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By The Numbers

Evolution Of The Shift: The Real Issue In MLB

by Matt Williams
Updated On: June 22, 2021, 11:37 am ET

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In this week’s “By The Numbers” breakdown, the analysis will focus on the shift and how the evolution of this defensive strategy has shaped the game. This will look at the history of the shift, how it has grown into the standard practice of Major League Baseball, and how that has impacted the offensive output of certain players and batted ball profiles.

The goal of this week’s analysis is to identify players who have suffered the most from the aggressive advancement of this defensive alignment and which player’s approach has left them immune to the effects.

Make no mistake, the modern-day usage of the shift has altered the careers of many players, and in some cases ruined them. Many executives, coaches, players, and fans have called for Major League Baseball to “ban the shift” in recent seasons. Is this an appropriate course of action, or should major league hitters be forced to adapt?

All of the questions above will be discussed and more in this week’s breakdown, but first let’s have a quick overview on the history of the shift.

 

The History Of The Shift


There are many baseball fans that think the shift was created by new-age Moneyball teams like the mid-2000 Devil Rays and their out-of-the-box manager Joe Maddon. That is a fallacy. The truth is that the shift was created nearly 90 years before Tampa Bay would install this defensive tactic in modern-day baseball.

In the 1920’s Phillies outfielder, Cy Williams had such immense pull power that opposing managers positioned their outfielders in right field, and extremely deep. It should be mentioned that a lot of this had to do with the Green Monster-esque wall at the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia, an extremely short porch in right field (see below). Williams was one of the first true power hitters in the game, leading the National League’s all-time home run list until 1929 when he was unseated by Rogers Hornsby. 

 

Baker Bowl

 

While Cy Williams may have been the first player in the majors to have a modified version of the shift installed against him, it was another Williams that would go on to introduce a closer version of the modern-day shift two decades later.

In 1941, Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who may very well be the greatest hitter of all time, sparked the imagination of White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes. The left-handed Red Sox slugger was hitting .397 with a 1.208 OPS when Dykes came up with the plan to place his shortstop on the right side of second base while moving his second baseman into shallow right field and third baseman over to short. The idea, of course, being that this strategy would somehow slow down the pull-heavy Williams. 

 

TW Shift

 

In case you were wondering, the strategy was not successful. Ted Williams went 2-for-5 with a double down the left-field line, going 4-for-10 in the two-game series. However, this was not the end of opposing teams trying to tame the “Splendid Splinter”, as later that season Indians manager Lou Boudreau positioned seven position players on the right side of second base. Three were stationed on the infield dirt, with Jimmy Wasdell positioned directly on the first-base line, while the others were scattered throughout the outfield. Williams went 1-for-2 with a double and two walks. 

There are two takeaways from this history lesson. First, Ted Williams was really good. Second, even though the left-handed legend was able to navigate the shift, he ended up seeing his batting average dip around 16 points to a still incredible .340 until the end of his career. The shift works, but elite hitters will still find a way to produce regardless of its presence. 

In the years to come, the shift would occasionally be used whenever the league was desperate to neutralize a dangerous left-handed hitter. Orioles legend Boog Powell, famous for both his bat and barbeque stand at Camden Yards, and Hall of Famer Willie McCovey were just a couple of the players that the shift would be utilized against. It was by no means a popular strategy until sabermetrically driven ball clubs, like the Rays, started to look for ways to gain an advantage in the mid-to-late 2000s.

 

The Expansion Of The Shift


Righties Being Left Out?

You may have noticed that when discussing the shift, the hitters are primarily left-handed. Probably because the vast majority of those impacted by the defensive phenomenon are in fact lefties. 

This is not to say that right-handed hitters are immune to the shift, as there are plenty of sluggers that have the shift installed against them. The main issue is logistical. First of all, you need someone to cover first base. There is no way around this. It does not matter if you can find a way to field a baseball if there is no one to throw it to. Secondly, throws are more difficult on the right side of the infield. They require a stronger and more accurate arm while making it impossible to throw someone out from shallow left field. Just think about it, a right-handed shift creates quite a few issues.

