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Effects of the shift

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#1 spycake

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Posted 15 April 2021 - 03:23 PM

This was a discussion about the effects of defensive shifts in baseball, split from today's game thread. Feel free to join in below!

 

I complain about the shift only in the context of other issues and also acknowledge it's a small aspect of the movement that has sucked life out of the game.

 

There's simply no reason to keep the shift, really. I used to like it but as it became deployed so often, I realized "but it doesn't have to be this way and there's really nothing interesting or good about it". The NFL and NBA change rules all the time to promote action, there's no reason baseball can't do the same and it's a really small change. Just keep two infielders on each side of second base and each outfielder in one of three zones. It'd hardly be noticeable on a play-by-play basis but once or twice a game, would at least entertain the crowd with a more exciting defensive play/miss.

 

Hitters aren't going to change so choose to change around them in the interest of the spectator, the people who make the game possible.

Brock, sorry for my late reply.

 

The current level of shifting is the product of there being fewer and fewer balls in play in the modern game -- less variety in batter-pitcher outcomes.

 

Address the balls in play problem, and you likely won't be bothered by shifts anymore. You might even appreciate their creativity and strategy again -- it's harder to effectively shift when there are more and a greater variety of balls in play. I mean, look at the debates about when and how to shift -- it's interesting strategy to talk about! It just gets drowned out by all the K's.

 

Otherwise, if you try to address shifting directly -- I'm just not sure what you really achieve, if anything. You're attacking the symptom but not the disease, and even if you get a few more hits to fall, ultimately it feels like a neutral/lateral move in terms of improving the game.

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#2 Brock Beauchamp

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Posted 15 April 2021 - 03:53 PM

Brock, sorry for my late reply.

The current level of shifting is the product of there being fewer and fewer balls in play in the modern game -- less variety in batter-pitcher outcomes.

Address the balls in play problem, and you likely won't be bothered by shifts anymore. You might even appreciate their creativity and strategy again -- it's harder to effectively shift when there are more and a greater variety of balls in play. I mean, look at the debates about when and how to shift -- it's interesting strategy to talk about! It just gets drowned out by all the K's.

Otherwise, if you try to address shifting directly -- I'm just not sure what you really achieve, if anything. You're attacking the symptom but not the disease, and even if you get a few more hits to fall, ultimately it feels like a neutral/lateral move in terms of improving the game.

I agree in that removing the shift will have a small impact and must come along other, probably more significant, changes.

But given the arc of MLB hitting over the past decade and the data that reinforces that continued approach, I think eliminating the shift *will* have a small impact because hitters aren’t going to change that much, if at all.

From purely an entertainment standpoint, I find the practice rather indefensible given its inherent drawbacks to promoting action in the game.

After all, what prompted this entire conversation was the Twins second baseman standing in the outfield, soaking up a groundball that should have been a hit without even needing to move. It exemplified today’s game. What should have been an action play that resulted in more intrigue with runners on base became a really boring play that made everything less interesting.

#3 spycake

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Posted 15 April 2021 - 05:48 PM

 

I agree in that removing the shift will have a small impact and must come along other, probably more significant, changes.

But given the arc of MLB hitting over the past decade and the data that reinforces that continued approach, I think eliminating the shift *will* have a small impact because hitters aren’t going to change that much, if at all.

From purely an entertainment standpoint, I find the practice rather indefensible given its inherent drawbacks to promoting action in the game.

After all, what prompted this entire conversation was the Twins second baseman standing in the outfield, soaking up a groundball that should have been a hit without even needing to move. It exemplified today’s game. What should have been an action play that resulted in more intrigue with runners on base became a really boring play that made everything less interesting.

 

You might get a few more singles to fall in, but that's not really "action". Batters will still be swinging for the fences, K'ing 25% of the time, baserunners will still be largely station to station, and everyone will still be taking 30 seconds between every pitch.

 

I agree that you can't simply ask batters to change their approach, but we have to ask, why are they taking this offensive approach? Frankly I think it's because physical evolution has made modern pitchers so overpowering, throwing with record velocity and movement. Many batters don't really stand much of a chance at being productive offensive players unless they sell out for the increasingly infrequent times they do make contact. And banning the shift doesn't do anything to address that -- it just puts a band-aid over one of the many effects of the modern batter-pitcher evolution.

 

So what could address that? Something to counteract the modern pitcher -- a lower mound? Slightly different ball? Different and/or automated strike zone? A pitch clock and roster rules to help limit the parade of hard-throwing relievers? I'd rather see any of those things tried first, before I started restricting the natural freedom of defender positioning that has existed for all time. The problem isn't really the "Ted Williams shift" employed for various sluggers over the years -- it's that most modern batters are just variations of those sluggers now.

