Have they maxed out the shifting?


In the latest edition of The Fielding Bible — which would be Fielding Bible: Volume IV, just published last month — authors John Dewan and Ben Jedlovec devote 20-odd pages to extreme infield shifts.

Of courses, the Rise of the Shift has been sort of breathtaking.

In 2010, there were 1,502 "full Ted Williams shifts," which is how Dewan describes an alignment with three infielders positioned on one side of second base or the other (of course, the vast majority of the time they’re on the first-base side).

In 2014? There were 8,354 full shifts, for a 556-percent increase in just five years.

So are the teams approaching a point of diminishing returns?

When I spoke with Dewan in Phoenix last month, I asked how often teams should be shifting. Earlier this week, he addressed that question in detail:

In 2014, major league teams had a full shift in place 8,354 times when a ball was put in play. How does that compare with what the BIS-D software would have recommended? If you take every player that has put at least 50 groundballs and short line drives in play in their career (and had at least one plate appearance last year), the software recommends a shift on 113 different players. Those 113 players put 24,733 balls in play.

So, the upper limit on full Ted Williams shifts in baseball might be around 25,000, compared to the 8,354 full shifts actually deployed in 2014. Teams are only shifting about a third as often as they could be, according to the BIS-D software.

The Houston Astros, who shifted more than any team last year and saved the most runs defensively (27) with the shift, are close. BIS-D recommended 971 full shifts for them. The Astros deployed 867.

Shocking, right? That the Astros led the majors? By a lot, too.

But of course the takeaway here is that if you’re not shifting a lot, you’re really not saving that many runs. Using the standard baseline of 10 runs per win, only nine teams in the majors last season gained at least a full win by shifting. And fully half the teams saved five runs or fewer. So nearly everybody probably should be shifting a lot more than they have been.

One thing that surprises me. I saw somewhere that the Rays, who led the majors in shifts in 2010, ’11, and ’12, fell to second in 2013 and fell even farther down the list in 2014. The Rays are famously one of MLB’s most analytically driven organizations. So why aren’t they keeping up?

I have no idea. Just thought I’d throw that out for discussion…