That being said, there are several right-handed hitters that are so pull-heavy that a modified shift is still a beneficial strategy against them, such as Miguel Sano. It is also a strategy that has been more and more popular as new age sabermetric thinking continues to take over baseball. In 2016 Major League Baseball only shifted 6.2 percent of the time versus right-handed hitters. In 2021 so far that number has jumped to 17.7 percent. 

 

It’s Tough Being A Lefty

If we dive into the traditional “Williams” shift against left-handed hitters, this is where the game has taken a hard turn into analytics and defensive positioning. In 2016 the league shifted 24.3 percent against hitters from the left side. Fast forward to this season and Major League Baseball is now making defensive shift adjustments on over 53 percent of left-handed hitters. 

It is difficult to argue with the success of the strategy, as it may have ended several promising careers such as Chris Davis' and Ryan Howard's (who each saw the shift in over 90 percent of their at-bats). Agent Scott Boras once went as far as to say that shifts are “discriminatory” against left-handed hitters.

Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter increased his pull percentage from 31.9 to 48.1 percent from the 2014 season to 2016 and batted .272 with 49 home runs and 182 RBI over that span. However, the left-hander has not hit above .226 since 2018. Granted, Carpenter is now 35-years-old and age and/or injuries have certainly played a role, but the infield shift may have taken this age decline and shoved it off a cliff.

 

  • 2016: 33.8% (.392 wOBA)
  • 2017: 60.5% (.392 wOBA)
  • 2018: 83.4% (.368 wOBA)
  • 2019: 88.8% (.314 wOBA)
  • 2020: 97.0% (.296 wOBA)
  • 2021: 95.6% (.288 wOBA)

 

 

Carp Chart

 

Modern Day Impact Of The Shift


The obvious impact of the modern-day shift is explained through the tale of Matt Carpenter above. If you are unable to adapt as a pull-heavy major leaguer and/or lack the ability to drive the ball over the fence, you are going to struggle. This situation has been made worse by the introduction of the lower COR baseball that was discussed in last week's “By The Numbers” breakdown.

Baseball is a game of inches. That is why minor changes like a new baseball can have such a devastating impact. It is no different with the shift. Managers and front office personnel will continue to take every inch they can if it gives them an advantage.

 

The Impact Up The Middle

When most baseball fans think of the shift they think of a pull heavy left-handed batter having a hard-hit ground ball cleanly fielded by a shortstop playing to the right of second base, or by the second baseman in shallow right field. This is certainly a popular outcome. However, what many fans do not realize is that the modern-day shift takes away what many believe to be one of the most fundamentally sound batted balls in the game, a base hit up the middle. 

It may seem obvious that the shift was designed to neutralize pull heavy hitters, but it has evolved into a precision defensive tactic that can take away quality batted balls that were once considered automatic base hits. It's amazing how far production on ground balls up the middle has suffered in recent seasons:

 

  • 2014: .344 avg
  • 2015: .312 avg
  • 2016: .337 avg
  • 2017: .304 avg
  • 2018: .302 avg
  • 2019: .299 avg
  • 2020: .254 avg
  • 2021: .236 avg

 

The shift has taken off to the point where routine base hits have become routine outs. In past seasons, the video below shows a sure-fire base hit by Jose Ramirez up the middle. However, instead of the baseball reaching the outfield, Reds shortstop Kyle Farmer fields the ball cleanly standing readily several feet to the right of second base.

 

JRam Middle

 

“Hit It Where They Ain’t”

Hall of Famer Willie Keeler had 13 straight seasons in which he batted over .300 and a lifetime batting average of .345 over 19 seasons. The 5-foot-4 outfielder coined the phrase “keep your eye on the ball and hit em’ where they ain’t.” Simply put, hit the baseball where there are no fielders. This is the complaint of many baseball fans when it comes to the shift, “Why can’t hitters just go the other way or bunt.”

Will Clark, a 15-year veteran who hit .303 during his career is certainly among this crowd. He was quoted as saying “As far as the shifts go, it’s great for the defense because they’re playing the odds and these idiots that are in the batter’s box don’t make any adjustments.” Clark went on to add that power hitters like Joey Gallo “...have no pride in (their) craft, you don’t work on anything, all you do is go out and try to hit the ball out of the ballpark, that’s all you do.”

