Carleton: The case that the shift doesn’t work

From Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus on May 3, 2016:

Here’s a cheeky question that I ask in complete sincerity: How many home runs were hit against The Shift last year? I’m sure someone out there knows the answer to the question, but there are probably more people wondering why I even bothered to ask it. If the ball was hit over the wall, what does it matter whether The Shift was on or not? Either way, the fielders weren’t going to be able to get to it.

It’s an important question.

The infield shift was once the new, hot “it” baseball idea. Sending three infielders to the right side of the infield was seen as a sign of enlightenment, rather than as a sign of a shortstop with a poor internal GPS. Teams were finally able to break free of the invisible force field that said “two over here, two over there.” And for some hitters, that made a lot of sense. If a batter hit 80 percent of his ground balls to the right side, why not put three fielders over there? And so it was done. Now, shifting is so commonplace that Joe Girardi seems a little out of place when he suggests that The Shift be banned.

Usage of The Shift has increased in the past few years. Even leaving aside the broader move toward more precise tailoring of fielder position to the tendencies of the particular batter in the box, the practice of putting three fielders to the right (or left) of second base has increased. Here are the number of three-on-one-side shifts by season for the past few years, according to data from Baseball Info Solutions.

A note about those numbers. They reflect only shifts in which the ball was in play. Plate appearances where the fielders shifted, but the batter struck out, walked, got hit by the pitch, or hit a home run are not included. That means that the answer to my opening question is “I don’t know.” Still, it’s pretty clear that more and more batters are coming to the plate and facing an unbalanced infield, but we’ll talk about why not knowing the answer to that question is important in a little while.

Now that The Shift is just a regular part of the game, it bears asking whether it actually does what it says on the label. Might seem a strange question to ask. There have been several studies that have tried to answer the question, and generally come to the conclusion that yeah it works, even if it’s only a small effect. For the most part, these studies have relied on looking at the aggregate number of hits on balls in play when The Shift was on and when The Shift wasn’t. It’s not bad methodology, but I think it leaves out a few important questions.

Read the full article here:

Originally published: May 3, 2016. Last Updated: May 3, 2016.