Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Shifting on the Nats' Lack of Shifting

We are taking a quick time out from our Scouting Report series (we only have 3 starters left to review) because Mark Zuckerman of Nats Insider had an interesting post yesterday about the Nationals and their lack of shifting. I would encourage you to read the full article, but the big take away is the quote from Matt Williams that basically says we align our defense with our pitchers approach to batters and that means we don’t shift a lot.

On the one hand, I think it is a great sign that the Nationals are having discussions about shifting and including their pitchers in those discussions. The Pirates, one of the teams at the forefront of analytics and shifting in particular, have had a couple blow ups with their pitchers going to the media in the past to complain about the team’s use of shifts. Getting everyone on board with your shifting approach is essential to it being successful. Additionally, game planning your pitching approach to a hitter and your defensive alignment is just plain common sense.

On the other hand, this strikes me as not great reasoning once you get down to it. Sure, the definition of a shift is vague but every hitter has tendencies and ignoring those tendencies based on your gut is like betting on red at the roulette wheel because it’s been black 3 times in a row; it’s not a winning strategy in the long run.

At its most basic, the shift is employed by moving defenders around the infield against hitters who show an extreme pull tendency (most of the time, although you do have hitters who are predominately opposite field hitters) to take away “seeing eye groundball” hits. Someone who the Nationals, and all of baseball for that matter, shift against is David Ortiz. Take a look at his spray chart from 2014:

This graph from Baseball Savant shows every batted ball Ortiz hit in the 2014 season, by hit type and location. He shows a clear pull tendency for a left handed hitter, especially on groundballs to the infield. There are no balls hit towards the third baseman, and the balls near the shortstop are clustered up the middle. Even in the outfield, you see the tendency for Ortiz to go to center and right field. So clearly, Ortiz is a prime example for the shift, right? Yes, but to really understand why, you need to dig a little deeper.

When Matt Williams says the Nationals take into account their pitchers’ approaches to hitter before deciding on a shift, what he means is that batters like Ortiz have pull tendencies, but those tendencies might not show up against all pitch types. For example, pitchers clearly want to avoid letting Ortiz drive a ball, so generally they try to pitch Ortiz low and away to keep him from turning on a ball and wrapping one around Pesky’s Pole. But, fastballs low and away to a left handed hitter are the hardest ball for that hitter to turn on and pull. So if your pitcher’s approach to Ortiz is to pound it low and away, you better know what Ortiz does with balls low and away. So here is what Ortiz did in 2014 against fastballs low and away:

As you see, he still pulled balls on the infield (although when he hit balls into the outfield they tended to be to center/left which is pretty consistent with other power hitting left handed hitters), so whatever your pitching approach to Ortiz, it’s pretty safe to shift your infield around and play him to pull the ball.

David Ortiz is a pretty unique hitter, there aren’t that many players who show such a dominate pull tendency. What do you do with a more balanced hitter? As an example, we will use David Wright who’s 2014 spray chart looks like this:

A pretty even distribution of batted balls, so not a great option for a defensive shift. Wright does have some power, though, so it wouldn’t be surprising for a pitcher to decide his approach to Wright will be similar to Ortiz: keep the ball low and away to keep him from turning on something and driving it. With that in mind, here is Wright’s career spray chart against fastballs low and away:

Wright was able to go to the opposite field with these types of pitches more than Ortiz and you see a lot fewer balls pulled. Then again, there are some pretty clear clusters there around the infield. If you knew the approach was going to be to keep the ball away from Wright, you would move your third baseman off the line, shift your shortstop up the middle and move your second baseman slightly towards first. So while not a true shift in the sense of moving an infielder to the other side of the field, you can still align your defense to play the odds and take advantage of this knowledge.

So you know what? After all that, I’m officially flip flopping. My gut reaction to reading Matt Williams quote was negative: “No shifting? The Nationals need to get out of the dark ages!” Now, though, I think what Matt Williams said actually has a lot of nuance and shows an understanding and appreciation of both the analytics available to him and his knowledge from years of playing the game. His quote shows me that he is taking the data that I’m sure Mike Rizzo and his scouting staff are putting together, comparing notes with his pitchers, and putting a plan in place. No, we might not see Ian Desmond jumping to the right side of the infield against hitters as often as the Pirates move their infielders around, but if he takes 4 steps up the middle against a certain hitter, he is still “shifting” even if it doesn’t get classified as that. Most importantly, the coaching staff, pitchers, and position players are all on the same page and putting the team’s research to work. That should be the goal for every analytically minded team.

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