Beating the Shift: Is It Really Worth the Effort?

shift

For fans of the Dodgers who watch the majority of the games, many opinions have surfaced lately as to why some players don’t try to beat the shift more to get on base.

I had a few opinions on the matter, but I was certainly enlightened a bit more after doing just an hour or so of research, which is a miracle in itself when considering my schedule. Indeed, there were plenty of resources out there that crunched a bunch of endless numbers, but I eventually stumbled upon a story written in 2018 based more on principles and theories instead of compounded data alone. It was put together by Jerry Crasnick, who, at the time, was still doing some writing for ESPN.

It’s probably best to precede everything by talking a little bit about launch angles. Along with their hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc, the Dodgers are huge on launch angles, which have been key in establishing their success as one of the best offenses in the National League, at least as far as the regular season goes.

Many concepts regarding launch angles don’t just revolve around the home run—a double is also a much desired outcome when trying to hit the ball over the top of the infield. The primary theory is that it takes at least three players of average speed to score a single run, if all those players hit singles. If one of those players hits a double or a triple, only two base hits are usually required to score a run (instead of three). And, obviously, it takes just one player to score a run in the event of a long ball.

It’s also worth mentioning that there are an increasing number of pitchers who are throwing sinkers. These pitchers are notoriously known as “ground-ball pitchers,” as the downspin on the ball induces many more groundballs than flyouts. Theoretically, an increased launch angle can combat an effective sinker.

Coincidentally, in 2011, batters hit ground balls 53.2 percent of the time when they put a ball in play against the shift. Last season, that number was 43.9 percent, which is the lowest it’s been since shifting has become common.

Travis Sawchuck of FiveThirtyEight.com laid out some interesting findings earlier this year, stating that “the average launch angle of a batted ball has increased in every year of the Statcast era, rising gradually from 10.1 degrees in 2015 to 11.7 in 2018. But with the shift on, batters are even more likely to hit the ball in the air. The average launch angle against the shift last season was 14.7 degrees, a notable jump up from 13.1 in 2015.”

Put simply, the modern philosophy is that balls hit in the air are much more valuable than ground balls. The abilities of a pitcher to command the strikezone are a huge reason for this. For example, for a left-handed hitter to drive a cutter in on his hands down the third base line is much more difficult than pulling the ball towards the first base side. Thus, to beat the shift, teams try to hit over top of it instead of through it.

Anyway, back to Crasnick’s story. He interviewed several players—Kyle Seager and Daniel Murphy, among others—who are all moderately minded in regards to sabermetrics and swing philosophies.

Their responses were intriguing.

Seager confirmed our thoughts about doubles compared to singles.

“I used to try to manipulate my swing to hit balls to the left side of the infield and create some easy hits. I’ll still try to do it at times, depending on where guys are positioned, but a lot goes into it,” Seager explained. “It depends on the situation in the game. How many outs are there? Are there runners on base? If there are two outs and I get into a 2-0 count and I hit a little ground ball to the shortstop hole, that probably wasn’t as productive a team at-bat as it could have been if I ended up hitting a double somewhere.”

Furthermore, Seager explained his theory behind butting away from the shift.

“I’ve tried to bunt a few times, and I’ve had a few successes. But the third baseman is usually still in there for the first two strikes, so the bunt is not as big a factor as it could be. Again, it’s dictated by the score and the situation in the game.”

Last year, we saw guys like Cody Bellinger and Joc Pederson lay some decent bunts down the third base line, but even when a player is able to succeed, some think they’re a hindrance on first base, especially if they have the speed of say, a David Ortiz or Adrian Gonzalez. This is one of the reason that the slower, bulkier power hitters typically swing for the gaps and the fences. In the same breath, it also shows how the quickness and versatility of someone like Bellinger can benefit a club.

Murphy, who also isn’t overly fleet of foot, supports these claims.

“I haven’t really stolen bases for five or six years. If I drop a bunt down, what am I gonna do? I’m stuck at first base, so what I’ve done is ask our ballclub to get two more singles, or I’ve asked someone else to hit a double,” Murphy said. “If 7 percent of balls on the ground go for extra bases, someone is probably going to have to hit one in the air to score me from first. So what I’ve tried to do is hit a double every single time because it’s really difficult to get three hits.”