 

I believe that if you can get the batter/pitcher ball-in-play/pace-of-play issue back in balance, shifting could be a really interesting element of the game again. It naturally lends itself to real-time strategic observation and discussion among fans, more than the accelerating arms race between spin rate and launch angle.

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#4 twins1095

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Posted 15 April 2021 - 05:50 PM

I agree in that removing the shift will have a small impact and must come along other, probably more significant, changes.

But given the arc of MLB hitting over the past decade and the data that reinforces that continued approach, I think eliminating the shift *will* have a small impact because hitters aren’t going to change that much, if at all.

From purely an entertainment standpoint, I find the practice rather indefensible given its inherent drawbacks to promoting action in the game.

After all, what prompted this entire conversation was the Twins second baseman standing in the outfield, soaking up a groundball that should have been a hit without even needing to move. It exemplified today’s game. What should have been an action play that resulted in more intrigue with runners on base became a really boring play that made everything less interesting.


What I would add to this discussion is that a lot of fans focus on the shift and other ways teams have tried to use data to better position fielders based on where hitters are more likely to hit the ball and labeled that as one of the primary determinants of baseball seemingly being three true outcome reliant.

Throwing last years shortened season out for reasons I am happy to get into, increasing prevalence of shifting by teams hasn’t meaningfully changed league-wide BABIP. Theoretically, this is what shifting should impact the most.

The reason that baseball feels the way it does is because of less balls put into play. This means less movement on the basis and more stationary action. Teams are reluctant to give up outs or baserunners or risk the chance of doing so—meaning there’s less sacrifice bunting, hit and running, productive out emphasis, or stealing bases. Players are reluctant to “waste” ABs trying to put balls in play with minimal high value contact or outcome potential. Instead, players focus on emphasizing trying to barrel balls in order to create extra base hits even with two strikes in the count.

I’m not sure shifting seems to meaningfully impact outcomes when the ball is put into play over large sample sizes—for every ball you see that fielders get it appears there’s a ball that fielders don’t get because of the shift. Unless, you potentially think that because fielders shift...hitters see that and that’s the reason they are trying to make a certain type of contact that leads to less balls put into play—though I would argue that’s not really at all why they do.

I just don’t think any regulation of shifts is anything other than shifting around deck chairs and doing something for the sake of doing something instead of actually doing something that would lead to meaningful or impactful changes in style of play.
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#5 spycake

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Posted 15 April 2021 - 06:02 PM

 

But given the arc of MLB hitting over the past decade

FWIW, here's Fangraphs BABIP splits for the last full season (2019)

 

No Shift: .297

Traditional Shift: .296 (some variation of the Ted Williams Shift)

Non-Traditional Shift: .333

 

I think we might be over-rating the efficacy of shifts a bit?

 

https://www.fangraph...eason&sort=-1,1

 

Edit: Looking further, and limiting to non-pitchers, 2019 no-shift BABIP was .299; with shifts, it was .300. Basically unchanged from overall league non-pitcher BABIP dating back to 1993.


#6 Brock Beauchamp

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Posted 15 April 2021 - 07:36 PM

 

You might get a few more singles to fall in, but that's not really "action". Batters will still be swinging for the fences, K'ing 25% of the time, baserunners will still be largely station to station, and everyone will still be taking 30 seconds between every pitch.

 

I agree that you can't simply ask batters to change their approach, but we have to ask, why are they taking this offensive approach? Frankly I think it's because physical evolution has made modern pitchers so overpowering, throwing with record velocity and movement. Many batters don't really stand much of a chance at being productive offensive players unless they sell out for the increasingly infrequent times they do make contact. And banning the shift doesn't do anything to address that -- it just puts a band-aid over one of the many effects of the modern batter-pitcher evolution.

 

So what could address that? Something to counteract the modern pitcher -- a lower mound? Slightly different ball? Different and/or automated strike zone? A pitch clock and roster rules to help limit the parade of hard-throwing relievers? I'd rather see any of those things tried first, before I started restricting the natural freedom of defender positioning that has existed for all time. The problem isn't really the "Ted Williams shift" employed for various sluggers over the years -- it's that most modern batters are just variations of those sluggers now.

 

I believe that if you can get the batter/pitcher ball-in-play/pace-of-play issue back in balance, shifting could be a really interesting element of the game again. It naturally lends itself to real-time strategic observation and discussion among fans, more than the accelerating arms race between spin rate and launch angle.

I disagree on the shift, though admit it's a minor point amongst many.

 

More to the general idea, I'm wholly on board with the rest of your post. We're arguing over a tree we disagree upon while agreeing on the forest, it seems.


