Twins see shift in baseball culture on defense
May 28, 2014 at 1:00p ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- Almost every time Jason Kubel steps up to the plate, it seems as if the opposing team is playing with five infielders.
That's not the case, obviously, but more and more teams continue to put an infield shift on the left-handed hitting Kubel. Often times that means a third baseman will move all the way over to shallow right field, anticipating a ground ball to the right side of the infield off Kubel's bat.
According to data gathered by The Hardball Times, Kubel faced a total of 70 infield shifts during the 2013 season -- not nearly many as Boston slugger David Ortiz, who led all hitters with 338 shifts faced. Still, teams are game planning against Kubel via the infield shift more than anybody else on the Twins' roster. He saw the shift against him more than 40 times this past April alone, according to FanGraphs.
"It's kind of the culture now," Kubel said. "Everybody's doing it to everybody. It's definitely effective."
Data on infield shifts is hard to measure, and it won't ever show up in box scores. But there are studies that show that more teams have put the infield shift on opposing batters -- and not just players like Ortiz, who pulls the vast majority of pitches he hits. Even Minnesota first baseman Joe Mauer has seen more shifts played against him in recent years, with teams opting to shade him up the middle by moving either the shortstop or second baseman to play right behind second base.
While this seems to be a trend on the rise throughout baseball, are the Twins embracing it? To an extent, yes, but not as much as others. That same study that The Hardball Times did on infield shifts last season indicates that Minnesota is shifting less than most teams in the majors. In fact, only the Dodgers, Phillies and Nationals shifted fewer times than the Twins in 2013, which put the shift on just 65 times last year.
Oddly enough, the shift didn't seem to be terribly effective for Minnesota last season. Opposing teams had a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .311 when the Twins didn't employ the shift. When the shift was on, opponents had a BABIP of .339. By comparison, the Baltimore Orioles -- who shifted more than any team in 2013, according to The Hardball Times data -- saw a BABIP of .279 with the shift and .296 without it.
"I think it's been obviously trending where more teams are showing less fear of trying to use a player's history to decrease their chance to get base hits," said Twins coach Paul Molitor, who works with the team's infielders on positioning. "It's just a lot more specific on the charting of players and recent trends to where you can go ahead and afford to take your risks in certain situations. We've tried to implement it. Maybe not as much as some other clubs."
Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe recalls just one instance when he shifted all the way to right field against a pull-happy left-handed hitter. That was for Ortiz when the Red Sox came to town earlier this year.
Other than that, Minnesota's infield shifts haven't been as dramatic as some of the others in use across the league.
"I don't know what the numbers are. If I'm just telling you what I think and what I remember, I think they do work," Plouffe said of shifts. "When you look at these guys' spray charts and they only pull the ball, it doesn't make much sense to leave one of your fielders over on the third base line. Not only that, but I think maybe it gets in their head a little bit, thinking about, 'Well, I hit the ball over here. Now instead of two guys over there there's nearly four guys over there.'"
That mental part of the game is certainly a factor that's tough to measure with infield shifts, but it could play a role in the shift's effectiveness. When Kubel comes to the plate, he sees a wide-open left side of the infield and a jam-packed right half.
A well-placed bunt down the third-base line would almost certainly beat the shift, even for someone with Kubel's less-than-blazing speed. However, Kubel has never bunted for a base hit in 10 years in the majors.
"I work on it. Maybe do it eventually," he said. "(Shifting) doesn't bother me much. It just takes away a few hits that are usually in the hole and down the line. You can't fault them for that. It's my fault for hitting ground balls over there."
Plenty of factors play into whether a team decides to shift or not. The number of runners on base or the number of outs in the inning may alter the decision. The same goes for the type of pitcher on the mound, too. A sinkerball pitcher like Kyle Gibson may be more likely to induce a ground ball, which could play into whether or not the Twins shift a specific hitter.
You likely won't see Minnesota shifting its infield this season to the degree that teams such as Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh or Baltimore do. But as more and more data becomes available, it's something that everyone across Major League Baseball continues to embrace.
"I don't know if it's been going on long enough to have enough information to know how many hits we're saving compared to how many we're giving. But obviously people are playing percentages," Molitor said. "Off the top of my head, I think it's probably taken away more hits than it's given, whether it's been against us or for us. We've gotten burned a couple times, but it's also helped us a couple times."
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