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Tuesday, November 02, 2021

No, MLB Teams Aren’t Stupid By Shifting

Yes, Gurriel hit a ball that was a hit because of the shift. That’s understandable. Infield shifts will never be perfect. They take away some hits by putting infielders into traditional unconventional places but also give some back with the same type of positioning.

But because anti-shifters want to have shifts disproven, they are prone to choice-supportive bias. They remember the times that the shift harmed their team and quickly discard the times where the shift helped nab an unexpected out.

Just a day before, the Braves recorded three outs in the ninth inning, all on ground balls that were at least turned into easier outs because of the shift. It could be argued that all three could have ended up as hits without the shift.

That’s been the story early on this series and what goes on throughout baseball. There have been plenty of balls hit right into the teeth of the shifts, and there have also been balls hit away from the shift that has pitchers turning cartwheels.

There have been countless studies that show the efficacy of shifting. I’m not going to roll out another list of stats to try to prove something that has largely been proven.

I’m just going to use an even simpler form of logic to argue that all these MLB teams aren’t stupid by shifting. The proof is that we can assume that all 30 MLB teams aren’t collectively stupid.

RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: November 02, 2021 at 04:05 PM | 27 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: defensive shifts

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   1. DL from MN Posted: November 02, 2021 at 04:41 PM (#6050762)
I agree, but there are times where batters are stupid for not bunting.
   2. Jose is Absurdly Correct but not Helpful Posted: November 02, 2021 at 04:51 PM (#6050765)
There is a lot of appeal to authority in that piece. It's not wrong I don't think but I think it's interesting to see the shape of observations over the years.
   3. Walt Davis Posted: November 02, 2021 at 05:00 PM (#6050770)
BAgb has been lower the last 3 years than the 6 before that, but still the same as they were for 2008-12 and 2003-5. The big change over time is not in the outcomes on GB but in the frequency of GB (between increases in K-rates and launch angle). Link

This article ignores lots of articles (538, fangraphs, BPro) concluding that the shift doesn't work, either due to unintended effects or due to batters adjusting (more walks, more flyballs). The last line of the excerpt is silly. It's true that all 30 teams shift but shift rates in 2021 varied from 17.2% (Phillies) to 53.6% (Dodgers), a factor of 3. RH shifts differ most of all, with a factor near 11 (Padres 4% to Rays 45%). Teams have come to very different conclusions about the effectiveness of the shift.

The Braves would be interesting to look at -- they shifted only 8% of the time in 2020 and 39% in 2021. Their BAgb allowed did drop from 235 to 223 while their K and BB rates improved (HR up a bit).
   4. Jack Sommers Posted: November 02, 2021 at 05:26 PM (#6050776)
Walt, one thing I noticed when trying to look at this myself was that despite BA on groundballs dropping quite a bit as you mention, the slugging on fly balls jumped when the infield was shifted vs standard and because of that jump in slugging on fly balls, the overall slugging and wOBA on all pitches thrown in shift were higher than standard

But when messing around with the search I forgot to also click "strategic", and then when I looked at the definitions closer, I realized I need to re do it all ....and I blew it off for another time.

Anyway, just wondering if you've seen anything similar, and if so, what you think is behind it
   5. Howie Menckel Posted: November 02, 2021 at 09:14 PM (#6050831)
I find more people call the shift "annoying" than "stupid" or "ineffective."
   6. RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: November 02, 2021 at 09:47 PM (#6050847)

There is a lot of appeal to authority in that piece. It's not wrong I don't think but I think it's interesting to see the shape of observations over the years.