#7 Brock Beauchamp

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Posted 15 April 2021 - 07:39 PM

 

FWIW, here's Fangraphs BABIP splits for the last full season (2019)

 

No Shift: .297

Traditional Shift: .296 (some variation of the Ted Williams Shift)

Non-Traditional Shift: .333

 

I think we might be over-rating the efficacy of shifts a bit?

 

https://www.fangraph...eason&sort=-1,1

 

Edit: Looking further, and limiting to non-pitchers, 2019 no-shift BABIP was .299; with shifts, it was .300. Basically unchanged from overall league non-pitcher BABIP dating back to 1993.

I did some of this work last year and can't find the work but mostly, I'm speaking of the infield shift. And from my recollection (again, can't find the work right now) the BABIP on groundballs has consistently gone down for the past 5-6 years and is well down from its historical average.


#8 spycake

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Posted 15 April 2021 - 08:47 PM

 

I did some of this work last year and can't find the work but mostly, I'm speaking of the infield shift. And from my recollection (again, can't find the work right now) the BABIP on groundballs has consistently gone down for the past 5-6 years and is well down from its historical average.

 

I'd be curious if you could point me in that direction. Fangraphs splits on this only go back to 2002, and I'm not seeing that trend (outside of the 2020-2021 partial seasons):

 

https://www.fangraph...-12-31&sort=1,d

 

grounder-babip.jpg

 

(I suspect the 2003 figure is inaccurate, as B-Ref has it at .239 that year. And 2002, B-Ref has the bug and only lists it at .151)


#9 Brock Beauchamp

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Posted 15 April 2021 - 11:29 PM

 

I'd be curious if you could point me in that direction. Fangraphs splits on this only go back to 2002, and I'm not seeing that trend (outside of the 2020-2021 partial seasons):

 

https://www.fangraph...-12-31&sort=1,d

 

attachicon.gifgrounder-babip.jpg

 

(I suspect the 2003 figure is inaccurate, as B-Ref has it at .239 that year. And 2002, B-Ref has the bug and only lists it at .151)

I'll try to dig it up. The movement wasn't drastic but even that graph's movement is significant considering the better the data becomes, the lower the number gets. Losing .015-.020 of BABIP isn't nothing in the grand scope of the game... remember, I'm not blaming the shift for all of baseball's woes and have repeatedly stated it's a small fix for a big problem that should be joined by other changes.


#10 twins1095

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Posted 16 April 2021 - 07:31 AM

 

I'll try to dig it up. The movement wasn't drastic but even that graph's movement is significant considering the better the data becomes, the lower the number gets. Losing .015-.020 of BABIP isn't nothing in the grand scope of the game... remember, I'm not blaming the shift for all of baseball's woes and have repeatedly stated it's a small fix for a big problem that should be joined by other changes.

 

Overall BABIP during the first two months of the season is .05-.09 lower than the BABIP during the final months of the season after that. I think that the lower BABIP on grounders in those figures last season (basically a first 2 month of the season sprint) and thus far this season has as much to do with that factor as anything else.

 

Even if hitters BABIP on ground balls has gone down slightly, fewer hitters are trying to hit ground balls as they lift balls into the air. There is a higher BABIP on fly balls than ground balls... in the end it's a neutral factor.

 

Again, unless you think the shift is the causal factor of the reason that players are trying to lift the ball in the air more often and create more extra base hits--it's not really a primary or significant determinant in the reason that the game has changed in the way that it has that many view is negative or produces boring baseball.

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#11 Vanimal46

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Posted 16 April 2021 - 07:36 AM

I was of the belief that extreme shifting over the last couple of years is an effect to fewer balls in play. Thanks for the enlightenment, spycake. It may not make as much of an impact, but it is still not aesthetically pleasing to see 7 fielders bunched up on the right side of the field for LH hitters.

#12 Doctor Gast

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Posted 16 April 2021 - 07:40 AM

Very interesting discussion. I'm not sure either way. The shift usually helps give a poorer defensive player a chance to make a play at a ball, where normally he doesn't come close. Athough shifting is a normal strategy I'm not against banning it to make the game more interesting, also giving a gifted athlete an opportunity to show case his talents.

#13 spycake

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Posted 16 April 2021 - 07:41 AM

 

I'll try to dig it up. The movement wasn't drastic but even that graph's movement is significant considering the better the data becomes, the lower the number gets. Losing .015-.020 of BABIP isn't nothing in the grand scope of the game...

There isn't any such movement in that graph though? At least not until 2020 and 2021 which are still very small samples and prone to outliers and other factors.

 

From 2004-2019, the low in that graph was .234, high .244, average .238. 2018 was .239 and 2019 was .237. Nothing statistically meaningful there.

