We hear a lot about defensive shifts in baseball today. Teams will find ways to get a competitive advantage any way they can (cough Astros cough) and defensive shifts are one of the most popular forms of gaining that edge in baseball today. There is a multitude of shifts, infield shifts, outfield shifts, and countless strategic defensive positioning. For today’s article, I want to focus on the most popular shift. The infield shift. In 2019, not only were there more shifts than ever before but the percentage of infield shifts doubled since 2017. Infield shifts occurred on 26.2% of all pitches in 2019. Consider back in 2015, infield shifts occurred on just 9.8% of all pitches thrown. But, do they really work? I’d hope so with the increasing popularity and any team’s urge to gain an advantage.
In order to see if the shift works, I first looked at wOBA for all players against an infield shift and against a standard infield defense. I gathered the data from any player who was shifted against between 10% and 90% of their plate appearances to eliminate some very small sample sizes. As it turns out, 190 players managed a better wOBA against the shift than against a standard infield defensive alignment while 184 hitters performed worse in terms of wOBA against the shift. So, the results clearly did not prove that the shift works and is essentially inconclusive. End of article. Just kidding!
I dug a little deeper. Over the last three seasons, I looked at all the hitters who were shifted on in at least 50% of their plate appearances. I also looked at each of these player’s batting average minus expected batting average (BA-xBA) overall. After all, the infield shift is not necessarily designed to limit extra-base hits (or home runs, obviously). Extra base hits influence wOBA much more than singles and outs. The shift is used to turn base hits (largely singles) into outs. Since xBA doesn’t account for the shift, let’s see the results, then uncover the outliers.
2019 Hitters shifted over 50% of the time - BA-xBA
|Jackie Bradley Jr.||2019||64.3||-0.017|
Despite seeing the shift on nearly 95% of his plate appearances, Gallo’s batting average of .253 in 2019 was .024 above his xBA. What did Joey Gallo do differently in 2019 that allowed him to outperform his expected batting average? He lowered his launch angle a bit but it was still over 20 degrees. He pulled over 50% of his batted balls, so it’s not as if he was altering his approach to beat the shift. I suppose we could point to his insane 26.4% barrels per batted ball event (BBE) which was about four percent better than his previous two seasons. That’s probably not enough to account for a major shift in BA-xBA though. In 2017 and 2018, his BA-xBA averaged -.020, yet in 2019 he outperformed his BA-xBA by .024. That’s a significant swing of .044.
Let’s check Joey Gallo’s batted ball profile in 2017
compared to 2019
Aside from putting fewer balls in play (BIP) due to an injury in 2019, Gallo appeared to have an even more significant pull-heavy approach in 2019. In 2017, his balls hit to the outfield were more evenly dispersed. This doesn’t explain the improvements in his BA-xBA. However, if we isolate his weakly hit batted balls and bunts, we see a significant difference between BA and xBA. Take a look at the left side of the infield. Gallo bunted four times in 2019 and reached on three of them. He also hit three weakly hit ground balls (<75 mph) to the left side of the infield. He reached on two of them. That’s six hits on eight balls in play. But, xBA expected only one of those BIP to end up as a hit. That’s a difference of five hits. It doesn’t sound like much except when you consider Gallo had just 61 hits in all of 2019. If we drop him to 56, his batting average falls to .232 and much closer to his xBA of .229. The question is whether or not Gallo will continue to take advantage of aggressive shifts against him. It could make the difference between Gallo finishing as a .210 hitter or a .250 hitter. Below is a scenario where Gallo successfully bunted against an extreme shift.
Defenses have always heavily shifted Carpenter and for good reason. Since the 2016 season, Carp’s pulled over 75% of his ground balls topping out at a whopping 81.3% in 2019. In fact, his pulled ground ball percentage has risen every year since 2014. That’s a bad sign for an aging veteran. As a result, teams have increased the percentage of shifts against him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s shifted on over 90% of the time in 2020. In 2017 and 2018, his BA-xBA was consistent (-.015) but he nearly broke even in 2019. That’s in large part due to hitting .220 on grounders last season. This may be a good example of how pull-heavy left-handed batter without good speed earned such a high batting average on grounders. Can he count this type of luck going forward? I wouldn’t bet on it. His speed is diminishing along with his hard contact%. I’d expect his BA on ground balls to fall below .200 making him a major batting average risk.
