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Exploring the Twins use of defensive shifts

Twins Breakdown 02: March 2020 (part 1)

Minnesota Twins v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Statcast defines a defensive shift as having 3 infield defenders on the same side of second base. Baseball has seen a dramatic increase in the use of the defensive shifts in recent years, and teams have been getting more creative in how they align their defenders. Most of us have probably noticed this change while watching our team play and the chart below shows the increase in plate appearances where a defensive shift has been in place between 2016 to 2019. Across the MLB, use of the shift has almost doubled in that time. The Twins use of defensive shifts has increased along with this trend, but at an even faster rate, nearly tripling since 2016:

Historically, teams deploy shifts more often against left handed batters than right handed batters – Ted Williams famously had shifts deployed during his plate appearances in the 1940s – and this trend bears out in the recent data too. In 2017, there were nearly three times as many shifts against left-handers than right-handers across the MLB. That is changing, however – in 2019 there were just more than two times as many shifts against lefties. Digging in a little further, we uncover something interesting – the Twins are one of the teams leading the charge in using shifts against right handed hitters. For the last four seasons, the Twins have been among the most aggressive teams in deploying shifts against right handed batters.

In 2019, the Twins trailed only the Dodgers in deploying shifts against righties. In 2018, they trailed only the Rays. These are two of the most progressive and analytically inclined organizations in the sport and one of the ways analytics can be used is to address weaknesses through new or different approaches. Said differently, analytics can help organizations cover up or minimize flaws in their players’ skills.

And the Twins infield defenders have some flaws. Statcast measures individual defense, in part by using a metric called Outs Above Average which was just recently expanded to measure infield defense (it’s been around for outfield defense for a while). You can read the link for all the nitty-gritty details – what’s important to know for measuring infield defense is this metric accounts for:

1) how far the fielder has to go to field the ball

2) how much time he has to get there

3) how far he is from the base the runner is heading to

4) the average speed of the runner

By this metric, Statcast evaluated Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, and Luis Arraez as comfortably below average fielders in 2019. So, if the players individually aren’t capable of covering large areas of the field and turning batted balls into outs, it stands to reason that positioning them to increase their chances of turning a batted ball into an out (i.e. shifting) could be beneficial. In particular, the numbers for Sano and Polanco (the primary defenders on the right handed batters pull side, Third Base and Shortstop) may explain why the Twins shifted so frequently against right handed batters in recent years.

Heading into 2020, it will be interesting to watch if this trend continues. In part because we’re starting to see hitters make adjustments to negate the advantage of the shift and in part because that new third basemen, Mr. Donaldson, is a well above average defender as measured by Statcast outs above average. He was the 3rd highest ranked third basemen in MLB in 2019 (see below).

Will his presence make it less necessary for the Twins to shift against righties?

Per Statcast Outs Above Average, Josh Donaldson was the 3rd best defensive third basemen in 2019