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Monday, December 5, 2022

First Pitch: The Best Way to Evaluate Defensive Shifts

BOSTON – Gerrit Cole made a comment last night about the pitch sequence being an issue in his at-bat against Andrew Benintendi. He threw a fastball inside for a swinging strike on a 1-1 count, then went for the same thing on a 2-2 pitch. Benintendi launched it over the right field wall for a three run homer, breaking open the five run fifth inning.

Francisco Cervelli was asked about the sequencing of pitches, and took the blame. He said that the calls were on him, and he shouldn’t have called that pitch in hindsight, even though it worked so well just a moment before.

I thought this was big of Cervelli, but at the same time, kind of harsh. Home runs will happen. As I’m writing this, I’m watching Jose Quintana allowing two home runs in a five run second inning. The pitch they attempted worked earlier. It might have worked again, but obviously didn’t. It might work in the future. A bad outcome shouldn’t dictate a future approach, since that one bad outcome is too small of a sample size.

But I don’t feel I need to preach this to anyone following baseball. It’s universally accepted that pitchers will make a pitch they’d like to have back. It’s a decision that is a result of analytics which break down a hitter’s zone, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

The same is true of defensive shifts. They’re driven by analytics, breaking down where a hitter usually hits the ball, and sometimes they just don’t work out. Except the shifts aren’t universally accepted as a normal decision in the game. They’re seen as something extra where a team tries to get cute with numbers, rather than using the numbers to define a normal strategy.

Because of this view, defensive shifts are ignored when they work, and criticized heavily when they don’t work. When David Freese got Mitch Moreland in shallow right field on a ground out to start the fifth inning, no one said a word. It was an extreme shift, and it was viewed as the right call because it worked. When Sandy Leon beat the same shift later in the inning with two outs and a runner on first, it was seen as the wrong call because it didn’t work.

You can’t say that a successful shift was the right call and that an unsuccessful shift was the wrong call after the fact. You need to make the evaluations on the idea and approach, and less on the outcomes. The outcomes will determine whether the strategy is a good one, but you need a hell of a lot more than one or two examples to get a good sample size. Otherwise, you can tear any strategy down with a sample size of one or two.

Defensive shifts are just like every other approach in baseball which is based on analytics. They should be evaluated in the same way as a normal strategy, just like pitch selection, stolen base attempts, or other normal approaches.

When a pitcher throws a pitch, the analytics help determine what pitch to throw and where to throw it, based on the trends for the pitcher and for the hitter.

When a runner attempts a steal, he does so based on the pitcher’s time to the plate, the catcher’s pop time (from the moment it hits the glove to the moment it reaches the second baseman’s glove) and the base runner’s usual speed to second. If the runner is faster or has a good chance of beating the combined delivery and pop time, they attempt a steal.

When a runner on a base tags up to advance on a fly ball, they do so based on data on the outfielder’s arm.

When a third baseman starts creeping in toward the plate with runners at first and second and less than two outs, he’s doing so because the numbers say there might be a bunt coming.

Wait a minute. That last one was a defensive shift. It’s just that is one of the acceptable defensive shifts, to the point where it isn’t even considered a shift. Just like the outfielders playing deep for a power hitter, the infielders fading left or right, and the infielders going to double play depth. If the third baseman creeps in to field a bunt and the opposing hitter draws back and rips a line drive right past him, you’d never hear calls for infielders to avoid creeping in to field a bunt. It would just be a good play by the hitter.

The Sandy Leon bunt was a good play by Leon. It takes a perfect bunt in that situation to beat the shift, which is why it’s much easier said than done. The question about shifts wonders why opposing hitters don’t lay down a bunt like that. The answer is because it doesn’t turn out that way often. If Leon bunts that harder, Jordy Mercer has a play. If he bunts it softer, Cervelli or Cole could play it. If he tries to bunt a little harder, the ball might get pushed to the left into foul territory. If the misses to the right, it’s an easy play for Cole. But he got it in the perfect spot where there was no margin for error, and where Cole had to rush to make a play, which led to him fumbling the ball and Leon reaching base.

You don’t question the shifts because Leon made a great play. Just like you don’t question the pitch to Benintendi because it worked once and didn’t work the second time. If these lead to bad outcomes often and over a large sample, then you start to question the approach. But no matter how much strategy is incorporated, you’re going to have bad outcomes. Hopefully we’ll one day get to a point where the more extreme defensive shifts are just seen as normal strategy, and the bad results are chalked up as just that.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2017 Minor League Rosters and Playing Time Analysis. A breakdown of each roster for the full season teams, along with analysis of the playing time.

