No Free Lunches: Infield Shift Edition
A few years ago, I was at some conference and somebody asked Bill James what he thought about the numbers showing the efficacy of extreme infield shifting. I'm paraphrasing here, but Bill essentially responded that he didn't believe the numbers, because they weren't counting all the times when a play wasn't made because a fielder was asked to do something he didn't usually do.
I don't know if Bill still feels that way, even as the frequency of Ted Williams shifts has exploded. But Thursday night in Los Angeles, we saw a TREMENDOUS example of what Bill was talking about, when Daniel Murphy advanced from first base to third base ... on a walk?
Shortstop Corey Seager and second baseman Howie Kendrick, hovering around the bag, talked about where they would be stationed next. Third baseman Justin Turner walked from shallow right field, where he was marooned on a shift, back to his position. Zack Greinke stood on the mound, the ball in his hand and his head down, deep in thought. Catcher Yasmani Grandal was standing at home plate watching it all unfold — screaming but powerless to move.
Five Dodgers were in a position to cover third base. Nobody did.
So Murphy, sensing an opportunity, seized it. As he neared second base, his jog became an all-out sprint and he slid into third base without a play. Moments later, he came home on Travis d’Arnaud’s sacrifice fly.
Because it's The Day After and scapegoats are needed, Steve Dilbeck suggests the Dodgers lost because "they outsmarted themselves."
Well, that's one way to think about it. I prefer to think about it like this: No tactic, no matter how well-conceived, will work every time. Worse, any tactic will occasionally backfire. If you save 10 runs by shifting, you might well give a run back because Corey Seager isn't experienced enough to sprint back to third base.
But you're still nine runs ahead. And if you're smart, you take those nine runs and work on that other one for next time.