Who’s on third? In baseball’s shifting defenses, maybe nobody

New York TimesMay 14, 2014 

For more than 100 years, baseball looked pretty much the same from the grandstands. There were three players spread in the outfield, a pitcher on the mound, a catcher behind the plate, and four infielders neatly aligned, two on each side of second base.

But a radical reworking of defensive principles is reshaping the way the old game is played, and even the way it looks. If you cannot find the third baseman, he might be the one standing in shallow right field. The second baseman? That’s him on the other side of the diamond, next to the shortstop.

Some baseball positions as they have long been known are changing before our eyes. The cause is the infield shift, a phenomenon exploding this year as more teams are using statistical analysis and embracing a dynamic approach to previously static defenses.

Now, armed with evidence that shows how a batter has a propensity to hit the ball to certain parts of the field, teams will position their infielders accordingly – at times taking them far from their traditional spots.

“The shift is on the verge of becoming the norm,” said Joe Maddon, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays and one of the early leading proponents of the shift. “When you’re not shifting now is almost going to be the anomaly defense.”

From 2010 to 2013, infield shifts steadily increased, according to research by Baseball Info Solutions, which tracks every shift and the number of runs it saves. But from 2013 to this season, the rate of shifting in the major leagues has mushroomed.

Last year there were 8,134 shifts on balls in play. Through the weekend, teams had already shifted 3,213 times, putting them on pace for nearly 14,000 for the season. Teams that shift regularly are lowering opposing teams’ batting averages by 30 to 40 points on grounders and low line drives.

“You do it because it works,” said Mark Teixeira, the Yankees first baseman. As a batter, he has been a victim of the shift for the past few years, perhaps explaining, in part, why his batting average went from .290 over his first four years in baseball to .249 since 2010, when teams began shifting on him regularly.

Ben Jedlovec is the senior vice president for product development and sales at Baseball Info Solutions, a company that was started by John Dewan, the author of the book “The Fielding Bible.” The company tracks every pitch and every play and provides software and tools to about two-thirds of major league teams.

“There’s no end in sight,” Jedlovec said about teams’ willingness to employ the shift.

At first, the natural targets of the shift were sluggers like David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard – all big left-handed hitters who regularly pull the ball to the right. Now, with statistical analysis influencing more managers’ decisions, even lightly regarded hitters like Kelly Johnson of the Yankees might see fielders shifting against them, and more right-handed hitters are seeing the shift as well.

“Baseball isn’t big on change,” said Dewan, who began advocating defensive shifts about 10 years ago. “But once other managers and teams saw the Rays doing it successfully, perhaps they didn’t feel as if they were going out on a limb so much, and wouldn’t be criticized when someone happens to get a hit against the shift.”

Following the Rays, the Houston Astros have embraced the shift with zeal, from the depths of their minor leagues up to the majors. As of the weekend they had employed 368 shifts, more than one per inning and far more than any other team, even the Rays.

“It’s an epiphany,” Maddon said. “I much preferred it when all the other teams didn’t want to do those things.”

The Astros began employing the shift early last year. But the pitchers objected, saying they did not feel comfortable with a defense overloaded to one side of the infield and a gaping hole on the other. The Astros’ management backed off, but it did not give up.

In spring training, the Astros’ general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and his coaching staff came armed with data, presented it to the pitchers and discussed why they wanted to embrace the shift. That analysis included a look at the improved defense of the Pittsburgh Pirates over the previous two seasons.

The Pirates had mostly the same infielders those two years, and in 2012 they turned 339 double plays, 13th in the National League. But in 2013, with the shift, they turned 419, the fourth most in the league. Their pitchers’ ERA dropped to 3.26 from 3.86.

The Astros pitchers were persuaded, and Baseball Info Solutions estimated the shift had saved them 11 runs so far this year. Houston now uses the shift all the way down to its Class A club. “We’re confident that it’s helped us get more outs than we would have without it,” Luhnow said.

The Yankees are second to the Astros with 223 defensive shifts in 2014. They were already steadily increasing their shifts over the past few seasons, but during the off-season their quantitative analysis department, headed by David Grabiner and Michael Fishman, were assigned to the matter.

They eventually proposed a comprehensive plan that now has players in the majors and the minors shifting like never before.

But as much as the shift is blossoming this year, it is hardly a new phenomenon.

There is evidence of the shift going back more than 130 years. Artwork suggests that before the 1880s, basemen would stand on top of the bases. According to Tom Shieber, a historian at the Baseball Hall of Fame, that was because of different foul-ball rules that made first and third basemen responsible for greater swaths of foul territory.

Once those rules changed in the mid-1880s, players took up the now familiar positions. But even back then, there were innovators. Shieber said that one of his colleagues at the Hall of Fame, Bill Francis, recently discovered evidence of an infield shift in a June 25, 1870, account in The New York Clipper of a game between the Atlantics of Brooklyn and the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

“The Cincinnati fielders moved about in the field, according as the different batsmen came to bat,” the Clipper story said, noting that it was innovative.

The most famous shift of the 20th century was used by Cleveland Indians Manager Lou Boudreau against Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox left-handed slugger, in July 1946, although there are accounts of a shift against Williams dating to 1941.

An earlier Williams, Cy, was a victim of the shift in the 1920s, and in Japan teams used the Oh-Shiftu against Sadaharu Oh in 1964.

In his memoir, Boudreau said the shift was about not only defense but also the batter’s psychology. Maddon agreed.

“You are trying to split someone’s desires, his concentration, his thoughts,” Maddon said. “It’s a psychological ploy as well. They grew up looking out from the batter’s box and the infield had a certain look to it. Now when you look out there, people are in different places. How’s that going to affect you in that at-bat?”

What are the risks of shifting? “None,” Maddon said.

Some might disagree. Last year at Fenway Park, Robinson Cano bunted toward an empty third base against a Boston Red Sox shift and ended up with a double. But Maddon pointed out that if Cano or any other dangerous hitter preferred to bunt, that was OK with him. Better a bunt than a home run.

Dewan, the head of Baseball Info Solutions, said his company did not recommend shifting in the outfield because the data suggested that even pull hitters tended to hit the ball in the air to the outfield either straight away or even to the opposite field roughly 54 percent of the time. And the risks can be too great. A ball that lands against a shifted outfield could conceivably go for an inside-the-park home run by the time anyone runs it down.

Dewan also did not recommend shifting the infield too often with men on base because it could leave fielders out of position to cover bases. In a recent game at Angels Stadium, the Yankees could not cover first base on a bunt because the second baseman was shifted too far up the middle.

Luhnow, the Astros’ general manager, said that as teams saw more of the shift, they might discover ways to beat it. Bobby Valentine agrees. When he managed the Mets in 1999, he had his infielder run to set positions as the pitcher was delivering. He said that could be put into use by teams who want to disguise their defense until the last moment, much like a football team hiding its blitz.

“Someone will come up with something new,” Valentine said. “It will probably be Joe Maddon.”

New York Times writers Jorge Arangure Jr. and Pat Borzi contributed.

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