**Pittsburgh Pirates Sign Veteran Cuban Pitcher Yoandy Fernandez. John Dreker reports on a new signing out of Cuba. I will get to see him at Pirate City soon, where the Pirates will be evaluating him to see if he’s an option for Indianapolis.

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Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.


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IC Bob

Shifting has worked but the league is now adjusting. Hitters are practicing beating the extreme shifts. As they become less successful which I think is starting I believe they will morph into something not so extreme. I do fear the Bucs will be the last team to give in and pay a price.


I think the effectiveness of a shift most likely boils down to a) whether or not you are shifting against hitters who have the ability to go the other way vs. hitters who who have a fixed approach, and 2) who your defenders are. Pitchers changing their style etc may also play a role (as the article posted by John W details) but I really think it is who the batter is that matters most. I think the shift could actually become more effective (% wise) as more batted ball data becomes available against the shift in particular, and managers have larger samples to go off of. But I think they need to use it more selectively for it to be valuable.

Tom S

Even though I agree with shifts most of time,there r times with being more conventional as when two outs and more a Punch and Judy hitter. Why give them a easy hit. When a hitter takes advantage of the shift, I have seen butting work a lot more than not. I still believe a team can still win and be more conventional!


the big ? will come with the extreme shift is when a leftie slugger is leading off down more than 1 late in the game, he can slap or bunt the ball to get on base and has shown on tape that he will do this . Do you still imply the the extreme shift or play him straight up?

Joe P

Another issue is that the pitcher also has to hit spots also for shifts to work. Does this affect the pitcher’s mindset, maybe overthinking or getting frustrated. Even AJ got frustrated with shifts.
On a lighter note, a lot of Pirate fans shifted to outfield seats when John Neise pitched for more souvenirs.


Niese was a souvenir hunters’ best friend.


I am curious if they take into consideration the player’s batted ball profile only when the shift is on. How many players who are pull hitters a high percentage of the time can go the other way if they really try when the shift is on? Don’t they work on hitting the ball to all fields? Sandoval likely tried to hit it to the left side. And it doesn’t seem to take a perfect bunt to beat a shift when there is nobody at 3rd.
Wasn’t the original shift on Ted Williams who used to just bring out a heavier bat and go the other way? Didn’t seem to lower his batting average much. Just sayin’


Fangraphs had a post today on that and it says that the overall batted ball profile hasn’t changed from pull hitting to push but maybe a few hitters have individually made adjustments


A rare miss by Sawchick, IMO.

I believe the main flaw in his argument was failing to account for the *probability* of success for the batted ball away from the shift vs a batted ball ball into the shift.

“Though he’s not an extreme pull hitter, more of an argument against vacating third base, he’s hit 155 ground balls and the *plurality have been to his pull side*.”

I’ve noticed a common theme of steadfast uber shift supporters is to assign success to *all* balls hit into a shift.

This, of course, is blatantly false. The vast majority of balls pulled into a shift can be successfully fielded by the traditional alignment. The improvement in defensive efficiency on a plurality of Leon’s ground balls, which unarguably have been pulled, only comes from the narrow portions of those that couldn’t be fielded by the traditional alignment.

Conversely, defensive efficiency drops *drastically* on batted balls away from the shift. Even though the number of oppo batted balls are smaller than pulled batted balls, shifting means that the success rate of the oppo contact increases dramatically.

“The odds suggested Leon was much more likely to hit a ground ball into the shift than to bunt. Teams should play probabilities.”

Simply looking at the proportion of balls hit to zones is incomplete analysis. Probability must be factored into the equation. The question is whether or not it’s worthwhile to gamble on a small increase in ability to turn a larger overall amount of pulled contact into an out while sacrificing an exponentially larger ability to turn a smaller overall amount of oppo contact into an out.


If this is true then the shift should continue to be deployed. IMO it will be effective on average for pull hitters who continue to pull irrespective of defensive positioning. If hitters are adjusting, then it will diminish the value of the shift over time. I’d also add that the shift may become more effective (as a % of its usage) as more batted ball data is accumulated against the shift (assuming managers consider that data first and foremost).

Joe P

Anthony Rizzo comes to mind. He’s done that a few times.


I specifically remember him doing it against the Pirates at least once last year.


Thanks. He would then be an example of someone with a high pull pattern normally who has good bat control who can go the other way most of the time when needed. It would not seem to be that unusual and would definitely lower the effect of shifts.


Nice article Tim. I’ll be 70 next week and most of the analytics go over my head. It’s hard for an old dog to learn new tricks but I know shifting defenses will continue to be a hot topic. They’ve become part of the game.