This was my first thought too. It wasn't that long ago that a security guard at a bean factory in Lawrence, KS was telling people that all 30 teams were being stupid...and he was right.
   7. Adam Starblind Posted: November 02, 2021 at 10:49 PM (#6050877)
Well, it was long enough ago that there were 26 teams.
   8. Walt Davis Posted: November 03, 2021 at 12:17 AM (#6050923)
#4: You've misread me somewhat. BAgb is down in the last 3 years vs the 6 before but is the same as it was for 5 years before that and another 3 years before that. Recent BAgb is not out of line with historical numbers, it's just back in a trough it's seen before. You never know when that trough will become the new long-term analogy but for now I think the shift is having no effect on the aggregate BAgb. If it is working against some hitters -- which seems it must be -- then either non-shifted PAs have gone up or there are a bunch of guys being shifted on that shouldn't be or ... It's also possible that GBs have gotten tougher (e.g. higher EV) so the shift is needed just to maintain BAgb where it's been historically. Until I see such a study (not saying one doesn't exist), I'm going with standard randome seasonal variation.

Further on #4: there's a lot of "unintended consequences" stuff out there but I don't ascribe those to the shift per se (at least not most of them). Supposedly pitchers nibble more, don't pitch to the defense leading to worse counts, leading to harder-hit balls or walks. That might be true but it's not "caused" by the shift, it's pitchers being dumb or teams not instructing pitchers/catchers correctly. Or pitchers/teams realize that a weaker-hit ball the other way is still better than a pulled rocket no matter where the fielders are placed and they're probably right. But sure, if you're a pull slugger, you should have been hitting FBs as much as possible anyway so if you can hit even more of them in reaction to the shift, that should be an effective way to defeat the shift.

there are times where batters are stupid for not bunting.

But probably not many, at least according to one of the articles I stumbled across -- sorry, don't remember where. It put the wOBA (or wRC or whatever) on bunts at something like 72. I didn't look into it so not sure how reliable that number is but still you've got to be highly confident you're gonna be successful for bunting against the shift to matter a lot. But even a quite successful bunter is going to end up with a OBP/SLG like Juan Pierre (343/361 take your pick, 84 OPS+) on bunts. Anthony Rizzo, hitting into lots of shifts, has a career OBP of 370, SLG of 480, not known for his speed. He's probably got to be successful about 45% of the time he gets it down, probably more given the damage he does to his chances anytime he fouls one off, just to break even ... or he needs to gain a huge advantage from "keeping them honest" (but how many bunts does it take to make them honest).
   9. winnipegwhip Posted: November 03, 2021 at 09:19 AM (#6050939)
The Braves would be interesting to look at -- they shifted only 8% of the time in 2020 and 39% in 2021. Their BAgb allowed did drop from 235 to 223 while their K and BB rates improved (HR up a bit)


Probably a more accurate description of results would be if the 2021 numbers removed all teams except NL East and AL East opponents (since that is all that the Braves faced in 2020.)
   10. DL from MN Posted: November 03, 2021 at 10:26 AM (#6050950)
even a quite successful bunter is going to end up with a OBP/SLG like Juan Pierre (343/361 take your pick, 84 OPS+) on bunts


Just last night I couldn't understand why Ozzie Albies was refusing to bunt against the shift. He's batting lefthanded and he's not slow. The only player who could have fielded his bunt is the pitcher. He hit a pop fly to CF. I'm guessing the large lead and unwritten rules had something to do with it. He ended up hitting .238 with no extra base hits. An empty .350 would have been a huge improvement.
   11. SoSH U at work Posted: November 03, 2021 at 10:54 AM (#6050957)
even a quite successful bunter is going to end up with a OBP/SLG like Juan Pierre (343/361 take your pick, 84 OPS+) on bunts


The typical bunt analysis on this stuff seems off to me.

Are you saying that on bunts in fair territory, the player would only get one down safely 34 percent of the time? If that's the case, then that's absolutely too low to justify. It's barely above BABIP under normal circumstances. But I would hope (and guess) the average would be much higher than that. You do it because there's a great big hole over there, and any bunt past the pitcher should be a base knock. The whole question is moot if a .343/.361 BA is the best you can manage.

Or are you saying that on all PAs that feature bunt attempts, the player's OBP/SLG in that PA would finish that way. But the player should, hopefully, only be bunting at strikes, which would still be strikes (or balls put in play) if he were not attempting to bunt. If he prepares to bunt and the ball's outside, he can take it just as he otherwise would.

