Is the LeMahieu Shift the Boldest One Ever?

In the age of the shift, it takes a lot for a particular defensive alignment to merit real attention.

But over the weekend, the Diamondbacks managed to do just that, utilizing what appears to be the most dramatic shift in recent history — notable even more so because the park at which they did it, Coors Field, features one of the game’s largest outfields.

We’ve seen about every variety of infield shift over the last four years, but we’ve never witnessed anything quite like what the Diamondbacks employed against DJ LeMahieu.

That gets your attention. That is bold.

Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo was aware of the implications. He relayed his thoughts to Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic.

“It’s a super-shift times 10,” Lovullo said. “You’ve never really seen anything like it.”

“With nobody in left field, it could be an inside-the-park home run… You’re kind of holding your breath.”

And in the fifth inning Friday night, on its third attempt, the shift worked.

That’s a line drive to “center fielder” A.J. Pollock, catching the ball after just a few quick steps to his left.

The idea for the extreme shift was pitched to Luvollo by Diamondbacks coach Dave McKay, who’d studied the data provided by Arizona’s front office. Mike Fitzgerald, who leads the club’s analytics department, had helped bring the infield shift to Pittsburgh in 2013.

In this case, the data clearly shows that LeMahieu has an extreme batted-ball profile. While most hitters pull the majority of ground balls, fly balls tend to be more evenly distributed. LeMahieu is an outlier, though. Consider his fly-ball distribution compared to the league since 2015:

D.J. LeMahieu’s Fly-Ball Distribution vs. League
Location MLB Flies, 2017 LeMahieu Flies, 2017 LeMahieu Flies, Career
Pull 24.2% 12.4% 11.1%
Center 36.3% 28.4% 38.0%
Opposite 39.4% 59.3% 50.9%

For those who prefer visual presentations, here’s a heat map of all LeMahieu’s fly balls against right-handed pitchers since 2015:

Said LeMahieu to reporters after the game:

“I mean, I don’t blame them. I hit a lot of balls that way, but at the same time, if I hit a ground ball, it’s a triple to the left side. I’m not really going to change my approach. I hit plenty of balls to the left, enough balls to the left that if they keep playing me like that, I’ll burn them a couple times, at least.”

Said McKay to Piecoro:

“Tony told me one time, ‘No guts, no glory … If you really feel like it’s the right thing to do, go for it. No guts, no glory. He’ll probably beat us on it tomorrow. He’s that good of a hitter.”

Diamondbacks starting pitcher Taijuan Walker was surprised to see what was going on behind him. “I was so confused… I’m definitely glad I didn’t know,” Walker told reporters. (Maybe the fewer parties that know of such a plan, the better.)

After Friday’s game, Lovullo told Piecoro he planned to tweak the alignment. Rather than have left fielder David Peralta and center fielder A.J. Pollock shift to the right, they would swap the pair, keeping Pollock furthest to the left, to keep the team’s fleetest defender in center in the event that damage damage control was necessary in left field.

“(We’ll have) two natural right fielders and (in center) your best fielder by speed and range is going to cover the most ground,” Lovullo said. “We think about it as much we can, and we probably didn’t think about it probably as thoroughly as we (did) after the game last night.”

Lovullo also said the Diamondbacks would be unlikely to feature the same alignment with a left-handed pitcher on the mound, though LeMahieu goes the other way often against lefties, too:

“Against left-handed pitching, the habits and trends aren’t showing the same things they were last night,” Lovullo said. “It’ll be a case-by-case situation.”

You could argue that teams ought to consider doing this against other hitters, too.

While only Joe Mauer (70.5%) and Domingo Santana (62.2%), for example, both hit more fly balls to the opposite field than LeMahieu. Of the league’s qualified hitters, 27 have hit at least 50% of their fly balls to the opposite field this season.

In fact, 137 of 313 qualified hitters hit 40% or more of their fly balls to the opposite field.

So there’s almost certainly some benefit to experimenting with a more pronounced shift. Of course, the strategy carries significant risk, too.

LeMahieu is an extreme ground-ball hitter, producing 2.6 grounders for every fly ball over the course of his career. The ratio is 3-to-1 this season. And LeMahieu has more evenly distributed his ground balls (34.4% pull vs. 43.6% center vs. 22.0% opposite) over the course of his career.

Here are all of LeMahieu’s batted balls this season:

A hard ground ball or line drive to left would provide significant damage against such an outfield shift.

But when a right-handed starter returned to the mound Sunday, the Diamondbacks returned to the LeMahieu shift. LeMahieu pounded his first three batted balls into the turf on the left side of the infield, perhaps a product of attempting to burn the alignment.

He did fly out to right to end the game Sunday.

Even if this was nothing more than a curiosity, it was at least a lot of fun for one weekend. But teams have become more interested in outfield alignments.

I wrote earlier this year about how the Astros have been at the forefront of outfield shifting. In such cases, however, the possible negative cost of an outfield shift gone awry (an extra-base hit) is greater than the same thing for an infield shift (usually just a single).

When Fitzgerald was with the Pirates last season, the club moved their outfielders to dramatically shallower positions. The logic? That the team’s ground-ball staff produced more grounders to the outfield and that a shallower outfield could better prevent extra bases taken on the base paths. The plan backfired, however, when the staff didn’t execute as well off the mound. The outfielders were often running with their backs turned toward the infield. All shifts start with execution off the pitching mound.

Earlier this year against Joey Votto, the Cubs employed a four-man outfield. You could argue playing a five-man infield against LeMahieu might make more sense than a dramatically shifted outfield.

Teams are becoming more interested in outfield alignment, but it’s also a more challenging enterprise, as there’s more space to cover and a greater number of batted-ball types for which to account. It’s like going from chess to three-dimensional chess.

Maybe the Diamondbacks are onto something, or maybe they were lucky LeMahieu never found left field. Either way, it got our attention.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

So what’s that foul out that looks about 20 ft out of play behind home?

6 years ago
Reply to  Cheeknbut

Probably in a game played at Oakland?

Tom Jitterbugmember
6 years ago
Reply to  MuddyChicken

Oakland’s not on the Rockies schedule for 2017.

6 years ago
Reply to  Tom Jitterbug

I’m not too familiar with all baseball parks, but it has to be some park with lots of foul ground right? That’s why I guessed Oakland.

6 years ago
Reply to  Cheeknbut

From Baseball Savant Spray Chart:

DJ LeMahieu grounds out softly, third baseman Justin Turner to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
Game Date: 2017-04-08
Pitch: Slider
Batted Ball Velocity: 68.7 mph
Distance: 4 feet

Uhh, no.

6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

Where the ball first bounced, maybe? The batter swung away in a bunt situation, then just wound up topping the ball anyway?

6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

Missed it by *this* much, StatCast.

6 years ago

Computers don’t make mistakes, humans do.

6 years ago
Reply to  YKnotDisco

Holy crap, that ball would have had to decelerate at a rate of 1270 ft/s^2 to stop at 4 ft. That’s nearly 40 g’s!