Chuck C

Happy early birthday, Rob. I have to send this out now, because next week i won’t remember. I’m already 70.


Speak for yourself. It really isn’t all that difficult to figure out analytics at an older age, if one wants to.


At what age isn’t it too old to learn human decency?


So when are you going to figure out that nobody likes you?


It would be interesting for a team to play “normal” infield and outfield postioning all the time and see what happens. 🙂


I don’t know about Haley being a moron, but you might be under suspicion.

John W

Leo, rest assured you are not under suspicion at this point.


I am interested about this subject because it is hard to gather evidence for. In it’s initial state, batted ball history would imply trying a shift. That’s pretty clear cut.

If all pitchers then threw a batter the same pitches and all teams executed the same shifts, you could then re-analyze the effectiveness of “The Shift.” This would basically highlight whether a hitter adapts his hitting to the situation or not – for instance Bonds and Williams stayed the course no matter the shift.

However, if pitchers start eliminating pitches and a batter picks up on this or different teams employ different shifts, the data becomes way more muddled.


Hey Tim….welcome to the wonderful world of Pittsburgh Sports Fandom….when the call works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, it’s the most stupid thing anyone has ever seen in their entire life.

When Ben Roethlisberger throws a 65 yard TD to Antonio Brown on third and one, he’s the greatest QB ever. When he throws a 65 yard incompletion on third and one. Todd Haley is a moron who should be asking people if they want fries with their burger….

That’s just the way it is….


Says the guy making a Steeler analogy during a nuanced baseball discussion.

You’re most certainly correct, welcome the world of Pittsburgh Sports Fandom.


Are you saying that Haley ISN’T a moron??? 🙂 🙂


I would like to go back to the pitch selection, and not focus on the shifts portion of the article. Cole absolutely missed his spot, not only did he miss his spot, but he missed over the plate. That HR was 100% on him. First rule of pitching on the inside corner, if you are going to miss, then miss inside. Do not miss over the plate. It was nice of Cervelli to take the blame, but it was not his fault.
Now, as for the shift on Leon, what pile of data did the Pirates analytical staff glean from his 500 major league plate appearances led them to employ the shift on him? He is a career backup catcher, with no speed. I am not saying that the shift was the wrong idea, but in the situation, I probably go ahead and just play him straight up.


But the shift was what agitated Cole potentially leading to him miss location on the pitch to Benintendi.

Bill Harvey

He is getting paid over half a million dollars to play a game. He can put on his big girl panties and get over it. Make the next pitch, forget the last one.


Then I never want to hear another comment about how good Hurdle or any other Manager is at getting the most out of his players.

It doesn’t matter, after all, right?


You are correct, managers matter little in how much talent they draw out of a player. Glad we could agree on that point.


Nor do I want to hear about how the pace of a pitcher impacts the readiness of his defense. Or how a catcher can handle pitchers better or worse than another.

Just do your job, right? It’s that simple, right?


Exactly, I’m not sure why so many people have trouble understanding all of this. You seem to have a good grasp of it, maybe you could enlighten some of the other people on this site.


I think it’s more likely he was agitated because he got to the ball in time to make the play, but didn’t, than by the shift itself.

jason f (exo)

I’m not sure I’d agree with that based solely on the death stare he gave the dugout after Leon’s bunt basehit.


“Hopefully we’ll one day get to a point where the more extreme defensive shifts are just seen as normal strategy, and the bad results are chalked up as just that.”

Hopefully we’ll one day get to a point where the more extreme defensive shifts are *optimized based on a player’s ability and game situation* and the bad results *are minimized*.

Look at the results. Shifts simply have not provided more than a marginal improvement in defensive efficiency – if that – for all but the most egregious pulled GB hitters. Adjustments are being made.

The conversation is beyond “SHIFTS R GOOD”.

John W

A very simple comparison. If you go back to 2013 when the Pirates have a shift on they have a wOBA against of 296. WITHOUT a shift the wOBA against is 293.

We can speculate on the reasons why and that doesn’t mean shifts are bad. But the Pirates have done better without the shift on.

John W

Really rather amusing all the adoration the Pirates continue to get for their shifts. This isn’t directed at Tim but I hear a lot of self described “saber” people continue to talk about shifts like they are no brainers as they poke fun of at old school “dummies” without realizing the nuances in this debate.

The Pirates saved 11 runs shifting last year which is good. But that is middle of the road compared to other teams and teams such as the Cubs(12 runs saved) and Padres(20 runs saved) were much more successful shifting far less often.

On pulled ground balls(where you want the shift) the Pirates ranked 7th in the league last year with a 135 average but well below the Cubs who came in at 109.