   12. Tom Nawrocki Posted: November 03, 2021 at 11:17 AM (#6050961)
The bunt analysis is always going to be difficult because the results of an attempted bunt aren't safe/out; they're safe/foul ball/out, with as many fouls as anything else, it seems to me. So you have to decide whether a foul bunt is nothing, or whether it's a measurable and significant reduction in the batter's effectiveness, as the framing advocates would have you believe.

There's also the problem that, as far as I know, foul bunts aren't systematically recorded anywhere.
   13. SoSH U at work Posted: November 03, 2021 at 11:30 AM (#6050962)
So you have to decide whether a foul bunt is nothing, or whether it's a measurable and significant reduction in the batter's effectiveness, as the framing advocates would have you believe.


To the extent it's a measurable or significant reduction in the batter's effectiveness, it's not completely different than what you would have done had you not squared to bunt (provided the batter only offers at strikes, rather than attempts a bunt at every pitch that comes his way*). Many of those pitches would have still been strikes had the batter been prepared to swing away.

   14. BDC Posted: November 03, 2021 at 11:40 AM (#6050964)
Could it be the case that the shift also involves trying to pitch inside more (to encourage pulling into the shift) and thus makes more pitches really hard to bunt while also accounting for some of the increase in HBP? This comes up sometimes in these discussions, I know: it looks terribly easy to bunt given the fielding configuration, but perhaps not so easy if the pitch is 90+ MPH on or just off the high inside part of the zone.
   15. and Posted: November 03, 2021 at 12:44 PM (#6050990)
None of us could bunt well enough to make it useful but I have no doubt Ozzie Albies could learn to bunt well enough to get the ball past the pitcher and keep it fair most of the time. No one is over there to field it. He doesn't need to hug the line or something. And he doesn't have to worry about a charging third baseman.

Now, if the shift ISN'T hurting Ozzie's (or other player's) OBP, there is no need to modify. But if you think that, why are you shifting on your side of the ball?

Those of us advocating hitting against the shift or bunting against the shift aren't suggesting the player will bat 1.000. But it also isn't a normal bunting situation against an unshifted defense. I'd guess a lefty with speed who handles the bat well, like Albies, has a much better than 50% chance of laying down a hit on a ball in the zone. But we'll never know because no one is even trying it.

I can only conclude that the offense has calculated that the shift isn't beating them. Which makes it weird that the same guys, on defense, shift.
   16. winnipegwhip Posted: November 03, 2021 at 03:04 PM (#6051031)
Those of us advocating hitting against the shift or bunting against the shift aren't suggesting the player will bat 1.000. But it also isn't a normal bunting situation against an unshifted defense. I'd guess a lefty with speed who handles the bat well, like Albies, has a much better than 50% chance of laying down a hit on a ball in the zone. But we'll never know because no one is even trying it.


That is like what I tell young players when I teach bunting. "If you try it once and you get thrown out at first, you think it doesn't work. BUT what if you tried it 10 times and you succeeded 4 of those 10 attempts! That is .400 which everyone would agree is successful."
   17. sunday silence (again) Posted: November 03, 2021 at 09:00 PM (#6051127)
There's a lot of astute comments here by the usual suspects. Hopefully I wont embarass myself and say something silly.

Walt did a really fantastic analysis of this stuff about 3 years ago. And I seem to recall that one of his conclusions was that the shift wasnt really changing ba so much, but that it was diminishing .slug. Do you still feel the same way Walt? because I see you didnt touch on that above, so maybe you have rethought that.

I'd guess a lefty with speed who handles the bat well, like Albies, has a much better than 50% chance of laying down a hit on a ball in the zone. But we'll never know because no one is even trying it.


This is way too optimistic a rate. if you could bunt over .500 it would be obviously better than swinging away. As Walt said above you probably need to bunt .450 to make this a viable alternative strategy to swinging away. I tried to calculate the break even pt. a couple years ago and made some stoopid mistakes. If I get time I might try again but I think Walt's suggestion of .450 is probably pretty close.

One can imagine a fast, skilled handler of the bat like Ichiro could probably manage that. but not many others. And even if Ichiro could have done it, you still have to calculate whether he would still have been better swinging away.

