is not the Reds issue. To not use every valuable tool available, is negligent. Many good things have come to us in 2019 but we have one serious sinkhole. To worry about reliance on analytics, or in this case shifts, misses the point. In fact, outside of hitting, everything else I would give very high marks. Unfortunately, for a team who plays half its schedule at GABP, not being able to generate runs is a calamity.

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  2. Phil it up

    The shift is killing the lefties on the mound. Wandy and Amir both have cheap runs added to their ERA because of the shift but of course you will argue with me because it goes against what you believe.

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    • Doug Gray

      Sigh.

      The data is clear that the Reds are being helped, quite a bit, by the shift.

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      • Pete

        Pot calling the kettle black. Keep up the good work. many of us have been swayed by your, and the other RLN writers, solid reasoning through the years.

      • Mason Red

        Oh so what you’re saying is the Reds could be the worst team in the NL instead of the 3rd worst if not for the shift?

    • Wayne nabors

      He relies on fact not opinions,even tho facts are merely how it is drawn up by the author of said facts

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    • Dave

      The difference here is in the rationale. Doug (and others who know the stats) bases their beliefs in aggregate data, which is fact, this has all actually occurred – instead of basing his beliefs on an example or two that confirm what he wanted to believe/already believed. His belief is a conclusion based on an analysis of all the available facts; yours is a confirmation of how you already felt based on a few examples (that’s called confirmation bias).

      You might be right about Garrett getting a cheap hit or two against him and that adding runs – I’m not saying you’re crazy or making it all up. However, in the aggregate, on the whole, shifting has saved runs for the team, across the board. That’s more important, and not biased by personal feelings (I want such and such to be true, so I’ll use a few instances to support my pre-formed ideas).

      The data above suggests that 1/30 teams isn’t putting a fielder closer to where the ball is hit (the Sawx) and barely so. The only logical conclusion is that shifting, playing to where guys tend to hit the ball, puts fielders closer to where guys hit the ball (go figure, when I say it that way). I’ve also discovered throughout my life that when everyone else is wrong, I’m usually wrong. Hundreds of analysts, coaches, and players choose to employ the strategy on a daily basis, with the agreement from the external statisticians (such as Mr. Gray here)…what are the odds the few “non-shifters” know that all the newly-analyzed data is wrong?

      I don’t love seeing all the shifts sometimes, myself. 4-6-3 double plays on a ball up the middle to the right a bit are now 6-5-3?! There is some weird stiff, sunshine. But it increases your odds of winning and, worse, if the other team does it and you don’t, reduces your odds. It’s rather see some weird, new stuff (it IS baseball, after all) than be at a disadvantage.

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      • Dave

        Weird stuff *definitely – Samsung swipe and a lack of editing on my part is a bad combo with a site that doesn’t allow comments to be edited.

        It’s = I’d, also

  3. vegastypo

    Thanks for that post, Doug. I do get tired of hearing those anti-shift complaints during the game threads.

    I also thought it was interesting that MLB was using one its minor leagues to test a “no shifting” or perhaps better called a “limited shifting” rule. This is being done in the same league that had implemented the time clock for how quickly pitchers needed to make pitches.

    Is there really much momentum for ending the shifting?

    Reply
    • Doug Gray

      To be clear, that is not happening in the minor leagues. It is happening in an independent league.

      And yes, Major League Baseball is examining the possibility of eliminating the shift. I don’t think we will see it happen, but I’ve been wrong before.

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  4. Jack

    Shifts definitely work and are totally within the rules but are they good for the game? Much like when baseball decided to lower the mound for the betterment of the game I’ve begun to think they need to change the rules so there is more to the game than homeruns and strikeouts.

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  5. Centerfield

    I agree that the shift works, but it would be better if our pitchers “pitched” to the shift.
    You can’t throw low and away off the plate to a LH hitter and expect the ball to be pulled into the 4 men positioned on the right side of 2nd base. Some of our pitchers are avoiding contact when they should be utilizing it. Please watch Kyle Hendricks pitch as an example of how to properly use the shift. I don’t know if this is poor command or bad pitch selection, but look at the Bryce Harper AB against a lefty as a prime example of doing it the wrong away.

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  6. WVRedlegs

    This was a bogus study. If an outfielder shaded himself 10 or 12 feet over towards the line as a defensive shift. It the outfielder made a play and caught a routine fly ball it counted as a successful shift. That seems to have accounted for a lot of the Reds “success”.
    More fake news. Just on infield shifts, my eyes see a lot more hits going through the infield as opposed to infielders snagging a base hit away from the batter.
    Anything to push a narrative though that David Bell is great. Just like we don’t buy the rubbish that Yasiel Puig has been a big bonus for the Reds offense/team that is always being pushed on us.

    Reply
    • Doug Gray

      Just a reminder that even in baseball just because you don’t like the truth it doesn’t make it fake news.

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      • Mason Red

        I don’t think he’s saying it’s fake news. It’s more about articles like these which seem to be intended on trying to make folks believe this team is going in the right direction despite the losing record saying otherwise. There’s definitely a place for analytics and the numbers don’t lie about the shift being successful for the Reds. But for the average Reds fan who is tired of the losing it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

      • Doug Gray

        Did you read his comment at all?

      • Matt WI

        @Mason Red… I’m not sure how or why someone would conflate being more successful with the shift (a single variable) as equal to saying that it’s some kind of propaganda campaign to say that the Reds are a winning baseball team (an entirely different argument). I don’t think Doug or anyone else would have a problem with saying “The Reds still have a losing record but they are making more outs with their shifts than they likely would have otherwise.” Making a change in one area doesn’t mean the whole paradigm shifts at once. Nobody is applauding them as having “arrived” because of this particular data set, it just means they are finally moving toward doing something that does contribute to winning more games: Run prevention. But of course, there are many, many, other variables that go into winning a baseball game.

    • Steve Mancuso

      lol – the research was about all teams, not just the Reds, so it wasn’t to make David Bell look good. It said the Reds, relative to other teams, are doing well. Your anti-David Bell … well, bias seems like too mild a word … derangement is hilarious. Sometimes I wonder if it’s self-parody.

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    • Steve Mancuso

      The study doesn’t even mention outfielders. It’s only about infielders.

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    • Earmbrister

      The “fake news” nonsense = people dismissing science/evidence to support their own biases.

      People insist on their kids getting a good education only to subvert that effort by telling them to ignore plain facts and believe nonsense.

      WV, you’ve been banging the same drum now all season. The Reds ARE improved, and the shift IS working.

      Reply
      • Earmbrister

        Swap “biases” for “agenda”

  7. Steve Mancuso

    Using shifts isn’t just a David Bell thing with the Reds, it’s the entire organization, starting with the President, General Manager, Analytics Department and coaching staff. They spend time figuring out where and when to shift various hitters. My guess is that David Bell actually has a small role in it other than green-lighting the work that everyone else is doing. To frame this research and Doug’s posting of it (without mention of Bell) as something to make David Bell look good really reveals an agenda.

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  8. Steve Mancuso

    There are solid, research-based arguments against the shift. They concern dynamic effects like do pitchers nibble more when their defenders are in a shift. Have batters switched to extreme pull hitting as a way to counter the shift and that has raised their wOBA. Etc. But “hey, I saw balls that would have been outs” isn’t one of them. The research clearly shows that shifts on balance reduce batting average on ground balls.

    Reply

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