Shift Rates on the Rise

The usage of shifts in MLB has exploded this season.  Teams are on pace to combine for more than 13,000 shifts on balls in play this year, up from just over 8,000 a year ago.  Front offices and field staffs are shifting their defensive infield alignments as a result of sophisticated batter ball-in-play tendencies to identify the areas on the field batters are more likely to hit grounders and short liners (the batted ball types that are most affected by the shift).

Sluggers David Ortiz, Chris Davis, Brian McCann, and Prince Fielder are four of the seven most shifted hitters since 2011. It comes as no surprise that teams are shifting these hitters given their public perceptions as power-hitting lefties. But what is interesting is the rate – determined by dividing shifted plate appearances by plate appearances with clear video of the defensive alignment of infielders – at which these hitters are being shifted against this season and the effectiveness of those shifts against them.

Perhaps no player in today’s game is more associated with shifting than Red Sox designated hitter, David Ortiz. Only Ortiz has ranked in the top five in most shifted plate appearances during the last three seasons, including through April 29 of this season. In 2012 and 2013, teams shifted Ortiz 82 percent and 88 percent, respectively. This season, Ortiz has been shifted on 97 percent of his plate appearances.  That leads MLB.

Last season facing the shift, Ortiz batted .250 on his grounders and short liners. While it is still April this season and the sample size is small, Ortiz is struggling this season hitting only .138 on those types of balls in play against the shift. Teams have virtually eliminated the opportunity for Ortiz to face a normal infield defense. Ortiz’s battle against the shift will likely continue as the season progresses, and the Red Sox have yet to face the Tampa Bay Rays, the team who shifted him the most last season.

The breakout star of the 2013 season was Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles. Davis vaulted himself from fringe player to major league superstar, and teams took notice increasing his shift percentage from 25 percent in 2012 to 78 percent in 2013. Davis hit .368 on grounders and short liners against the shift when he faced it less often in 2012, but he hit only .191 on grounders and short liners against the shift when his shifted rate increased in 2013. His shift rate is up, again, so far this season at 88 percent, and it continues to work for teams.  Davis is batting .200 on these types of batted balls versus the shift in 2014, so expect that trend to continue.

New York Yankees’ catcher Brian McCann is another example of a player who’s seen his shift rate increase over the last three seasons. As a member of the Atlanta Braves, McCann’s shift rate went from 38 percent in 2012, when he batted .189 on grounders and short liners facing the shift, to 64 percent in 2013. His .233 average on grounders and short liners against the shift was better in 2013, but it was still 30 points lower than his batting average on grounders and short line drives without a shift. This season, McCann’s first in pinstripes, his shift rate has jumped to 90 percent. That increase in the shift usage seems to be having a significant effect on McCann as he’s batting .130 on grounders and short liners against the shift. McCann should get comfortable facing the shift in the AL East as the Orioles and Rays, division opponents, were the top two teams in shifting last season, respectively.

Newly acquired Texas Rangers’ first baseman Prince Fielder may be the most interesting case.  Fielder is not as obvious a shift candidate as Ortiz, Davis, and McCann because he pulls fewer of his grounders and short liners.  In fact, over his last 120 such balls in play, Fielder has only pulled 74 percent them, which falls below the 80 percent threshold Baseball Info Solutions uses to identify left-handed shift candidates.  That said, Fielder has fared very poorly against the shift.

In 2012, Fielder had an excellent overall season with a .313/.412/.528 slash line, and he was among the top five in shifted plate appearances. However he was only shifted 37 percent of his plate appearances, despite hitting .256 on his grounders and short liners against the shift. Meanwhile, Fielder’s shift rate fell to 28 percent the following year even though his .226 average on grounders and short liners continued to trail his average on those balls in play with no shift.

Unfortunately for Prince Fielder and the Rangers, other teams have caught on, and that seems to be one of the reasons he has struggled so far this season. Fielder is back in the top five of the number of shifts faced this year, and teams are also shifting him with greater frequency. This season, 77 percent of his plate appearances have been shifted, and Fielder has continued to struggle, hitting just .143 on grounders and short liners against the shift. If Fielder is to put his early season troubles behind him and turn his season around, he’ll likely have to do it against an increased shift rate.

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