Another thing not yet mentioned, is that if you do start bunting on a regular basis, teams are going to start charging in on you. From 3b as well as from the 2b position. I dont recall anyone mentioning that happening recently, but perhaps that is because no one has really been bunting as a matter of course. The pt. once you become predictable in your batting approach there are steps that the defense can take to further limit this strategy.
   18. Jack Sommers Posted: November 03, 2021 at 10:38 PM (#6051159)
Statcast ERA, 2015-2021, Numbers are TOTAL for all years

BA/Slg when in standard INF alignment vs BA/Slg when Shift+Strategic INF alignment

Groundballs :.252/.275 vs .228/.248.

Flyballs : .249/.775 vs. .285/..917

Line Drives: .635/.965 vs. .649/1.002


Overall, all pitches (whether put in play or not) in Standard alignment vs. Shift + Strategic

.253 BA, .411 Slg, .314 wOBA. Vs. .245 BA, .431 Slg, .324 wOBA


What I conclude from these numbers is that while batting avg is reduced a great deal on ground balls, much of that BA reduction is offset by increases in BA on Flyballs and Line Drives, and also there is a whopping increase in Slugging on fly balls when the infield shift is on.

Overall, whether in play or not, the increase in slugging and wOBA when shifts/strategic defense is in play far outweighs the reduced batting avg.


Unintended consequences, difference in approach from hitters, poor execution from pitchers , etc, etc, whatever the reasons, these are the numbers I see. Maybe it's just as simple as most shifts are set up to take away hits on balls to the pull side, and perhaps the pitcher then shys away from pitching the batter away. Pitching the batter inside makes it more likely he'll get a mistake that catches too much plate on the inner half for the batter to do pull side damage.

There are differences of course when broken out by handedness, but not so great that I feel like going into it here. And there is some bouncing around when you break it out year by year, but not enough to dissuade one from the conclusions drawn from looking at the 7 year aggregate numbers.






   19. Barry`s_Lazy_Boy Posted: November 03, 2021 at 10:45 PM (#6051161)
there is a whopping increase in Slugging on fly balls when the infield shift is on.

Does slugging increase against the shift, or is the shift most commonly deployed against players with good slugging ptg?
   20. Jack Sommers Posted: November 04, 2021 at 12:50 AM (#6051178)
Ah, that's a great point BLB. Looking down This report that appears to be the case.


EDIT. Actually two reports. That first one above sorted by Slg % in the shift. This one sorted by Pitch %

EDIT 2: obviously the next thing to do is look at all the guys that had over say a .450 Slug % (Or whatever threshold) and see how they slugged with and without the shift.

I'll get to it eventually.
   21. It's regretful that PASTE was able to get out Posted: November 04, 2021 at 12:36 PM (#6051242)
You don't have to bunt per se; you can Baltimore Chop it, or simply drag the bat head lazily into the path of the pitch at such an angle as to hit a dribbler to the left side. Even a slow runner by MLB standards will be standing on first by the time the pitcher picks it up and turns around.

Aside from the fact that all of the above are skills most major league hitters have spent very little time sharpening, it's complicated by the fact that pitchers pitch to the shift, too. They know you would love to hit the ball into that big empty space to your left, and are going to do their damnedest not to throw you anything you can hit there.

More to the point, though, in modern baseball it is universally believed that the best response to the shift is to hit home runs over it. In modern baseball, that may very well be correct.

Finally, I may be wrong about this, but my impression is the that crazy combination of velocity and movement on almost all major league pitches in 2021 make them a great deal more difficult to accurately bunt than the pitches of 30 or 50 years ago. That seems like an odd statement, in the sense that if you can hit a 420 foot home run off a given pitch, why couldn't you bunt it 60 feet down the third base line, but bunting takes a level of precision that you aren't necessarily trying for when you're just trying to crush the ball as hard as possible. And whereas an imprecise grip-and-rip is often a strike or a foul ball, an imprecise bunt is more often an out: popped up, dropped in front of the plate where the catcher can pounce on it, grounded at the pitcher, etc. This is a big reason why sacrifice bunting is so dumb, especially in 2021. It distressingly often turns into an easy popout, a fielder's choice at second, or a double play.
   22. SoSH U at work Posted: November 04, 2021 at 01:01 PM (#6051247)

Finally, I may be wrong about this, but my impression is the that crazy combination of velocity and movement on almost all major league pitches in 2021 make them a great deal more difficult to accurately bunt than the pitches of 30 or 50 years ago.


