Don't shift these batters

BY foxsports • December 8, 2014

You might have heard offense is down around baseball. There's talk of new rules to stop the shift, as if that was the cause. But maybe the game will police itself without help from the rules committee. It looks like there already are some batters who shouldn't be shifted as much as they are currently. 

First, it seems strange to blame the shift for the current state of run scoring, even if you ignore that it's been around for a long time. Here's a handy little chart showing the batting average on balls in play since free agency began. There have been more shifts, as the number of players shifted 100+ times has gone from 15 to 44 from 2013 to 2014 alone. But it doesn't look like more shifts have moved the overall BABIP needle at all.

BABIP used to live in the .280s until the mid-'€˜90s. Since then, it's been within a few points of .300 most years. You'd think shifting would catch a few more of those balls in play as it has become more prevalent. 

You might think we'll take the easy way out here, and say that we should stop shifting the guys who are hitting well into the shift. But only three players -- David Ortiz, Ryan Howard and Brian McCann -- were shifted as much as 300 times. If we focus on their results (Ortiz had a BABIP that was 100 points higher when the shift was on), we're basically looking at the fate of a few bouncing balls in what amounts to one half-season of at-bats. 

So no mention -- other than in passing -- of the fact that Matt Adams led baseball in shift BABIP (.374) or that Victor Martinez was top-five in that department (.332). 

Let's instead identify the type of hitter we would not want to shift against. Beyond just "goes the opposite way."

For that, let's turn to Angels starter C.J. Wilson for an anecdote that serves to profile the batters who have the skills to do well against the shift.  Forgive the length, but it really does do a good job of summarizing the different problems with shifting too much. 

BABIPleague

"We employed a shift against Kyle Seager, who I consider to be an all-field hitter. I think he's a really good player. He has a lot of power, he can hit the ball really well to left center, and he can hit the ball out of the park to right-center and right field.
They had the field shifted and I was like, I don't want to shift against Seager. I feel like that's going to force me to throw a lot of inside pitches because I don't want to give up a double-dribbler. The night before, we had played the shift, and he took the fastball in with two strikes and just hit it through a normal spot on the field and ended up driving in a run and that swung my opinion on him.
If we re-zero and go back to a balanced defense against him, then he's not going to have any strategic advantage. I'll have the advantage because then I can tailor my pitches based on my pitches. He doesn't know whether I will try to pitch him inside or outside.
I can't change the way I throw past a certain point. My ball is always going to sink relatively the same way with the same slope and that's going to create the same kind of contact because home plate doesn't move (even though it's hard for me to throw strikes sometimes).
You have a guy like Derek Jeter who's a high batting average guy. He'll have a two-strike swing where he'll just punch the ball through. You can't really take a static philosophy to a hitter that's multi-phasic like he is."

There's a lot going on in there, but let's focus on the last idea, because it's very compelling. The shift assumes that a batter will act the way he does most of the time. But if you've got a "€œplastic"€ batter -- a batter who changes his approach according to the count and situation -- then you've got a problem. 

It's easiest to focus on the two-strike comment with Jeter. So let's look for players with defined two-strike approaches. We did half the work last month with batters who change their foul rate with two strikes, so let's look there first. 

Most of the batters who foul more pitches off with two strikes actually don't appear on the most-shifted list. There are actually only two players who appear on both leaderboards: Victor Martinez and Mike Moustakas. Moustakas actually led baseball in the increase in foul ball rate with two strikes. Maybe these guys are more malleable than they seem. 

But the link between fouling and actually changing the results on balls in play is a bit tenuous. Let's look instead at players who change their hit trajectory with two strikes. These non switch-hitters showed the biggest change in opposite field percentage with two strikes (2012-2014): 

Two-strike talent

Name Oppo% 2-strike oppo% Diff oppo%

Martin Prado

36.8%

55.9%

19.1%

Nate Freiman

32.3%

51.2%

18.9%

Kevin Kiermaier

24.1%

40.8%

16.7%

Juan Rivera

28.0%

44.4%

16.4%

Kirk Nieuwenhuis

24.9%

41.2%

16.3%

David Ross

27.2%

40.9%

13.7%

Eduardo Nunez

31.1%

44.1%

13.1%

Brandon Inge

30.5%

40.7%

10.3%

Leonys Martin

27.8%

37.8%

10.0%

Chris Iannetta

35.1%

45.0%

9.9%

Adam Dunn

27.0%

36.9%

9.9%

Chase Utley

25.6%

35.3%

9.7%

Albert Pujols

21.5%

30.9%

9.3%

Mitch Moreland

31.5%

40.3%

8.8%

Logan Schafer

25.3%

33.9%

8.7%

Eric Chavez

33.8%

42.5%

8.6%

Josh Willingham

23.1%

31.5%

8.4%

Kyle Blanks

27.5%

35.7%

8.3%

Lorenzo Cain

33.8%

42.0%

8.2%

Chris Young

22.2%

29.9%

7.7%

Now *these* are players you probably shouldn't shift. Because these players have a demonstrated ability to change their swing to fit the situation. Because two-strike counts happen less often, maybe their spray charts still look easy to defend. But they've shown they can change it up. Maybe don't shift Albert Pujols, Mitch Moreland and Chase Utley as much as you did last year. 

The bet here is that baseball, in light of higher strikeout rates, will begin to value some of these skills a bit more. A strong two-strike approach has helped Victor Martinez keep his strikeout rate down, and that ability to change his approach is part of what makes him special. Maybe don't shift him 202 times in 2015. Going the other way with two strikes has helped Albert Pujols make a lot of contact and show a better BABIP when shifted, despite the 272 shifts that were deployed on him in 2014. 

These aren't perfect measures of the two-strike approach, or of the ability of these players to change at will. Many teams shift according to count, so they could theoretically avoid these two-strike approaches. But the mere fact that these players have this ability to change their approach with such success suggests they could do it when they see the shift coming, too. 

In general, these are the special players among even the elite talents. They are able to change what they do to fit the situation. They are multi-phasic, as Wilson says, and it's probably not a good idea to use a static approach against them.

 


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