Are We at the High-Water Mark for Shifting in Baseball?

Here’s the thing about bunting: it can be a good idea if the third baseman is playing too far back. The chance of a hit goes up in that case, and a successful bunt often causes the third baseman to play more shallow in future plate appearances, so future balls in play receive a benefit. That’s one of those games within a game we see all the time in baseball: once the positioning deviates from “normal” by a certain degree, the batter receives a benefit. Then the defender has to change his approach.

This tension created by the bunt illustrates how offenses and defenses react to each other’s tendencies. That same sort of balance between fielder and hitter might be playing out on an even broader scale, however, when it comes to the shift in general.

Too many shifts in the game, and the players begin to adjust. They develop more of a two-strike approach, they find a way to put the ball in play on the ground the other way, or they make sure that they lift the ball if they’re going to pull it. There’s evidence that players are already working on lifting the ball more as a group, pulling the ball in the air more often than they have in five years, and have improved on hitting opposite-field ground balls. So maybe this next table is no surprise.

The League vs. the Shift
Year Shift wOBABIP No Shift wOBABIP
2013 0.280 0.294
2014 0.288 0.294
2015 0.286 0.291
2016 0.292 0.297
wOBA = weighted on base average on balls in play

The league has improved against the shift! The shift is dead! Or, wait: the league has actually improved as a whole over this timeframe, and the difference between the two is still about the same. And every team would take a .292 wOBA against over a .297 number. Long live the shift.

Still, if you poke around a little more, there’s evidence that the shift might be providing less value in the past. Sure, total shifts went up last year, again, but that doesn’t mean that we’re still seeing the same growth we’ve seen over the last few years.

The League’s Shifting
Year Trad Shifts Non-Trad Shifts
2013 6881 1664
2014 13298 1674
2015 17737 6749
2016 28072 6729
Trad Shift = traditional shift, all players generally close to their position
Non-Trad Shifts = players switching sides of the infield

The frequency of shifts took a big leap last year, up 58% over the year before. That’s after a 33% increase the year before that, and a near-doubling the year before that. Four teams (the Blue Jays, Orioles, Royals, and Tigers) actually shifted less often, though, so a lot of the growth is centered around teams like the Mariners, who shifted nearly 1200 more times in 2016 than they had in 2015. The Angels and Brewers joined them as four-figure increasers, perhaps skewing the data that shows some slowing in shift growth.

There are always classification issues — that may explain the big jump in non-traditional shifts from 2014 to 2015 — but it does seem interesting that there was actually a reduction in non-traditional shifts, as well. Maybe the league has started to run up against the ideal number of shifts from a defensive standpoint.

Here’s another thing that would happen if the league was actually shifting too often: teams would be shifting against players who don’t fit the bill. Take a look at the players who saw the biggest increase in shifts per plate appearance, and number one on the list seems a bit strange.

Biggest Increases in Shift Percentage
Name 2015 Shift wRC+ 2016 Shift wRC+ Shift%15 Shift%16 Diff % Shift
Yonder Alonso 116 80 18% 49% 31%
Matt Carpenter 102 116 9% 37% 28%
Curtis Granderson 71 57 27% 55% 28%
Rougned Odor 126 65 14% 41% 26%
Matt Wieters 108 62 22% 47% 24%
Kole Calhoun 115 101 23% 47% 24%
Kris Bryant 55 97 10% 34% 24%
Stephen Vogt 45 79 32% 56% 24%
Robinson Cano 147 95 15% 37% 22%
Corey Dickerson 62 114 10% 31% 21%
Justin Bour 92 68 28% 49% 21%
Joey Votto 99 129 16% 36% 20%
Chris Coghlan 30 27 8% 29% 20%
Jay Bruce 59 52 36% 56% 20%
Nolan Arenado 47 70 3% 23% 20%
Shift% = number of shifts per plate appearance
Minimum 200 PA in 15 and 16

Yonder Alonso, huh? That’s interesting. Look at his balls-in-play spray chart for his career.

This is an all-fields hitter, being shifted almost a third of the time more often in 2016 than he was in 2015. There’s a hint of evidence here that maybe shifting has jumped the shark… and yet. Alonso himself hit fewer balls to the opposite field than he ever had last year, and his spray chart looked like this.

Almost everyone pulls a ton of grounders (over half of all grounders are pulled every year on record), and Alonso had become more pull-happy, so he was shifted more often. For what it’s worth, his production on shifted balls went down, and the top 15 increasers saw their collective production drop 4% relative to league average. Looks like the shift is still working.

But there’s evidence that we’re pushing it with regard to some player pools. Hitters that see strange defensive alignments less than 40% of the time actually do better in the shift environments than the neutral ones, Tom Tango found. His conclusion on the study he did was that “Given the much larger dataset, it does point in the direction that there’s a limit as to how many hitters with whom you can try to leverage a different fielding alignment.”

We probably haven’t yet reached the high-water mark, that moment when the league discovers it has been shifting too often. Peak shift hasn’t happened yet. But maybe we’re getting closer to that day. Non-traditional shifts are down, at least, and the types of hitters we’re seeing shifted are getting closer to less ideal.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Ryan Brockmember
5 years ago

I thought I recalled seeing mention that the Cubs shifted less last year (big news since Joe Maddon was ‘the shift guy’ before that), so I’m surprised they escaped mention in your piece here.

Psychic... Powerless...
5 years ago
Reply to  Ryan Brock

Theo or Hoyer said that, for whatever reason, many of the Cubs’ shifts were not counted as official shifts last year.

Ryan Brockmember
5 years ago
Reply to  Eno Sarris

Ahh that’s what I’m thinking of. So technically more shifts, but relatively less.