John Farrell and the Shift Defense
The largest change in baseball strategy over the last decade has been the radically increased use of the shift defense in the past two years. This was pointed out in a Bill James Online article by John Dewan early in 2012. Farrell’s Blue Jays were among the earliest adopters of the shift, reportedly due to the influence of 3rd base coach Brian Butterfield. Butterfield has moved to Boston with Farrell, and we can expect the shift to make the trek east as well. He may be actually taking it with him, as reportedly the Jays are planning to lessen their use of the shift in 2013 (MLB.com report).
I had the damnedest time finding complete data on the use of the shift in 2012. I am pretty confident in my google-fu, and I could not find a full-season update of the data Dewan presented in midseason. What I did find were mentions at ESPN that the Jays were “among the leaders” in the use of the shift in 2012 (the Rays shifted the most), and that the Jays got the most value out of the shift of any club, saving an estimated 12 runs over the season. The Red Sox made not insignificant use of the shift last year, so we can’t expect the Butterfield shift to made a difference of any more than 5-10 runs if the BIS numbers are correct. At the same time, if a new strategy wins an entire game, that’s a pretty great new strategy.
One of the peculiarities of the Butterfield version of the shift was the use of Brett Lawrie. The Jays third baseman spent a significant amount of time in short right field against LHB, sometimes almost hugging the foul line, other times playing far behind the infielders in the 1B-2B hole. The Jays second baseman and shortstop just shifted a bit to the first base side. Lawrie’s positioning was both peculiar for a third baseman and peculiar for the shift-RF fielder, as he moved around the short outfield zone much more than the usual shift fielder. (See discussion at the Cut Off Man blog.)
The Red Sox also have a young, athletic, defensively gifted third baseman. And according to recent reporting by Jon Paul Morosi, it is indeed Will Middlebrooks who will be the key man in the new Red Sox shift. This is probably extrapolating too much from too little data, but I do think it’s interesting that the Jays got more value out of the shift than anyone else, despite using the shift a good bit less than the league leaders. If there’s something there beyond random variation, it seems likely that Butterfield’s odd deployments of Lawrie are the primary cause. Middlebrooks could be crucial to saving a few extra runs this year.
One question I have, regarding the shift, is its relative utility in Fenway Park. The Green Monster changes the game for left-handed hitters, and if the aggressive shift leads to any significant increase in opponent wall-ball doubles, it will likely not be a positive expectation strategy. At the same time, I have to imagine that for a creative baseball guy like Butterfield, the crazy dimensions of Fenway provide an opportunity for new defensive alignments. Where is the best place to put your LF against different kinds of hitters? Can you try to overload the left side against pull RHB, and where exactly would that overload go? These are questions not just for the season, but for the spring, as the Sox will be working out their new defensive responsibilities and alignments in Grapefruit League games.