Looking at the top of the sac hits leaderboard, it doesn't appear to have declined much when a pitcher is leading it, certainly not if you control for PAs (starting pitchers are obviously coming to the plate fewer times these days as IP have decreased).
   23. and Posted: November 04, 2021 at 01:31 PM (#6051257)
Another thing not yet mentioned, is that if you do start bunting on a regular basis, teams are going to start charging in on you. From 3b as well as from the 2b position. I dont recall anyone mentioning that happening recently,

That's the point. You get some free bases at first and then they stop shifting on you. Or pull in. If shifting is a good defensive strategy, it is in the offense's interest to get them to stop. But offensive players seem completely unconcerned about the shift. There is zero game theory to make the defense think you might do something to counter it. One of those two groups is wrong.

but bunting takes a level of precision that you aren't necessarily trying for when you're just trying to crush the ball as hard as possible Traditional bunting, yes. That isn't what is called for against the extreme shifts.

I'm also not suggesting players just wing it. They would definitely have to work on it. No one is. To me, the fact that no one is even trying to beat the shift that way suggests that offenses don't think shifts hurt them. If that's true, they aren't helping the defense.
   24. sunday silence (again) Posted: November 04, 2021 at 02:23 PM (#6051264)

More to the point, though, in modern baseball it is universally believed that the best response to the shift is to hit home runs over it. In modern baseball, that may very well be correct.


How does this make sense as a strategy? Are you saying that batters are not trying to hit HRs when the shift is NOT on?
   25. Doug Jones threw harder than me Posted: November 04, 2021 at 02:28 PM (#6051266)
The one player I noticed who regularly tried to beat the shift by bunting last year was Brandon Belt.

Unfortunately, that didn't turn out so well for him

Brandon Belt injury, broken thumb from bunt attempt, probably miss playoffs

I am a big fan of bunting in theory, as a game-theoretic counter to the shift, and to infields playing deep in general, but I also think as with #21 that with the current slate of flame-throwing relief pitchers, bunting is quite a bit harder than it used to be, and noting that even "way back when" it wasn't that successful of a strategy as has been pointed out god knows how many times starting with Bill James. The easiest defense against a bunt for the pitcher is a pitch thrown high, hard, and inside, the kind of pitch Brandon Belt broke his thumb trying to bunt (IIRC).

The very well kept infields of modern parks also works against the bunt, as one doesn't get the random bounces that made it hard to say, pick the ball up barehanded.

Now, if there were some crazy rule change like saying a pitcher couldn't field a bunt, or couldn't field a bunt except one within the "pitchers circle", well, that might make the bunt more likely to succeed, and hence tried more often, and suddenly there would be some actual strategy back in baseball again.
   26. and Posted: November 04, 2021 at 03:01 PM (#6051279)
You'd have to bunt past the pitcher. Again, the idea isn't to lay down a traditional sacrifice bunt, but a hard bunt, past the pitcher, dying in the vicinity of the 3B bag. It would have to be practiced and, yeah, it would be hard to do relative to typing on a message board. But so is hitting HR over the shift.

Punching the ball the other way would also work and MLB hitters have been able to do this for a long time. It takes work. And perhaps hitters don't have enough time in a day to add that practice to the time they spend angling their swings. (I joke but my biggest point is: It looks like offenses have decided that swinging for HR on every pitch is an optimal winning strategy. And they're probably right. So expecting tweaks to the game to change that calculation is foolish).
   27. Jack Sommers Posted: November 04, 2021 at 04:44 PM (#6051306)
Daulton Varsho was 6 for 7 in bunt base hit attempts

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