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The Twins Considering a Shift in Strategy

Attached Image: Twins Infield.jpg After three straight 90-loss seasons, the Minnesota Twins need a reinvention. While other teams have harnessed analytics to advance their in-game strategies, the Twins remained analog in a digital world.

No longer.

Not long ago, the notion of “infield shifting” in the Twins dugout may have been a reference to adjusting one’s protective cup. Now, according to MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger, the Twins and new bench coach Paul Molitor are to join the rest of baseball when it comes to defensive positioning.
“The game has changed so much; we’re seeing more overshifts and people not afraid to give up space based on tendencies, so it’s something I’m excited about learning about and applying to the way we play defense,” Molitor told Bollinger this week.

The Twins, who finished in the middle of the pack when it came to using shifts in 2013, may increase the usage this season. With the help of Jack Goin, the manager of Major League Administration and Baseball Research, and Sean Harlin, the team’s video director, Molitor is looking for an edge. And that edge may include the use of infield shifts.

New use of an old trick

To be sure, this is certainly not groundbreaking stuff by any means.

The idea is to play to a hitter’s tendency by overloading defenders into a zone that a hitter frequents. This methodology, initially known as the Williams Shift, was implemented shortly after World War II by Indians manager Lou Boudreau, who stacked his infielders on the right side when facing Boston’s left-handed hitting Ted Williams. With the advent and dissemination of batted ball data broken down to minutia, forward-thinking teams have been implementing this strategy lately.

Last July, Baseball Info Solution’s John Dewan reported that, much like Facebook, everybody and their mothers are doing it. In 2010 the shift was used just 2,465 times. In 2012 it was up to 4,577. Midway through last season, the baseball world was on pace to shift over 7,000 times.

At the top of the list for teams who used the shift were teams like Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, generally considered as being the most likely to use statistical analysis. Joining them was the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose defensive efforts were lauded in 2013 and their generous use of the infield shift was at the forefront of items receiving praise. In 2011, Dan Fox -- the team’s Director of Baseball Systems Development and a former Baseball Prospectus contributor -- convinced the organization to sway from baseball convention and embrace playing the odds. The result was a significant swing in defensive efficiency – transforming from Swiss cheese infield to, I don’t know, let’s say a cheese with the ability to make plays up the middle.

Issues with the shift?

Not all teams see shifting as a net positive.

The St. Louis Cardinals, a very well-respected organization, had been a proponent of the shift in 2012. That year manager Mike Matheny said he and front office members reviewed data that showed the advantage of having fielders set up against certain players who have a tendency to hit ground balls or shallow liners in distinct zones 80% of the time or more. However, Matheny’s pitching staff found it was difficult to pitch to that type of alignment in order to make it work.

“Last year there were times when we were shifting and I knew [the pitchers] weren’t real comfortable with it,” Matheny told the media last August. “No matter what I believe, we can talk to guys about the importance and show them the statistics, but if they don’t feel comfortable with how the defense is aligned behind them, we’re wasting our time.”

Meanwhile, the Oakland A’s newest closer and ground ball aficionado, Jim Johnson, who was a member of the shift-happy Orioles last year, found that the overuse made little sense.

“It’s fine on certain guys, but I think sometimes it gets a little carried away,” Johnson remarked last season. “Trying to do things just to do things, you know. If you’re shifting on a number 8 hitter, just because [the numbers] say he grounds out to the right side, and you’ve got a guy throwing 99mph that he’s probably not going to turn around, then why are you shifting?”

Pitchers are not the only ones who believe that the shift has shortcomings that may outweigh the positives. In 2012 Bill James penned a piece that suggested there are too many unstudied, undocumented occurrences that happen because of the shift that make it problematic and possibly detrimental. Those include:

  • Lost opportunities during foul pops on the right side of the infield because a third baseman is moved,
  • Missed double play opportunities because fielders are out of position,
  • And missed relays because fielders are out of position, among others.

Teams like Tampa and Pittsburgh, who have taken measures to implement the shift strategy system-wide so that fielders are used to playing in a shift, may be equipped to handle those scenarios but a team like the Twins (who may or may not begin to incorporate more shifts in 2014) could find those moments causing more headaches than relieving them.

This year, James also prophesized that the days of the shift are numbered and that once ego-driven sluggers begin to recognize that they could bat .700 by simply laying down a bunt (or a bunt double like Robinson Cano did), teams will no longer find giving up hits carte blache to be a worthwhile strategy.

Is there a tangible advantage?

Then there is the question of exactly how much does the shift improve a team’s ability to convert grounders in outs.

As it stands, Baseball Info Solutions believes that teams like the 2013 Pirates were given a 2-win advantage because of their use of the shift. Of course, what James argues is that BIS’s system does not account for those mishaps and missed opportunities. At the end of the day, the top shift addicts were marginally better than teams like the Twins and Cardinals who it used more recreationally when it came to turning ground balls into outs.

Attached Image: Chart.png
The 2013 data from ESPN/trumedia shows that the average major league team recorded outs on 77.3% of ground balls. While teams like the Pirates and Orioles scored very high by the Out-of-Zone metric (plays made by fielders out of the typical zone of that position which - surprise - is what happens when you shift a lot) and made their Ultimate Zone Ratings look good, the benefits were negligible compared to the Twins and Cardinals who did not use the shift.

The Twins were very strong on the second base/first base side (represented by the Right/Far Right from the batter’s perspective) and based on Mauer’s athletic abilities, there stands a chance that first base should be improved defensively in 2014. Where the Twins lagged greatly last year was the defense up-the-middle: For example, while the shifty Pirates recorded outs on an MLB-best 64.9% of grounders hit in the middle of the diamond, the Twins struggled to defend that turf (which has been a long-standing problem).

Could infield shifting improve the out conversion rate for the Twins?

Playing the tendency and shifting does not always translate into a complete overload of the right or left side of the diamond either.

The Twins recently hired Sam Perlozzo to handle the minor league infielders, the role vacated by Paul Molitor when he was promoted, and Perlozzo’s former job in Philadelphia was positioning the infielders. Although the Phillies did not use the overload shift, Perlozzo told reporters in 2012 that he will use the data to position his fielders, but it may not mean the shortstop is swinging all the way around the horn. While Molitor begins to play the odds at the major league level, Perlozzo will likely try to establish similar techniques at the lower levels.

Will it work? If Baseball Info Solutions’ assessment of the effects of the infield shifts proves accurate, the Twins may be able to claim wins at the margins. With three 90-loss seasons, trying anything different is a good thing.

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