There’s a growing number of windmills sprouting around the country. One can see fields of them from plane windows at 30,000 feet. There’s even a giant one on the east side of Cleveland that’s visible, on a clear day, across Lake Erie from the shores of Bay Village, Ohio, a small municipality on the west side of the city, where this author now resides. The windmills are harnessing the power of the wind to create clean energy, which can be delivered anywhere, I presume, including the car-charging stations I’ve noticed pop up in places like the nearby Whole Foods parking lot. Despite very conspicuous advances and installations, we’re apparently decades away — perhaps not until the 2040s — from reaching Peak Oil, according to Reuters. Clean and renewable energy is taking some time to gain market share.
Some innovations take time to grab hold, others advance quickly. It can be difficult to project when a trend will reach its high-water mark. But we might have seen a prominent 21st trend and strategy reach that point in major-league baseball. In 2016, after a dramatic rise this decade, baseball might have reached Peak Shift.
This year, shifts declined for the first time since their rapid rise earlier in the decade. Ten years ago, shifts were being used against left-handed power hitters exclusively. There wasn’t a shift employed against a right-handed hitter, according to the Baseball Info Solutions database, until June 11, 2009, when the Phillies moved three infielders to the left side of second base against Gary Sheffield. At that point, in the late 2000s, the Rays and Brewers were at the vanguard of wholesale shifting. In 2012, league-wide shift usage doubled, though it was still modest in terms of raw numbers. Gradually more teams bought in — teams like the Pirates, who increased their shift usage by 400% from 2012 to 2013. In 2014, usage doubled again, as the 10,000-shift mark was breached for the first time. The practice has since proliferated across the sport.
From 2012 to -16, shift usage grew by at least 34.8% each season.
But in 2017? This past season, usage dropped by five percentage points, representing the first year-over-year decline in the shift era. Consider the following table:
|Season||Total shifts||Pct. Change|
Shifting was still quite popular, it was still a standard practice in 2017, but what we saw was a slight contraction, a hint that some teams are beginning to lessen their dependence on the foreign alignments.
Even some of the top shifting teams, the most devout believers, have begun to dial back shift usage. Consider the following chart ranked by 2017 shifting usage:
So what’s going on here?
What’s happened is that the value of the shifts has possibly decreased, a point explored recently for Baseball Prospectus by the excellent Russell Carleton.
Let’s begin with the ground ball, which the shift is designed to suffocate. The distribution of ground balls hasn’t changed. For most batters, it’s difficult to hit a ground ball to the opposite field.
Consider the distribution of grounders in 2007: 53.2% pulled, 33.6% center, 13.3% opposite.
And in 2017: 53.7% pulled, 33.6% center, 12.7% opposite.
As you might expect, however, the total number of ground balls to the opposite field that have become base hits has increased as shifts have increased. Compared to 2011, MLB hitters have produced about 500 more base hits on ground balls to the opposite field.
Hitters’ average on pull-side grounders has declined from .202 in 2010 to .190 last season and .186 in 2016.
In employing the FanGraphs splits leaderboards, we can also see performance against ground balls when shifts are on:
While the volume of hits has increased — perhaps irking pitchers and coaches — the overall rate of success is relatively steady. Batters are not able to guide ground balls, generally, through vacated portions of the infield any better than they were in 2011.
On pull-side grounders, shifts remain effective:
The shift decline appears somewhat contradictory. If the shift seems to be roughly as effective as in the past, why would teams employ them less often?
To better understand that, it’s necessary to return to the beginning, to the man who helped usher in the era of shifts in Tampa Bay: Joe Maddon. It is Maddon, now in Chicago, who is in part responsible for the shift’s decline in 2017.
What was interesting about 2016 is that, in the peak year of shifting to date, the top defensive team was the Cubs. They produced a historic defensive campaign and converted a remarkable percentage of batted balls (74.5%) into outs. It was the best rate since 1950, as Sam Miller noted in an ESPN piece last year, and it was during that season when the Cubs shifted an MLB-low 399 times.
In 2017? The Cubs were again the least-shifting club in the majors, with just 302 of them.
This is remarkable in context. It was Maddon, for example, who had his defenders account for 10% of all shifts in 2010. Now Maddon has his defenders playing straight up — or, at least not in a way that one would classify as a shift. While the Cubs aligned their defenders in more subtle ways, while Maddon said he was mostly concerned with defending the low line drive, Chicago is essentially playing straight up with some premium defenders.
Cubs president Theo Epstein explained the move away from shifts:
“When you shift you risk turning hitters into better hitters than they otherwise would be. You’re opening up holes and encouraging good hitters to use the whole field.”
Perhaps some of the answers reside there, but we have to look up for answers.
The overall distribution of fly balls and line drives hasn’t changed.
2007 line drives and fly balls: 30.6% pulled, 34.4% center, 35.0% opposite
2017 line drives and fly balls: 29.1% pulled, 36.1% center, 34.8% opposite.
But against shifts? Batters are evolving to pull fewer balls that are put in the air. While it’s tough to hit a ground ball to the opposite field, it’s easier to drive one there in the air.
Consider the distribution of line drives and batted balls vs shifts:
In 2010: 31.5% pulled, 37.9% center, 30.6% opposite.
In 2017: 25.8% pulled, 40.8% center, 33.4% opposite.
And in visual form:
Hitters operate a little differently in the air versus shifts, more often getting balls in the air when the defense is realigned. It’s one motivation behind the Air-Ball Revolution. Consider that, in 2011, hitters posted a 1.9 GB/FB ratio against shifts. This past season? A 1.3 mark.
Since 2011, hitters have reduced their ground-ball rate by seven percentage points against shifts and raised their fly-ball rate by five points. One last chart:
Overall, ground-ball percentage has remained steadier.
John Dewan estimated in the 2016 that the upper limit of shifts could reach 40,000 per season. Maybe the sport will not approach that ceiling.
To understand why we might have seen Peak Shift, and why teams are perhaps seeing diminishing returns from the practice, we must not look to the ground, but rather, the sky.