The Righty Shift Has Petered Out

There’s this episode of SpongeBob Squarepants that I love, in which Mr. Krabs’ snowballing desire for jellyfish jelly causes SpongeBob to catch more and more jellyfish until none remain. I bring this up because I like to imagine front offices as Mr. Krabs: Over the past few years, they’ve been shifting against more and more hitters, with seemingly no end in sight.

It turns out, however, we might have already reached the peak of infield shifting, at least in terms of volume. Comprehensive shift data dates back to 2016. Since then, here’s the rate of shifts against left- and right-handed batters each season:

This season, we’ve reached a point of stagnation. Teams haven’t budged from the mark they set against lefty hitters in 2020. Moreover, after a steady year-to-year increase, the rate of shifts against righty hitters has actually dropped. What I find more interesting — and ultimately want to dissect — is the latter trend. That teams aren’t looking for new lefties to shift against makes sense, since there’s presumably a limited pool. But righties demonstrate pull-side tendencies, too. If we assume teams are shifting mainly based on pull rates, we’d also expect the number of shifts against righties to keep climbing.

Each team has its own philosophies and internal metrics, so it’s worth noting there may never be a consensus on infield shifts. In the same division no less, the Padres occupy one end of the spectrum and the Dodgers the other. With that in mind, which teams have become more conservative against righties? And which teams are bucking the overall trend?

To kick things off, here are the teams whose shift rates have decreased from last year by a significant amount. (I’m basing these rates on total pitches, not plate appearances, which is why they look different than the ones on Baseball Savant.)

Teams Shifting RHH Less in 2021
Team 2020 Shift% 2021 Shift% Change
Pirates 43.3% 12.3% -31.0%
Twins 36.5% 13.5% -23.0%
Brewers 25.3% 6.6% -18.7%
Angels 39.8% 21.5% -18.3%
Orioles 27.7% 10.5% -17.2%

In the Pirates’ case, their righty shift rate rose from 23.4% in 2019 to 43.3% in ’20 but has now fallen over 30 points. It’s as if they dipped their toes in the water for 60 games, decided “nope,” and climbed back out. The Twins ranked among the leaders in righty shift rates for years, but they’ve inexplicably become modest in 2021. The Angels and Orioles have mirrored the league-wide trend of increasing, then decreasing shift rates, and this is the Brewers’ lowest shift rate against righties in StatCast history. Is there something these five teams have in common? Not really! As you’ll see, this will be a recurring sentiment.

Meanwhile, let’s see which teams have doubled down on the strategy:

Teams Shifting RHH More in 2021
Team 2020 Shift% 2021 Shift% Change
Mets 12.6% 48.5% 35.9%
Braves 6.3% 33.0% 26.7%
Athletics 17.4% 24.6% 7.2%
Mariners 10.6% 17.0% 6.4%
Cardinals 11.9% 12.2% 0.3%

Reflecting the league-wide decrease in shifts against righties, the top five here is quite bare. Only two teams, the Mets and the Braves, stand out; the remaining teams seem committed to an existing framework. New York has already received ample media coverage for its newfound commitment; back in May, Tim Britton of The Athletic wrote about how the Mets overhauled their infield positioning, as did David Capobianco for Amazin’ Avenue. And it’s not a coincidence that the Mets and Dodgers now share similar shifting tendencies, since former Dodgers analyst Ben Zauzmer was brought in to lead the Mets’ research and development efforts. The two teams shift against everyone, and no one else is as enthusiastic.

Compared to other teams, Atlanta has been late to the party. Even during the shift frenzy of 2020, it remained reluctant, shifting just 5.6% of the time against righties and 10.9% of the time against lefties. But the team did experiment with infield positioning during the 2020 playoffs, so perhaps it’s carried over into the regular season. As a possible result, the Braves are now shifting at a 32.2% and 48.3% clip against righties and lefties, respectively. Quietly, there’s been a renovation in the works.

Still, multiple teams are pumping the brakes compared to the select few that aren’t. The relatively small drop in the league-wide rate aside, the big picture suggests shifts against righties are no longer in vogue. For the most part, the teams that did try it out have been scalded, though the original aficionados continue to indulge. Unlike shifts against lefties, those against righties seem like an acquired taste.

So why might teams be backing out? It’s easy to point toward the Brewers’ 18th-best .341 wOBA against righties with the shift on as a reason, but remember, that number doesn’t control for pitcher-batter matchups. The Rays had a .360 wOBA in those exact situations last year, and they’re still going strong. We also can’t necessarily say teams with better results achieve better positioning.

