Sullivan: Identifying MLB’s most- and least-shiftable teams

From Jeff Sullivan at on January 22, 2015:

When the Giants signed Nori Aoki to a small contract, it looked like a sound investment even without digging too deep. The Giants wanted to add another regular outfielder. They found one for cheap, who can play adequate defense while getting on base more often than average. While it’s true that Aoki doesn’t hit for much power, he’s valuable despite that, just as David Ortiz is valuable even though he doesn’t steal bases. All right, so it’s not the exact same thing, but you see where I’m going. Focus on what a player can do, and so on and so forth.

Yet there’s also interest in the details. Aoki makes a lot of contact, which is one of the many ways he’s different from, say, Michael Morse. He puts the ball in play, just like Casey McGehee puts the ball in play, and the Giants have put together a higher-contact offense as opposed to a higher-power offense. But there’s also another thing about Aoki: he might be the least-shiftable hitter in the major leagues. He sprays the ball all over the place, unpredictably, which makes him tricky to defend. Dividing the field into thirds (instead of halves), the average hitter pulls about 54 percent of his groundballs. Aoki has pulled just 34 percent of his groundballs, meaning there’s no sense in moving your infielders around. He’ll hit the ball where he hits the ball.

As you certainly know, teams are shifting more and more often. Maybe you’re familiar with the numbers; maybe you’ve just had a sense. Here are some numbers, if you want them. As recently as 2011, there were just shy of 2,500 balls put in play with a shift on. The next year, that number went up 94 percent. Then that number went up 79 percent. Then that number went up 63 percent. There were 564 percent as many shifts in 2014 as there were in 2011. Shifts are even rising dramatically against right-handed hitters, which is particularly unconventional.

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Originally published: January 23, 2015. Last Updated: January 23, 2015.