Murphy added:

“If I’m not mistaken, the level of production goes: strikeout, popup, ground ball, fly ball, line drive. The production comes mostly from fly balls and line drives, so that’s what we want. I’m trying to hit a line drive first. And if I miss, I hit a fly ball. Ground balls, popups and strikeouts aren’t going to give you anything. It’s not necessarily rocket science.”

Before the beginning of the 2019 season, Nathan Piccini of datasciencedojo.com put together some interesting numbers about outs-to-hits ratios, showing how things were relatively equal both ways.

Piccini wrote, “From the limited data available, we can see a 2:1 ratio of outs to hits as a percentage of pitches thrown while teams are using the shift during the 2018 season. To break it down, 2.9% of pitches thrown in a shift resulted in an out, while 1.4% resulted in a hit. We also see a 2:1 ratio when teams are in a no-shift defense. 8.6% of pitches resulted in an out versus 4.3% resulting in a hit.”

At the end of the day, offensive tactics behind beating the shift will continue to evolve—as will the type of defenses we see to combat those tactics. Last season, we even saw some teams use four outfielders on several occasions.

In the meantime, my best guess is that we’ll see players beating the shift with liners and flyballs overtop of the infield, instead of slapping a grounder where there isn’t any defense, unless they have the wheels to validate their presence on first base.

 

17 thoughts on “Beating the Shift: Is It Really Worth the Effort?

  1. Really interesting stuff Dennis.
    I really hate to see stats and results get in the way of my opinions but definitely some things to chew on here.

    Like

      1. As you pointed out in February, the fallout has been/will be worse this year. One more year of no ring adds to the anger of the fans.
        That said, and in spite of the Doc-induced horror at the end of the NLDS, we would still be playing today if we had gotten the production we should have out of Belli, Seager and Pollock.
        I have mixed feelings about Pollock and think his Dodger career could ultimately go in either direction. I think Bellinger will ultimately do what he needs to, both for an entire season and in the playoffs. As far as Seager is concerned, I’m going to cut him some slack since this was his first season back from a couple of serious surgeries. Sometimes the fans forget that even a very good athlete sometimes needs a season to get back to his best self. Seager is a really smart young man and I expect him to have an excellent season next year, hopefully in a Dodger uni.

        Like

  2. I learned early in my career 7 out of 10 line drives are base hits. Some day we will go back to hit it hard instead of hit it far.

    I’ve told this story before but I think it’s relevant to this thread. In ‘75 my softball team from Redding went to State. We played the eventual winner in game two and I’ll never forget these guys. It was a group of Mexican farm workers from Sacramento and what all 10 guys did was hit the ball and run to second. All of them were flawless in the field too. I’ve never seen a group of baseball players this fast in all my years of playing. Without hitting a home run they scored 8 runs in the first inning and never looked back. It was like playing a track team. A track team that never made mistakes. I’d like to see a baseball team play like that, but we won’t at the Major League level. The best we will see there is a team like Houston who no longer believes strikeouts are ok.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always thought that strikeouts were worthless—I still do. Anything can happen when you put the ball into play. And as much as crunching the numbers makes total mathematical sense, I’m still a believer in sacrifices and stolen bases winning games—maybe even championships. Friedman’s math skills, alongside his highly-populated analytics department, have proven that theories like the ones written about above, can win a record number of games during the regular season. Nevertheless, maybe they need some more traditional minds to manage the squad during the playoffs where anything goes.

      Like

    2. Umpire Eric Cooper dies at 52. RIP. Scoop, when I was learning to play the game, I was always taught to hit the ball hard. Make solid contact and good things will happen. When I was playing, I hit line drives more often than I hit fly balls. I think beating the shift more often would lead to more holes in the defense.,

      Like

  3. A strikeout is better than grounding in to a double play, but that’s all. I don’t like strikeouts or I should say the trend to strikeout 150-200 times a season and think that is Ok as long as you hit 30-40 homers. Reducing, the launch angle back down a bit, will keep the bat in the zone longer and put the ball in play more,often, that’s a fact. If a batter has 500 at bats and K’s 125 times for example and still hits .260, how much higher would he hit by cutting his K’s to say 80. That is putting the ball in play another 45 times adding 10-15 hits potentially. His batting average would increase to .280-.290, and of course his OBA and OPS would like rise as well. Throughout the lineup, there would be many more baserunners and a better overall offensive team.