 

What might be meaningful is that every year 2016 and onward appears to have set a record low (a modern record low, anyway) for fewest ground balls in play. And also a record high in strikeout rate.

 

I wonder if that is what you are noticing -- rather than shifts becoming more effective on ground balls, you're simply seeing fewer ground balls overall.

 

Those extra strikeouts have come almost exclusively at the expense of ground balls in play too. Flies and liners have been stable for much longer than the rise in strikeouts, per Fangraphs. (And the big data quality issue for these numbers would be distinguishing between flies and liners, rather than groundballs.)


#14 spycake

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Posted 16 April 2021 - 08:04 AM

 

Overall BABIP during the first two months of the season is .05-.09 lower than the BABIP during the final months of the season after that. I think that the lower BABIP on grounders in those figures last season (basically a first 2 month of the season sprint) and thus far this season has as much to do with that factor as anything else.

Interesting! I did not know that. Here's a chart comparing first 2 months BABIP with rest of season BABIP -- it is consistently lower.

 

chart.png


#15 twins1095

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Posted 16 April 2021 - 08:16 AM

 

Interesting! I did not know that. Here's a chart comparing first 2 months BABIP with rest of season BABIP -- it is consistently lower.

 

attachicon.gifchart.png

 

Thanks I was off by a decimal, but that's what I meant. I would guess it's some combination of colder weather and hitters needing time to fully get their timing down. I think it's informative to some degree when reacting to early season hitting struggles.

 

 


#16 Dman

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Posted 16 April 2021 - 08:46 AM

Interesting discussion.With statistics the game has dramatically changed.I don't think you can really put that Geni back in the bottle.Like Brock I am not a fan of shifting it just seems ugly having all those guys on one side of the field.At the same time why can't the hitters adjust?Why continue to sell out for power and hit into the shift while dropping a few oppo hits changes your stats and erases the shift?If a hitter doesn't have that skill maybe they deserve to be punished with the shift (looking at you Max Kepler).  

 

Maybe my eyes and mind deceive me but it seems hard to believe that shifting doesn't lower BABIP.I mean why shift at all if that is the case.It feels like there might be some misinterpretation of the numbers there to me.Just look at Kepler's spray chart on Fangraphs.He hits about 80 to 90 percent of his groundballs directly into the shift with no chance of getting hits there.You are telling me that he wouldn't have a better BABIP if he went oppo with only one defender between 2nd and third?I find that hard to believe.Guys get shifted because they continue to sell out for power but anything on the ground is an automatic out. 

 

Maybe I missing that the hard hit doubles and HR's are making up for some of that but I still fail to see why a batter wouldn't try to take more advantage of extreme shifts.They might have slightly weaker contact and lose some HR power but one would think that if the other team continued to shift their BABIP could be 350 to 400 going oppo just needing to get the ball past one defender.  

 

While I don't love the shift I can't see changing it either.There are ways to beat it if batters choose to.If not then let the shift prevail.A weakness is a weakness exploit it if you can.

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#17 Vanimal46

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Posted 16 April 2021 - 09:30 AM

At the same time why can't the hitters adjust?


Much, much easier said than done my man. Hitting has never been more difficult in MLB. Hitters have to sell out and go all or nothing because otherwise they would have no chance at succeeding against modern pitchers.

It’s well overdue to either lower the mound or move it back a few feet to swing the pendulum towards more offense.
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#18 terrydactyls1947

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Posted 16 April 2021 - 09:32 AM

Very interesting discussion. I'm not sure either way. The shift usually helps give a poorer defensive player a chance to make a play at a ball, where normally he doesn't come close. Athough shifting is a normal strategy I'm not against banning it to make the game more interesting, also giving a gifted athlete an opportunity to show case his talents.


If they are such "gifted athletes", why can't they learn to hit the opposite way? I think of them more as stubborn athletes determined to beat the shift by muscling their way through it.
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#19 Vanimal46

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Posted 16 April 2021 - 09:38 AM

If they are such "gifted athletes", why can't they learn to hit the opposite way? I think of them more as stubborn athletes determined to beat the shift by muscling their way through it.


Think it’s easy to hit pitches like this the other way?



Pitchers are throwing harder than ever, and spinning the ball more than ever before. From the same dimensions established more than 100 years ago when they had pitchers throwing in the 80s.

#20 Dman

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Posted 16 April 2021 - 09:40 AM

 

Much, much easier said than done my man. Hitting has never been more difficult in MLB. Hitters have to sell out and go all or nothing because otherwise they would have no chance at succeeding against modern pitchers.

It’s well overdue to either lower the mound or move it back a few feet to swing the pendulum towards more offense.

 

Not saying it is easy but that it can be done.I just think team philosophies are for selling out for power.If that is the case then the shift is here to stay unless they decide to go another way,.