I’m not sure there has been a more discussed topic this year than infield shifts. The YES booth talks about them all the time, pointing out who is playing where and wondering why hitters don’t just bunt (so easy!). Same conversation, game after game, night after night. Shifts are the hot topic right now and they aren’t going away anytime soon.
The Yankees are no stranger to using infield shifts. We’ve seen them shift over the last two or three seasons from time to time, but this year they have cranked it up a notch and are among the leaders in shifts. During Sunday night’s game, the ESPN broadcast put up a graphic showing that the Yankees had used 79 shifts in their first dozen games, second only to the Astros (127). The Brewers were a distant third with 48 shifts. Brian Cashman, Joe Girardi, and others told Pete Caldera they were planning to use more shifts this season back in Spring Training and they weren’t joking.
Using the shift requires quite a bit of data. You need to know the hitter’s tendencies, the pitcher’s tendencies (and preferences), your infielders, all sorts of stuff. It’s not as simple as telling the third baseman to mosey on over into shallow right field. At least not if you want to do it correctly. Buster Olney explained all the work and preparation the Yankees put into their new shift-happy ways earlier this week:
In order for this to happen, there needs to be a complete buy-in, from the front office to the last relievers in the bullpen, and as Yankees manager Joe Girardi explained it, the numbers were presented to the field staff during the winter — and the field staff embraced the idea. Then, early in spring training, the Yankees talked about the changes to come in a team meeting, and some of the most important voices in that first conversation were players who had been on teams that had used defensive shifts — Kelly Johnson, who had played with Toronto and Tampa Bay, and Brian Roberts, who played with the Orioles.
The Yankees practiced the shifts they would use in their daily workouts during spring training, and in the second half of the exhibition season, they began employing them in games. Yangervis Solarte has been the moving part in a lot of cases, shifting from third base to the right side of the infield against a lot of left-handed hitters, and the Yankees have shifted a lot against right-handed hitters as well.
The moment that may have demonstrated the Yankees’ complete devotion to defensive shifts happened early in the series against Boston, when Mick Kelleher — who oversees the coordination of the Yankees’ infield defense — employed a redesigned alignment against the speedy [Jackie Bradley Jr.], who doesn’t have a lot of track record in the big leagues. [Red Sox manager John Farrell] said before Sunday’s game that it’s not often you check the spray charts of your own hitters, but the Yankees’ decision to shift against Bradley made him wonder what data they had seen, and he had gone back and checked the direction of where Bradley had hit the ball in the past.
The Yankees used the shift the eighth most times in baseball last season according to Jeff Zimmerman, or, rather, they had the eighth most balls put in play while the shift was in use, if that makes sense. When the infield was aligned normally, opponents had a .307 BABIP against New York. When the Yankees used a shift, opponents had a … .325 BABIP. More hits were falling in whenever the Yankees shifted, which is the exact opposite of what’s supposed to happen. That agreed with the anecdotal evidence, that’s for sure.
Shift data is not yet available for this season, so we don’t know how effective they have been early in 2014. It seems like they are working more often than not — as with every defensive alignment, shifts will simply not work sometimes, with Mike Carp’s two-run single on Saturday standing out (video) — but there is no real way to confirm that right now. For what it’s worth, opposing teams had a .255 BABIP on ground balls against the Yankees prior to yesterday’s games, which is way worse than the AL average (.236) and identical to last season (.255). The shift is about more than ground balls though; Dean Anna was perfectly positioned to field some line drives on Sunday night.
“You’re going to be burned on it. You just want to have more instances of run-saving circumstances than run-yielding circumstances,” said assistant GM Billy Eppler to Ken Davidoff. “If you had a crystal ball, if you could conceive of what happens before it happens — if you could jump in your DeLorean and go back in time — you could turn every ball in play into an out. A perfect opponents’ BABIP is .000. The average is between .302 and .305. You want to beat that. If you beat that, you’re going to be pleased.”
The Yankees have held opponents to a .296 BABIP on all balls in play prior to yesterday’s doubleheader, down from .302 last year and their lowest since 2010 (.281 BABIP). The AL average prior to yesterday’s doubleheader was actually a .294 BABIP, down a bit from the number Eppler mentioned. The Yankees are right there — the difference between a .294 and .296 BABIP is one extra hit every 20 games or so — at the league average. Average isn’t bad! Especially not with a range-challenged infield. For what it’s worth, Davidoff cites data showing the Yankees are tied for the MLB lead with two runs saved via shifts in 2014.
I was worried about the infield defense before the season, especially considering the team’s generally ground ball heavy pitching staff. The infield defense has been a problem at times, no doubt about it — Ivan Nova’s start against the Orioles stands out in particular — but I expected it to be a lot worse, honestly. Shifts appear to have helped compensate for the lack of range, and, really, using them is more of a necessity than anything for this team. This isn’t a fad. Shifts are here to stay like specialized relievers and pitch counts. The Yankees have aggressively adjusted their defensive approach and are a better team for it.