    Like

    1. A strikeout is not better than a DP, you can knock in a run grounding into a double play, you advance nothing with a strikeout. I hate strikeouts. Great for pitchers, lousy for hitters. All this 3 true outcome crap has made the game unwatchable sometimes. The Yankees in one of the games they lost struck out 13 times and the Astros 5. The Dodgers K’d 64 times in 5 games, 13 a game, and most of them came with runners on. Hit the damn ball. All this talk of Rendon and Betts, simple day dreaming. Betts is not coming to LA and Rendon is going to take the biggest contract that comes his way. Why? Because is agent is Scott “Freaking ” Boras. And that’s what Boras does. If the Dodgers want Betts, their best chance is when he is a free agent. I am not into dreaming and hoping something will happen. With Betts only committed to one year, the Dodgers are not going to trade a bunch for him. Sox seem to need pitching more than offense. Of course that all changes if Martinez opts out. Unlikely. Why would the Sox want Joc? He does not hit lefty’s, Fenway favors RH hitters. And Joc would be under a 1 year deal. And he pretty much only plays RF. They need a 1st baseman. But lets track the Dodgers needs and not many of them include offense. They do need more power from the right side, but most of the need is in the pitching department. Of course in about 7 weeks, we will know what sort of needs they are willing to address.

      Like

      1. The Dodgers led the league in scoring. The team that came in second is in the World Series. The Dodgers also led the league in pitching. We could get a RH power bat and we could get Gerrit Cole and we won’t improve in those two stats. We aren’t in the World Series because the ice cream in Dave Roberts head melted.

        I was perusing some sites and I ran across the name of Michael Lorenzen. He’s from Fullerton and is a reliever for the Reds. He’s working with Trevor Bauer to increase the speed of his fastball. He says he thinks he can do it easily using Bauer’s training tips. His fastball averages over 97. I wonder if we can talk the Reds out of this guy.

        The Dodgers will have $40 million to spend. Do they tempt Bora$ by front loading a contract? I doubt it, but we have to do something with that money.

        Like

  4. Justin Turner

    Here are his Defensive Runs Saved at third base since 2016:

    2016: 7
    2017: 6
    2018: 1
    2019: -7

    And here’s his Ultimate Zone Rating in that same span:

    2016: 9.2
    2017: -1.8
    2018: -1.8
    2019: -6.7

    In 2016 he was 31. He also played 153 games. Hasn’t come close since. Still a high WAR player, 4.5 and 3.7 the last 2 years but his ability to stay on the field has diminished. He can still hit, but the above numbers are why ne needs to be moved.

    It seems to me guys like him, guys who can hit but can no longer stay on the field, are DH material. If I’m a GM in the AL I think I might consider a couple guys like him. They can still play some games in the field and can hit every day.

    Like

    1. Wow, those numbers are pretty staggering (and scary). All the more reason we should go after Rendon and move JT to first base. I think it’s pretty much a given that in 2022 the NL will have a DH (after the new agreement is negotiated) so if Turner continues to hit and considering how much of a team leader he is, I’d rather keep him here to DH than send him to an AL team. On the other hand, two years can be a long time for a guy who is aging and starting to decline, so I might allow someone to talk me out of the above argument. Furthermore, things were already getting sticky with the negotiations on the upcoming contract and now that they’ve added the minor league realignment we might just have no season at all in 2022.

      Like

      1. My early less-bold prediction for the entire future:
        Jeren Kendall will never figure it out.
        I hope you’re the one who turns out to be correct.

        Like

    1. I hope so Keith. He’s the kind of “toolsy” player this lineup could use. Just get on base man. He reminds me of Peraza. Can do everything on a baseball field except get on at .350. He did it at Vanderbilt. Do it again Jeren.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.