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The Impact of Shifts May Be Overstated

Based off my current experience at Inside Edge, I think that defensive shifts aren't impacting baseball as much as some would like you to believe.

I've been working at Inside Edge for roughly a month now and I love it so far. Admittedly the hours are rough as I'm home so little that I don't remember what my wife looks like and sleep is merely a theory, but like when I used to usher for the Twins, I always felt that being paid to watch baseball was a nice way to live.

Half of March was spent on training for the job of charting baseball games and I also have four regular season games under my belt, so I will fully admit that what I'm about to say is certainly not definitive. However, I have noticed a trend with the vast majority of games that I have "charted" (or recorded data, in other words).

It's well known that there is a significant drop in offense around the league over the past few years. One of the accused culprits has been the increase of defensive shifts, where teams are starting to put three and once even four infielders* on the same side of second base.

If you didn't watch the video, that alignment was an extreme example as outfielder Andre Ethier came in to play first base with lefty Seth Smith batting, bases loaded in the 12th inning, shifting Adrian Gonzalez to cover the hole normally between the first and second baseman. The third baseman hung out near third to prevent the runner from attempting a steal of home. Smith ended up grounding into a fielder's choice, a 4-2 putout off Twins legend Kevin Correia.

Defensive Shift

In the picture above, we see the Tampa Bay Rays putting on an exaggerated shift for former National Adam LaRoche. These shifts have occurred more and more as teams realize that many players often hit their grounders to one side of the field, and thus it makes sense to put more fielders in those areas.

Coincidentally, runs per game and batting averages have dropped as the number of shifts have increased. Naturally, analysts jumped to conclusions that the shift was to blame. However, multiple articles have debunked that idea by showing that the league BABIP (batting average on balls in play, or batting average when making contact and not hitting a homer) has virtually remained static and pointed out that the real culprit has been the larger strike zone and subsequent rise in strikeouts.

That would seem odd then that hitters are making outs on batted balls at the same rate even though the defense appears to be converting more plays into outs with our eyes. At least, that's how it seems. You see, I brought up Inside Edge at the beginning of the article because defensive shifts are one of the big things that we're asked to record. Every single plate appearance, even when the batter doesn't put the ball in play, we have to find evidence of a defensive shift.

I mentioned this caveat earlier that I've only done four official games and multiple practice games (all regular season and playoff games from last season). However, as I mark down the defensive shift, there are two buttons that appear whenever the shift is a three-to-one-side or near-three (the second baseman or shortstop is floating behind second base). The two buttons simply ask if the shift impacted the play or if it did not.

The vast majority of the time, I have found myself checking the "no impact" button. That is, the out that was recorded would have been an out if the players had not been shifted, or the hit still would have been a hit.

That seemed pretty interesting to me, but once I dug a little deeper it started to make sense. What type of hitters are often shifted against? Well, it's usually the power hitter. How do you hit for power? You hit the ball in the air. Bingo.

Many times, even with the shift on the batter would hit the ball into the air. When you hit a fly ball, it doesn't really matter where the fielders start. If it's hit to the outfield as a fly ball, those fielders usually aren't shifted as much and the infield certainly didn't affect the outcome of the play.

Secondly, take a look at the picture I posted above again. Specifically, ignore the shortstop and look at the other three fielders. The first baseman really hasn't moved anywhere. The third baseman is in a new zone, but he's basically positioned where the shortstop would normally play. The second baseman is in right field, but I'd argue that he's just a few steps back from his regular position. That means that really only one of your four infielders is out of position, even though we classify that as an exaggerated shift. Anything hit to the first, second, or third basemen is going to be an out even if the entire infield had no shift, so their exaggerated shift made no difference.

Yes, this is anecdotal. No, I do not feel that I proved anything, especially when you cannot see the same plays that I'm invisibly referencing. Still, what I have seen in my limited time appears to confirm why the league BABIP has not significantly changed even as the number of shifts has skyrocketed. I'm willing to hypothesize that this trend will continue as I chart more games this season, and I think by the year's end I'll be able to confirm one of the reasons why the shift is not to blame for the decrease in offense.