It is certainly a fair question why major league hitters who are left with an entire side of the field left open refuse to take the initiative and learn how to exploit the shift. The shift has been around for a while now and it is safe to say that certain hitters are either not equipped to handle the adjustment or are simply unwilling. However, many (most) pitchers now tailor the way they pitch in order to force a hitter into the defensive shift, making it difficult or impossible to take the ball to the opposite field. This is a compounding problem.

 

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2021 Player Results


Success Against The Shift

The chart below demonstrates several players that have had success hitting into the shift this season. In order to make the chart the batter must have at least 200 plate appearances, at least a 50 percent shift rate, and over a .350 wOBA while hitting into the shift:

 

Good Shift

 

You will notice that there are quite a few good names on this list, which should not really be surprising. If a hitter is being this successful against the shift then they are unlikely to be struggling.

However, there are a couple of big names such as Freddie Freeman and Juan Soto who have failed to reach expectations this season. Soto has a fairly lofty ground ball rate which is holding him back in 2021, but neither superstar has an egregious pull rate. You can see below that Freeman has a rather impressive spray chart.

 

Freeman Spray

 

This is nothing you do not already know. Juan Soto, who was mentioned in last week’s column, has all of the talent to make a quick turnaround this season as everyone is expecting while Freeman is the reigning MVP for the National League.

The interesting standouts on this list are Max Muncy, Matt Olson, and Joey Gallo for the simple fact that they see the shift over 90 percent of the time. The trio's success against the shift to this point is likely due to their ground ball and pull side percentages being held in check so far, at least in terms of batted balls.

Muncy seems to have success almost entirely from the pull side to center (see below), while Olson and Gallo share at least some production to the opposite field.

 

Mucny Spray

 

In the end, the “x-factor” is good old fashion exit velocity. Hit the ball hard and it is far more difficult to field. However, it may be worth monitoring any players drifting too far into the pull side (Mike Yastrzemski) or into the ground (Jared Walsh).

 

Unsuccessful Against The Shift

The chart below demonstrates several players that have had poor success hitting into the shift this season. In order to make the chart the batter must have at least 200 plate appearances, at least a 50 percent shift rate, and under a .320 wOBA while hitting into the shift:

 

Bad Shift

 

Just like the previous chart, there are likely some names you expected to see on this list. For one, Miguel Sano was mentioned by name earlier in the article. It is interesting that only 36.7 percent of Sano’s batted balls go to the pull side, but if you notice in the chart below (aside from home runs), most of the sluggers' success comes entirely from left field.

 

Sanop Spray

 

Adam Duvall has been on fire lately, collecting multiple two-homer games this past weekend. The Marlins outfielder is one of the few players who is exactly as advertised when it comes to the data you see on the page. Duvall is a power hitter who will struggle to maintain a high batting average. The shift does not impact home runs obviously, but if the ball stays in the field of play, it is almost certainly going to the pull side (see below).

 

Duvall Spray

 

Enjoy the home runs from Adam Duvall because that is all you are going to get.

 

The Modern-Day Shift: Conclusion

This season the offense has been “down” league-wide, but for multiple reasons. The use of foreign substances has been a popular topic due to the attention Major League Baseball has given it, and since the official ban, there have been improvements in offensive production. The second major issue has been the new baseball, which we discussed last week, but it has more to do with power suppression and production on fly balls.

The shift is something that has skated by, but hasn't been forgotten, as it's probably the most likely culprit for the bulk of MLB’s current offensive crater. It has gotten to the point where it is impossible to ignore and many executives have called for its ban, including the team president for the New York Mets, Sandy Alderson. This is significant considering the team from Queens is second in all of baseball with a 55.7 percent shift rate, up from 7.4 percent in 2016.

There have been many theories and compromises, such as keeping the shift but forcing all infielders to be on the infield dirt rather than in the outfield. All of the ideas surround different ways to “fix” or “ban” the shift, but there are no current plans by the players or front office personnel to learn how to adjust.

This is the reality we live in and for fantasy baseball, it is an important lesson to learn. The shift impacts certain hitters that fall into certain boxes and it truly changes the kind of hitter that can become on the box score. Fans are interested in foreign substances and the new baseball, but if Major League Baseball were to fix both of those issues there would be a minimal difference compared to what would happen if they decided to ban the shift. We are living in a different world right now due to the shift, which has a massive grip on modern-day baseball.