Maybe teams have arrived to conclusions long-championed by the public — that a majority of shifts against righties are no-nos. I covered the reasons why in an article about the Padres, but to recap: (1) after factoring in the walk penalty, righty shifts result in a net loss; (2) righties produce more balls in play against the shift; and (3) when shifting against a righty, a huge hole opens up near first base. All in all, unless the hitter exhibits extreme pull tendencies on grounders, shifting against a righty is counterproductive. Teams can draw on proprietary data, so presumably they think and operate differently. But the public has made a convincing case, and it might be that teams are taking notice, revising strategies for 2021 and beyond.

What’s most puzzling to me, though, is that the right-handed hitters teams do shift against don’t always seem like obvious candidates. In this awesome Ben Lindbergh article I often revisit, Sports Info Solutions recommends a pull rate threshold of 80% as the prerequisite for an infield shift. That passes the smell test — until you realize teams aren’t exactly following it. For this plot, I queried right-handed hitters with at least 200 batted balls this season, then filtered out those who’ve seen a shift at least 20% of the time. On the x-axis is pull rate on groundballs, and on the y-axis is shift rate:

Sure, there’s a moderate correlation, but the truncated y-axis is hiding just how spread out the points are. Consider the difference between Miguel Sanó (75.5 Pull GB%; 68.8 Shift%) and Hunter Dozier (77.7 Pull GB%; 20.0 Shift%). What makes Sanó such an attractive target? And in stark contrast, why aren’t teams as aggressive against Dozier? In addition to pulling their grounders, both hitters have similar pull and groundball rates this season, so the answer likely doesn’t lie there. It could be because they face different teams, which are either willing or reluctant to shift against right-handed hitters. Or is there a sprint speed component? I’m chucking questions at this point, but it’s because I don’t have any immediate answers.

This leads to another thought: Maybe the Angels, Brewers, Orioles, Pirates, and Twins are merely becoming more selective — as in, they only shift against right-handers who meet a certain criteria and ignore everyone else. The overall rate is down, but all that’s been accomplished is the trimming of fat. To test this idea, I figured out the number of hitters each team is shifting against more often in 2021 compared to 2020, as well as the number of hitters each team is shifting against less often. Just so one-off instances didn’t creep in, I set an arbitrary requirement of 400 pitches seen for hitters. Here are the results in table form:

Changes to Shift Rates For Individual RHH
Team No. Increased No. Decreased TOTAL
Angels 2 21 23
Brewers 1 10 11
Orioles 2 4 6
Pirates 2 13 15
Twins 1 9 10
TOTAL 8 57 65

Ehh, it’s iffy. Shift rates are dramatically down even on an individual basis. You’ll notice two or three hitters whose rates increased per team, but nobody has gone from, say, a 5% rate to a 20% one. I do see that some teams have maintained high shift rates against certain hitters, though. For example, the Angels shifted against Mark Canha 11.7% of the time 2020 and are doing so 11.1% of the time this season; it’s technically a decrease, but barely. The same goes for the Brewers against Byron Buxton, against whom they’re shifting more frequently (15.8% to 18.1%). More importantly, both instances are perfectly reasonable. Canha ranks as having the eighth-highest pull rate on his grounders per my spreadsheet, and while Buxton didn’t qualify, he would have ranked somewhere near the top 20.

What have we learned from this? Nothing revelatory, but we do have a sense of where the league is as a whole. As it stands, most shifts against right-handed hitters come from a fervent minority; otherwise, teams are shying away from them or, like the Padres, never bought into the idea in the first place. I thought the numbers would keep climbing from the looks of previous years, but apparently not. Maybe teams have considered public research. Maybe they’ve come to their own conclusions. Either way, that a justification exists for shifting righties en masse is becoming less likely.

That doesn’t mean you can’t make an argument. And whether a shift is deployed or not definitely doesn’t depend on just a hitter’s batted balls; if I had to guess, the pitcher’s own tendencies, the count, and base-out states are all relevant factors. Those are for a future study. What I do know is that regarding righty shifts, teams appear a bit stung. I suppose they’ve angered the jellyfish.





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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fanoftheman
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fanoftheman

Does speed play any role in who should get shifted? Intuitively, it seems like a guy who is a burner may also eat into the advantages of shifting. If your infielder gets the ball but is on the outfield grass, they may not be able to get rid of the ball fast enough to throw out thebrunner.

Jeremy Dumond
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Jeremy Dumond

My thoughts exactly. Maybe adding a bubble size or color code based on sprint speed score would depict any presence in the chart

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

In that case, they could still do an overshift with all the infielders still positioned on the actual infield.

The speed factor could very well be a contributing factor to the downturn in righty shifts, though, as it may not be worth it to place 3 infielders on the left side if there’s a significant chance that the runner beats it out anyway.