We’re big proponents of the shift around here. You might have picked that up. Both Ryan and I have discussed shifting and how it pertains to the game at various times. At Beyond the Box Score, I discussed which players in baseball are most and least shiftable and Ryan even went so far as to suggest that teams use a five-man infield at times. So yeah, I guess you could say that because this is kind of a progressive Diamondbacks site and the shift is kind of a progressive baseball idea (although it’s becoming more and more mainstream) we’re big fans of shifting when necessary. Plus, when Chip Hale was brought over from Oakland, we kinda called this one. So imagine our joy when we saw this today:
#Dbacks mgr Chip Hale says the team will use shifts more often than in past. Impressed with coach Andy Green’s input on that so far.
— Steve Gilbert (@SteveGilbertMLB) February 24, 2015
For a team that’s been characterized as stubborn, behind the times and downright backwards, this is great news. Some of that criticism is warranted and some of it’s not, but this is clearly a step in the right direction. As we know, shifting infielders works when a batter is at the plate who has severe batted ball tendencies. Let’s face it, there’s a reason why David Ortiz gets shifted with every plate appearance. In case you need reminding:
Obviously Oritz is an extreme example and obviously he doesn’t play in the NL West, but the fact remains, some players pretty predictable. When they put the ball in play, there’s a fairly good idea of where it’s going.
And if you know where the ball’s going to go, why not move your defense to accomodate that? That’s a question that’s been asked of the Diamondbacks in seasons past. In 2013, Arizona ranked 21st in shift frequency in baseball with 352 shifts. The leader that year? The Astros with nearly five times as many shifts in Houston infield (1562 total). Because shift data isn’t publicly available, our data for now comes from 2013, but there’s no reason to think things were drastically different last season with the same management in place and pretty much the same crop of infielders. You get the idea, the D-backs haven’t been shifting very often.
Maybe your asking why they should shift in the first place, and that’s a reasonable question. Luckily we have some data on that. In 2013, the Astros saved 44 hits by shifting. The Diamondbacks, by comparison, saved six. Six. All year. Granted, that’s largely due to their unwillingness to shift guys in the first place, but imagine if they’d been even in the middle of the pack. They could have saved somewhere between 20-30. And hits, if you recall, end up generating runs. Our colleague Chris Teeter at Beyond the Box Score took a stab at measuring those values, and while the true conversion may need a little more work, there’s clearly a value to limiting hits. We know that saving hits means saving runs because we watch baseball, we don’t even need all of the #gorymath to be convinced.
The Diamondback may be particularly well suited to this strategy, too. If we take a look around the infield, it’s devoid of the Andrelton Simmonses and the Manny Machados of the world. Aaron Hill has well-below average range. Chris Owings has average range. Yasmany Tomas projects to have below-average range, maybe average at best. So they’re okay, but they’re not great by any means and might have a problem just being average when it comes to getting to batted balls. A nice way to help this group out is to put them in the right position on the field to start with; shift them and give them a head start when you think you know where the ball is going. Defensive positioning is incredibly important, just ask Jhonny Peralta who’s succeeding because of his alignment despite not being, um, the most shortstop-looking shortstop (I was trying to put it nicely).
Another reasons to do this is quite logical: the Diamondbacks’ rotation isn’t very good. They’re going to need all the help they can get in limiting hits, especially if this team wants to try to push for a .500 record. Brad Ziegler, Evan Marshall, Bronson Arroyo and Trevor Cahill all generate ground balls at well-above average rate. Sure, the bulk of the rotation is fly ball oriented, and that’s sure to cause it’s own problems, but moving the infield always makes sense based on the batter at the plate, even if the pitcher is going to give up a fly ball in the end the majority of the time. There’s really no downside so long as the players are comfortable. Put them in the right position to help out a staff that’s projected to struggle and you increase your odds for success. With this rotation in this ballpark, pitchers need all the help they can get and taking away a couple dozen extra hits could be very helpful in the end.
The knock on this team all along has been the rotation. Well, that and Tuffy Gosewisch, but let’s leave that alone for now. The rotation is pretty bad by big league standards, and while there’s reason for hope for growth, the quality of the starters is not good, by and large. The team couldn’t afford to spend the money to upgrade the rotation, but it costs absolutely nothing to move around your infielders. As Chris Teeter found, the BABIP drops when players are shifted and the D-backs could effectively help mask the poor quality of their starters by shifting players into a strong defensive unit. The team couldn’t afford better starters, but they can afford to make their starters effectively better.
How much better is up for debate. While the shift has gotten a ton of attention, it doesn’t limit run-scoring to the degree that it gets headlines. Estimates put the top teams in shifting-effectiveness somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-15 runs saved per season. That might not sound like a lot, but let’s face it, winning an extra handful of games in today’s baseball environment is hugely helpful. While the shift isn’t going to take hits away from every batter, every time up, it is going to help the team in the long run. Just because a batter nubs a ball off the end of the bat and beats the shift in a particular AB doesn’t mean the shift is worthless; to the contrary, it works and is proven to have value so long as you do it effectively.
And that’s where the Diamondbacks are with this. They’ve committed themselves to shifting more and that’s a good thing. How much more they shift is still up in the air and which batters they choose to employ the shift on is another matter entirely. It could help an infield with potentially below-average range and assist a pitching staff that’s destined to struggle at times. It costs nothing and can help save hits and runs, ultimately leading to additional wins. If the team is truly putting Dr. Ed Lewis, the new Director of Analytics, to work on this, there should be no problem figuring out who to shift (we more or less already have a good idea of this) and where to place the infield (this isn’t particularly hard to figure out either). We’ll be watching closely this spring as players get used to moving around the infield, because even if it’s a little awkward at first, it truly is in the team’s best interest.
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