Defensive shifts add up to outs in major leagues
Pittsburgh Pirates starter AJ Burnett threw 71 of his 107 pitches for strikes in his victory Sunday against the Royals. Pitch location is key when using a defensive shift.
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The amount of information available to Major League Baseball teams has transformed defensive shifts from a gamble to a math problem.
"It's out of control," said Pirates third-base coach Nick Leyva, responsible for the infield defense. "As much work as you want to put into it, or are willing to put in, the numbers are there."
The numbers don't lie, as Leyva said, and they are the focus of the equation that the Pirates use when determining how and when to shift their infielders and give themselves a better chance to catch the ball. Defensive shifts are nothing new, but as more and more statistical information becomes available, the practice of rearranging defenders grows increasingly nuanced.
At its core, shifting infielders allows teams to make an informed wager on the outcome of a batted ball.
"You're playing the odds that are heavily weighted in your favor of getting your guys in an area where the ball's going to be hit," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "When you start talking about 80, 85 percent, you've got to go there."
The shifts can be subtle, sliding infielders a few steps one way or the other, or drastic, sending Pedro Alvarez from third base to shallow right field against a left-handed hitter. Teams tend to shift against power hitters, such as the Cincinnati Reds' Joey Votto and Jay Bruce or the Detroit Tigers' Prince Fielder, but the prevalence of information means more and more hitters, such as Milwaukee Brewers catcher George Kottaras and Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero, see a change in the defense.
The information that teams gather makes the shift viable. Dan Fox, a software architect and writer for Baseball Prospectus before he joined the Pirates as their director of baseball systems development, provides a breakdown of opposing hitters' tendencies in any situation, Leyva said.
Bruce, for example, hits 65 percent of his ground balls into the hole between first and second when there is a runner on first. The Pirates know how often every hitter they face hits a ball to a particular part of the field against pitches 90 mph and below -- the Jeff Karstens and Kevin Correia neighborhood -- and against pitches 91 mph and up, from the likes of James McDonald or A.J. Burnett.
Leyva also receives an email after games, he said, displaying exactly where his infielders were positioned for a given at-bat.
The infielders know before the game when they will shift, Neil Walker said, and tweak it as they go, sometimes within the same at-bat.
"Depending on how the pitcher's throwing, if he's hitting spots, what the guy looks like he's trying to do, we'll make adjustments," Walker said.
None of the percentages matter if the pitcher cannot locate his pitches.
"I've been in situations where we've had all the great defensive information in the world, we can't hit spots, and it made no difference," Hurdle said. "We didn't have enough guys on the field."
If the pitch locations necessary for a shift contrast with the way the pitcher wants to approach a batter, Hurdle and Leyva said, they won't shift, but the numbers have helped convince the pitchers of the shift's effectiveness.
"If we show them, 'If you can put it here, they're going to hit it right over here, and we can stack our defense over there,' it really works to our advantage," Hurdle said.
In addition to the pitcher's desired approach to a batter, other intangibles factor in with the numbers. Sometimes, Leyva said, he moves his defenders to get into a hitter's head, giving him a big hole to the opposite field -- if he can fight off an inside fastball. Other times, he stands pat.
"You've got to just be careful about who you do it with," Leyva said, citing Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, who pulls the ball 75 percent of the time, as an example. "He's got the bat control to take that ground ball over the second-base area -- and then steal second. You're giving up a double."
Hurdle said most, if not all, teams employ some version of a shift. The Toronto Blue Jays often run third baseman Brett Lawrie into right field, and Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has turned his infielders into "independent contractors," Hurdle said, who defend certain areas of the field rather than a set position.
Whatever the extent of the adjustment, the reasoning remains the same.
"We've got some sure-handed infielders," Leyva said. "When they get their hands on the ball, 98 percent of the time, it's an out. So our job now is to try to get them in a position where they're going to get their hands on balls a lot more often."
First Published June 12, 2012 12:04 am