No Team Is Shifting Like the Padres

The recent flurry of matchups between the Dodgers and Padres have been enthralling. That’s what transpires when two teams of similar caliber go head-to-head – both clubs feature impressive lineups, employ the league’s best starters, and have quality bullpens and bench options to maintain the tension in later innings. They also both possess good front offices. The Dodgers have long been at the sabermetric forefront, while the Padres have strengthened their analytics department over the last few years. They share multiple characteristics, and not surprisingly, both teams excel.

However, the intrastate rivals do disagree on one major aspect of the modern game: infield shifts. Since last year, the Dodgers have applied the shift in 58.0% of opportunities, a league-leading rate over that span. In contrast, the Padres have done so just 21.5% of time. Only the Cardinals and Braves, two teams that are notably shift-averse, recorded lower rates.

What’s interesting, though, is that this isn’t because the Padres dislike the shift. Let’s dig a bit deeper. The Dodgers are what you would call equal-opportunity shifters – that is, they don’t discriminate between left- and right-handed hitters. Of their 6,729 shifts during the aforementioned time span, 3,210 (47.7%) of them were against the former. (Here I should clarify that I’m only factoring in Baseball Savant’s shifts, not strategic alignments, to simplify the analysis.)

Ok, now for San Diego. Their total of 2,608 shifts is much lower, but, and I kid you not, 2,524 (96.8%) of them were against left-handed hitters! And no, the Padres didn’t stumble into this. The gap between them and second place, the Rockies, is about 18 percentage points. There’s clear intent here, which looks even more impressive on a graph:

Compared to the rest of the league, they’re collectively on an island. Their overall rate from earlier is misleading, as it turns out, because they’ve decided to completely ignore right-handed hitters. In baseball, there’s more than one way to succeed, and the Padres have chosen an unorthodox path no other team is taking. At this point, a question comes to mind – this defensive extremism is cool and all, but is it working?

The answer is a resounding yes. So far this season, left-handed batters have produced a .305 wOBA against shifts. Isolate the Padres’ shifts, though, and that number plummets to .240, the fifth-lowest amongst all teams. If you’re concerned about the small sample size, don’t worry – their infield did even better last year, limiting lefties to a .220 wOBA. Over two years, that works out to a .229 wOBA, the lowest in the league. This is, surprisingly, a newer development. Public data on shifts have been available since 2016, but the Padres haven’t always done a stellar job at executing them it seems. Here’s how the team has fared compared to the entire league, since 2016, against lefties with the shift:

A few years ago, you could easily argue that they shouldn’t have shifted at all. Now, at least against lefties, shifts are an essential part of the Padres’ defense. It’s necessary to first roster good fielders before attempting to configure them, and through a series of signings and acquisitions, San Diego has gradually improved its defense: A lowly team UZR/150 of -5.5 increased to -1.6 in 2019, then to 3.6 in 2020. On a positional basis, by the same metric, the team ranked fourth at first base, seventh at second base, 13th at shortstop, and fourth at third base last year – all above average, and often excellent.

That’s likely a reason why the Padres’ shifts have been so darn effective. But above all, the way they’ve used Manny Machado might be what separates them from the rest of the league. In 2020, the team made headlines when it debuted an eye-catching shift. To cover the gap between first and second base, it was Machado, the third baseman, who swung all the way over. Furthermore, instead of positioning himself within the infield, he claimed a quaint spot in shallow right field. An example, from Game 1 of the NLDS:

What are the benefits of such a weird setup? Owing to Machado’s incredible range and arm strength, it’s as if the Padres gain an extra outfielder without weakening their infield defense, a rare example of having one’s cake and eating it too. Check out how calmly Machado reacts to this pulled grounder from Max Muncy:

Sure, Muncy isn’t the fastest runner, but the point is that Machado can afford to start from shallow right, jog a few steps forward, then fire the ball with both speed and precision. Mind you that the distance between him and first base is deceptively wide; the camera doesn’t do it much justice. A lesser fielder might have had to rush the entire process, leading to sloppiness and, ultimately, a safe runner. Still, it’s worth checking out a tougher play. This one features Bryan Reynolds, the Pirates’ outfielder with an 83rd percentile Sprint Speed this season:

Not only is Machado perfectly positioned, but he also handles a ball hit 104.7 mph on a hop with just two or three steps to his left. He then throws a strike to Eric Hosmer, because that’s who he is. And lastly, here’s that insane play from last year that demonstrates the value of Machado occupying the outfield:

Yep, Manny Machado is good. So is the Padres infield. And in tandem with the Padres’ front office, they’ve devised a solid plan to keep left-handed hitters at bay. No team in baseball has been as good against them with the shift on. Which makes you wonder, why not righties? With their knowledge, it seems feasible the Padres could devise an effective shift against them, too.

It’s that very knowledge, though, that is causing inaction. Even in the public sphere, we know shifts against right-handed hitters are generally ineffective. In an article written last October, Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer summarized what research, much of it conducted by Russell Carleton and Tom Tango, has concluded thus far. You should definitely read that article, but for the sake of this one, the key points are the following: After controlling for several variables, right-handed hitters fare better against the shift than against standard alignments, which is due to (1) righties being more likely than usual to put the ball in play, while striking out less compared to lefties, and (2) the huge hole in the right side shifting against them creates. Since only the first baseman occupies the right of second base, that “leaves an even wider swatch of prime real estate for hitters vacant,” according to Lindbergh.

In addition, Sports Info Solutions, who are cited in the article, advised that teams shouldn’t shift against right-handed hitters unless they had extreme pull tendencies. Based on how infrequently the Padres themselves do so, I wondered if they were adhering to that advice. To find out, I recorded the career pull rates on grounders and line drives of the eight right-handed hitters against whom the team shifted in 2020 (note: as of writing the Padres had yet to shift against a righty, but they did against Mookie Betts on April 26th – thanks to Mike Petriello for pointing this out). Fly balls are excluded since they aren’t affected by an infield shift. Here’s what I found:

Career GB + LD Pull Rates
Player Pull%
AJ Pollock 45.8%
Justin Turner 42.8%
Matt Kemp 48.6%
Mike Trout 47.2%
Mookie Betts 46.9%
Todd Frazier 54.4%
Trevor Story 43.9%
Will Smith 55.1%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The results are not what you expect. None of these hitters have a pull rate above 60%, let alone the 80% range that justifies a shift against a righty per SIS. It could be that Baseball Savant’s definition of a pulled ball is generous, or that proprietary data had an influence, like which pitchers affect the batted ball tendencies of certain hitters. But it also explains why the Padres have largely shut down the shift against righties. They might have calculated that it isn’t worth time, energy, and resources to halt a couple of balls in play. Whatever thought process led them here, it’s unique.

In a post-Moneyball era, sabermetric edges are small and fragile. When one is discovered, it’s inevitably discovered and spread throughout the league. What’s intriguing, though, is that even after all these years, major league teams have not arrived at a consensus on the infield shift. The Dodgers and Padres, for example, are each deploying a tactic they believe grants them an advantage. One team shifts aggressively, regardless of batter handedness. The other has decided to eschew shifting against righties, focusing on the lefties who are more vulnerable to the shift. As the two clash throughout the season, one of the things that will underlie the moments of visible action – the defensive web gems, the clutch line drives – is this subtle, but important contrast.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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2 years ago

Bryan Reynolds normally plays LF.