Poor Jay Bruce. He’s been a victim of the shift for a good portion of his career. Over the last two seasons, only Kyle Seager and Curtis Granderson managed a larger discrepancy between BA-xBA on ground balls (minimum 140 GB). Yes, he’s slow, pulls a high percentage of his batted balls, and hits from the left side. A prime candidate for the shift, no doubt.
He’s interesting though because he’s attempting to beat the shift by going over it. His 54.1% fly-ball rate ranked number one in baseball among players with at least 300 plate appearances (per FanGraphs). The good news is Bruce managed an impressive 13.4% barrels per batted ball event in 2019. The bad news, his popup rate shot up to 13%, nearly double the league-average. Unfortunately for Bruce owners, he’s going to be in a reserve role with the Phillies limiting his opportunities. If an injury, God forbid, to Rhys Hoskins or someone in the outfield, Bruce is a dark horse candidate to hit 15-20 homers in an abbreviated season. NOTE: Add in the wrinkle with the potential universal DH and Bruce could fall into additional playing time making him a DEEP league power option.
I think it’s safe to say, opposing defenses have figured out how to deploy the shift against Kyle Seager. Over the past two seasons, he’s hit just .158 on ground balls (league-average is .236). What’s more, he managed just .070 on pulled ground balls last season. Similar to Jay Bruce, Seager is another slow-footed left-handed hitter who is heavily shifted against. He’s very likely going to continue to underperform his xBA going forward.
Rougned Odor seemed to beat the shift in 2018 outperforming his xBA by .006. It wasn’t much but compared to 2017 (-.028) and 2019 (-.024), that’s a win. In 2018, he may have been fortunate but in 2019 he was a different hitter. Did he deserve better despite the shift? A quick glance at his Baseball Savant page shows some impressive batted ball metrics. His average exit velocity (EV) of 89.4 mph was top 16% while his barrels per batted ball event (BRL%) was in the top eight percent. While his strikeout rate went through the roof, there’s a reason for optimism as both those batted ball metrics are by far the best of his career.
Back to the shift. Yeah, he was killed by it with just a .287 wOBA when shifted on compared to a .343 wOBA with standard defensive alignment. Odor is actually pulling a fewer percentage of his ground balls than in years past, so why is the shift hurting him more? Well, fewer than seven percent of his ground balls were hit to the left side of the infield and over one-third up the middle.
As you can see, defenses are still bringing three fielders to the right side of the infield and shading the defender on the left side up the middle. Then, there’s the blue dot right on the infield grass near third base. This positioning is likely to take away a bunt attempt from Odor but opens up the middle. Opposing defenses are going to have to decide between taking away the single up the middle or taking away a bunt attempt. Odor is still a highly volatile hitter but he crushed the ball in 2019 so there is value given his ADP after pick 200.
I have my concerns regarding Cavan Biggio‘s skill set for fantasy purposes. In OBP formats, I think he holds solid value but Biggio backers may want to pump the brakes a bit in standard formats. Baseball Savant shows Biggio as slightly unlucky based on this metric (BA-xBA) but let’s take a look under the hood to find out what’s going on here. He pulled 49.4% of all batted balls in his brief MLB debut but this approach matches what he’s done over the course of his minor-league career. Additionally, 90% of the ground balls he hit in 2019 were pulled (73%) or hit up the middle (17%). He took a major hit when defenses put the shift on with a .334 wOBA against the shift and a .375 wOBA without the shift. I expect Biggio will see an increase in shifts in 2020 based on this data.
This is going to be a mini deep dive, not because I’m anti-Biggio but because he’s so intriguing. The uber-patient Biggio managed a near-elite 8.7% SwStr% which is about 2.5% better than league-average. But, his 26% whiff rate was nearly two percent worse than league-average. This is a good example of the difference between SwStr% and whiff%. SwStr% is swing-and-misses per pitch. Whiff% is swing-and-misses per swing. Because Biggio swings at so few pitches, his SwStr% is low. Will pitchers use his patience to exploit his weaknesses? After starting the count 0-1, Biggio managed just a .630 OPS. That’s not a death sentence by any means but it’s in the bottom 30% of the league after getting behind in the count. Once ahead in the count pitchers have their entire arsenal at their disposal.