BUT as far as having a shift on when balls were either hit to the center or opposite field the Pirates were one of the WORST teams in the league with an average of .352 against. For reference, the Cubs were near the top at 298.

But here is the most important part. Not only were the Pirates MUCH worse than a team such as the Cubs, they employed the shift almost 3 times as much in situations where hitters hit the ball on the ground but DID NOT pull the ball. 67 total innings for Pirates vs 25 for Cubs.


This is good stuff, eye opening. Do you mind me asking where I can find this data? Would love to play around with it.

John W

Sure. You can access the shift data on Fangraphs on split leaderboards .


Ok yea after I saw this post FG was the first place I went. I’ve fooled around on their stat pages quite often but never noticed the shuftcsplits. Good stuff.


Can’t compare shift effectiveness between clubs. Shift effectiveness should only be measured against the same personnel, on and off the shift. The skill of the defenders is a huge factor to the effectiveness, so comparing Pirates to Cubs is irrelevant. We’re trying to determine if the shift helps or hurts the Pirates’ results given the guys they have and the shift strategy they employ. And since we don’t have good data on this since they have been shifting since the current infield has been together, we can’t make a determination. Hence, the debate persists.


Are you saying is that if shifting is effective overall it’s because the infield defense is good and if shifting isn’t effective overall it’s because the infield defense is bad?


Not at all. I’m saying you can’t define “effective” as an absolute number (e.g. runs saved) and compare it against other clubs. Shift effectiveness can only be measured relative to a team’s own splits on vs off, because that normalizes for the personnel, which IMO probably plays a major factor in absolute runs saved.


In your comparison between the Pirates and cubs, there is perhaps another factor at work. Maybe the cubs infielders are better than the Pirates infielders. For example, it is a pretty fair guess to say that Addison Russell has more range than Mercer.

John W

That’s a good point about the Cubs but I would note that other teams such as the Brewers were considerably better vs pulled groundballs in the shift and Villar and Gennet both had one of the lowest UZR/150 of any SS or 2b in MLB last year.


This is a good point, but also speaks to why we can’t debate shifts as universally good or bad. You can really only compare your own guys on vs off the shift.


The Cubs’ infielders are, at every position, better defensively than the Pirates’ infielders, so I think this is likely a large factor here.

John W

I’ve seen you reference shifts as part of the reason you speculated the Pirates might beat projections most years. How many wins do you think shifts have been worth for the Pirates since 2013?

John W

In 2013 Pirates were 19th in league on pulled ground balls with shift on at 143 and 11th in league against groundballs oppo and center at 296(22 innings)

In 2014 7th in league with shift on for pulled groundballs at 115 and 21st in league not pulled at 385(29 innings)

In 2015 were 13th on pulled groundballs at 154 and 23rd on non pulled balls at 316

In aggregate since 2013 the Pirates are 10th in league against pulled groundballs with 138 batting average and 14th against non pulled groundballs at 322.


Really, that is excellent stuff.


Good stuff, John W


Agree fully with leefoo on this. John W would get my vote as best commenter on the board. Always interesting and always backed up. I think P2 should hire John W as an analyst.

John W

Thanks so much to you and others for kind words. I guess ultimately my point is that while shifts have helped the Pirates to about 10 runs saved a year on a relative basis they are barely keeping up with National League. If I recall correctly they were 6th worst in runs saved due to the shift vs other teams in the NL. So on a relative basis I don’t see it as the panacea or Pirate specialty as some people I meet seem to describe it.

Kerry Writtenhouse

I think the one lost part here in shifting, is how good is the infield defense to begin with? I know Mercer’s defense slipped last year, Kang was hurt. Freese and Harrison have never been great. Jaso was new at first. I’m not a proponent of saber stats as I just prefer to watch the games. But I do wonder if having better defenders might alter the numbers any.

John W

Thanks Lee

John W

Actually THIS article (also from Carleton)is probably the BEST way to evaluate defensive shifts:


John W

Pretty comical you write this article and don’t even mention the shift on Pablo Sandoval which kept the inning going which was ill advised based on his batted ball profile. No one should be arguing against the shift against hitters with very strong tendency to pull groundballs. Sandoval is not that sort of hitter.

If you haven’t read this article you should take the time to read it and some other recent data out about shifting.


The shift on Sandoval definitely seems to fit the description in #1 of falling in love with the shift and shifting against a player where it is ill advised.


You mean this?comment image


Sandoval hit the ball exactly where the shortstop has stood for 100 years, and Mercer was shift a couple steps off the bag, for some reason.

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