How the Astros became baseball’s king of shifts

The escalating use of defensive shifts across baseball during the past few seasons has been well documented, and in 2013, the Houston Astros were among the leaders when it came to implementing radical defensive alignments. A year ago, the Astros ranked fifth in baseball in defensive shifts on balls in play with 496, while the Orioles led the way with 595 shifts, the most ever recorded in a single season. This season, the Astros are on pace to put those numbers to shame.

Through Tuesday’s games, Bo Porter’s club has utilized 224 shifts against opposing batters, which is 12 more than the second and third most frequent employers of the shift – the Yankees and Brewers – have used combined. Extrapolated over the course of the full season, the Astros would exceed 1700 shifts and nearly triple Baltimore’s league-leading mark from a year ago.

So why have the Astros gone from being another team at the top of the pack to the organization setting the pace in baseball’s movement toward defensive shifts?

The Houston front office has recently been regarded as one of the most forward-thinking staffs in baseball, and their analytics department has taken the next step forward in recent years by building its own powerful, private online database, Ground Control. Houston’s coaching staff as a whole seemed to be in favor of defensive shifts last year, but they were met with some resistance, as two of their starting pitchers, Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris, publicly voiced their frustrations with the shift.

For a front office’s plans to be executed on the field, it requires a coaching staff that is on board with the philosophy and that can convince its players to buy into it (or at least be open-minded enough to go through with the plans as designed). With more data at the organization’s disposal than ever before (including opposing batter tendencies), the next step for the front office was presumably to seek out coaches willing and able to take that data and execute accompanying strategies on the field.

For general manager Jeff Luhnow, it seems that coach was Dodgers minor league infield coordinator Pat Listach. The organization brought in Listach this past offseason to serve as Houston’s first base coach and infield instructor. Brian McTaggart of MLB.com recently wrote, “Listach was a proponent of the shift while he was the bench coach with the Cubs, which is one of the reasons the Astros are being more aggressive with it.”

During Listach’s second stint as a coach for the Cubs from 2011-2012, the former MLB infielder studied defensive analytics and hitter tendencies and would use them to determine the positioning of his infielders. With the Astros, McTaggart says that Listach “speaks with advance scout Tom Koch-Weser frequently and meets with the staff and the infielders prior to each series to talk about their positioning.”

It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much of an effect Listach has had on Houston’s extreme usage of the shift this season, but regardless, it’s clear that the coaching staff is unafraid to execute the defensive positioning strategized by its analytics department.

The most intriguing part about Houston’s extreme use of the shift through the first three weeks of the season isn’t necessarily the sheer number of shifts, but who they’ve been shifting against. What has set the Astros apart from the league is that they’ve implemented shifts against right-handers like no other team in baseball.

Going forward, it will be useful to understand the two alignments Baseball Info Solutions considers shifts. A Full Ted Williams Shift requires three infielders to be positioned to one side of second base. A Partial Ted Williams Shift requires two fielders to be positioned well outside of their normal positioning or one infielder to be deep (10+ feet) into the outfield. The shift numbers in this article refer to both types of Ted Williams Shifts.

Through Tuesday’s games, the Astros had deployed either a partial shift or full shift 40 percent of the time against right-handed batters and applied a full shift 31 percent of the time. By comparison, the rest of the league has only shifted against right-handed batters on four percent of balls in play (and a full shift in just two percent of them). In fact, of the full shifts deployed against right-handed batters in the majors this season, 35 percent of them have been by the Astros.

It’s certainly worth noting that Houston has had the advantage of matching up against the four right-handers that have initiated the most shifts in history. No right-handed batter has ever witnessed an open right side of the infield more than Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Albert Pujols or Alfonso Soriano. Accordingly, on every ball that these four sluggers put in play against them this season, the Astros have used a full shift. But considering that other forward-thinking teams are beginning to shift on these four (and other pull-happy right-handers such as Mark Reynolds and Dan Uggla), Houston’s shifts against them haven’t diverged too far from the norm.

What is ultimately setting the Astros apart from teams like the Yankees and Brewers is that they’ve proven that they’re willing to move Jose Altuve over to the left side of the infield against more nontraditional right-handed shift candidates.

For example, Chris Iannetta faced the first full shift of his career during the Angels’ series in Houston earlier this season. The Astros would perform a full shift on Iannetta on all seven of the balls he put in play.

No team had ever implemented as much as a partial shift against the Rangers’ Kevin Kouzmanoff, but that didn’t stop the Astros from deploying five full shifts and a partial shift against him when the two Texas-based teams clashed for a three-game set.

The trend continues, as the Astros have shifted against right-handers such as Omar Infante, Salvador Perez and Billy Butler, and have also shifted against switch hitters batting right-handed such as Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Dioner Navarro (against whom defensive shifts as righties aren’t unprecedented but have been used sparingly).

Perhaps the most surprising extreme shift by the Astros to this point in the season was when they shifted seven times (six full) against Mike Trout. A concept that was once set aside for only a handful of power-first lefties such as Carlos Pena and Ryan Howard is now being used against the player most consider as the game’s most complete and well-balanced young hitter.

The move actually wasn’t completely unprecedented, as the Yankees put two partial shifts on Trout last season while the Rays implemented a pair of partial and full shifts. Apparently, Trout didn’t recall the Rays putting a full shift on him. After the second game of the series against Houston, he told the Orange County Register, “I had never seen that. I love it. If they leave the right side open, I like to go to right field. I’m not going to change my approach.”

To Trout’s credit, the only ball he hit during that series that was a dead pull was his home run down the left field line in the Friday opener, but he picked up just a single hit on the four groundballs he hit during the series (which ironically was an infield single hit into the shift). The notion of an infield shift on Trout isn’t too crazy, as his tendency to drive the ball to the opposite field has mostly been limited to line drives and fly balls. While Trout isn’t nearly as extreme a pull-hitter on the ground as some batters that have been traditionally shifted against, he does tend to hit the ball to the left of second base.  He has pulled 72 percent of his last 120 grounders and short liners, slightly higher than the 71 percent pull rate of all right-handed batters last season.

The only two teams to shift even one-tenth of the time against right-handers last season were the Rays and Yankees, while the Astros chimed in around eight percent. However, through the first three weeks of the season, the Astros are shifting against right-handers at nearly five times that rate and are doing so with nearly the same frequency as they are against left-handed hitters.

Astros Shift Rates, 2013-2014
2013 2014
Shift% vs LHB 17% 45%
Shift% vs RHB 8% 40%

As defensive shifts continue to permeate the league, it’s only a matter of time until right-handed shifts become more frequent. Since 2009, right-handed batters have hit .248 on ground balls and short line drives in the infield when there is a shift on compared to .261 without a shift. Teams across the league are recognizing that certain defensive alignments have proven to be more efficient against dead pull left-handed hitters, so why shouldn’t that same logic apply to right-handed hitters?  The Astros may be the kings for now, but eventually, other teams will surely follow suit.

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