I bring that up because Biggio struggled to produce damage against offspeed and breaking pitches with a 40.8% whiff% versus offspeed pitches and a 44% K-rate against breaking balls. Of course, adjustments will be made, but Biggio doesn’t possess the elite power required (104.6 mph maximum exit velocity) to consistently beat the shift. Combine that with his shortcomings against non-fastballs and I see issues for Biggio in 2020 unless adjustments are made. I love the speed component to his game but when at the plate, he may be too one dimensional to be extremely successful now that there’s a book out on him. I’m interested to see what if any changes are made from the young second baseman in year two.
I discussed Brandon Lowe in a recent first-half BABIP outliers peace. Well, after a bloated BABIP in the first half he plummeted back to reality in the second half. He only managed 123 plate appearances in the final three months so who is the real Brandon Lowe? Without any prior MLB experience, teams shifted on him nearly 70% of the time. That’s not a good sign because the more of a book the league has on him, the more the advantage tilts to the defense. How did he fare against the shift? Not good. A mere .311 wOBA against the shift compared to a Trout-ian .441 wOBA against standard defensive alignment.
Someone, please tell me how Lowe managed a .273 BABIP on ground balls with the above extreme profile? He does hit the ball hard and hard contact will result in hit more often than soft hit balls, we all know this. But, if Lowe’s BABIP on ground balls corrects itself to around .215, we could be looking at a .230 hitter.
Yordan Alvarez showcased his impressive power to all fields in 2019 His batted ball profile is very eclectic, to say the least. That being said, I would not be surprised to see his shift percentage jump significantly in 2020. Let’s take a look at his spray chart from 2019.
The batted ball distribution for balls hit beyond the infield is beautiful. But, let’s focus on those ground balls. You can see a high volume of balls hit between first base and second base on the infield/shallow outfield. Now, he hits the ball extremely hard but doesn’t run well. I think defenses will be able to net a few more outs on these ground balls in 2020. There’s still a pocket of balls he hits on the infield to the left of second base but they cluster near the traditional shortstop position. This is consistent with his batted ball profile in the minors.
This one makes me go hmm? 2019 was the first year that defenses shifted against Kris Bryant over 50% of the time. It did not appear to work. Outperforming his xBA is nothing new for KB. He’s done it every year since 2015 and typically by at least 20 points. With a .386 wOBA against the shift and a .374 wOBA against standard infield positioning, you could say the shift was useless. But, why? Bryant has a relatively low hard hit%, especially for a known slugger. Hitting the ball hard yields better results, this is obvious. But, take into account Tom Tango’s research on wOBA for balls hit weakly/strong at certain launch angles. Obviously, it’s better to hit the ball hard but between 12 and 20°, the difference in wOBA between strongly and weakly hit balls is much smaller.
When isolating Bryant’s batted balls into a 10-20° Launch Angle bucket, we find something interesting. His batting average on those balls is 0.691 and .041 higher than his xBA. These are essentially line drives. Line drives typically are hit harder than other batted ball types. The league average exit velocity on balls hit within this launch angle bucket is 93.1 mph. Bryant’s average EV on these batted balls in 2019 was just 90.0 mph. So, these balls are traveling beyond the infielders but dropping in front of the outfielders. Let’s compare Bryant to a couple of hitters who hit the ball at similar exit velocities within this launch angle band and then some of the players who absolutely smoke the ball in this range.
|Player||BA||xBA||BA – xBA||EV (MPH)||Dist (ft)|
The two columns I want you to focus on first are the BA-xBA and the exit velocity. Typically, the harder a player hits the ball, the better the result. However, in this launch angle band (10-20 degrees), that’s not exactly the case. Check out the average distance in the far right column. A line drive that travels 220 feet falls into the shallow outfield. Whereas a line drive that travels 290-320 feet falls somewhere in the back half of the outfield, in other words, near a spot where an outfielder might be positioned. A 220-foot line drive will likely fall for a hit more often than a 300-foot line drive because of the positioning of the outfielders. I could do an entire article on this but batted balls in this launch angle range is one of the main reasons Bryant outperforms his expected batting average every year.