Defensive shifts are fun. They're a new wrinkle to the game, even if the new commissioner isn't a fan. But here's the thing: they don't always work.
You can understand why teams do it. Studying batted ball tendencies and aligning the defense accordingly is a great idea in a vacuum. Just any other piece of evaluation, however, there are factors that go into where a batter hits the ball other than batter-hits-ball, ball-goes-to-spot-X.
People understand that. The question is: how much does situational hitting affect a hitter's batted ball tendencies? Most of the time, probably not a great deal. Getting a right-handed pull hitter to go the other way so that the guy on second can score on a single isn't something that happens often enough where the hitter's spray chart is going to implode in upon itself.
In theory, that's why shifts work. When the bases are empty and David Ortiz is at the plate, why would you not shift him? You see his batted ball chart, and you can count the number of opposite field ground balls to the outfield on one hand. Just deal him down and in and you're golden, Pony Boy.
Yet, as FanGraphs' Jeff Zimmerman has discovered, in the big picture those shifts don't always work. Ortiz, for example, had a .252 batting average on balls in play when the shift was on in 2014. For the season his BABIP was .256. And he's hardly the only player to beat the shift.
Minnesota's own Oswaldo Arcia beat the shift better than most last year. When the shift was on he posted a .331 batting average on balls in play versus a .297 BABIP on the season. That success carries over into extra-base hits, which is where the shift's obvious weakness rears its ugly face. Just 6.4% of Arcia's hits went for extra bases when the defense played honest, while 8.9% went for extra bases against the shift.
St. Louis' Matt Adams (.374), Detroit's Victor Martinez (.332) and Alex Avila (.346), Anaheim's Josh Hamilton (.372), and Oakland/Boston's Yeonis Cespedes (.333) are the only five players who posted a higher BABIP against the shift in 2014 than Arcia - this on a list of the players who faced the shift the most often last season.
The most damning piece of evidence against the shift mindset is that, on this list of 45 hitters, the group as a whole hit just nine points worse on balls in play.
Perhaps none of this is too ground-breaking, but it does illustrate a point that I'll come back to later today: when baseball develops a new wrinkle or unveils an apparent competitive advantage, the game finds a way to adjust. Hitters are not rigid creatures who will continue to smack the ball into piles of defenders; baseball is not a game that requires policing on the field to enforce a competitive balance.
Oh, and Oswaldo Arcia drinks your milkshake.