The Royals have been embracing defensive shifts this year, after long resisting it, with manager Ned Yost seemingly voice his support on the new strategy. Early on, the shifts seemed to work - the Royals tied for the most runs saved due to the shift in the first month of the season.
But lately, Yost’s support for shifts seems to be wavering. In Baltimore a few weeks ago, Jeffrey Flanagan wrote how the Royals weren’t shifting quite as much anymore. Yost suggested it was because the stats in favor of shifting were exaggerated, and he tried to explain why.
“If you shift and a guy hits a ground ball right to third -- where you had the guy anyway -- they consider that successful. It’s a little skewed in their favor.
”We’re looking at it ... but for the guys that can fist it the other way, we’re coming back around on it [and not shifting]. It’s not a hard-and-fast [rule] for us now. We’re constantly looking at it.”
Lee Judge echoed some of those arguments during Wednesday’s game against the Twins.
Twins had a shift on for Moose, but he hit the ball to the 1st baseman who was standing pretty much where he always stands. Ned thinks some of the shift results are skewed because of plays like that.— Lee Judge (@leejudge8) May 31, 2018
Ned's point: if a team puts a right-handed shift on and the ball is hit to the 3rd baseman standing where he always stands, should the shift get the credit?— Lee Judge (@leejudge8) May 31, 2018
Ned is right that there should not be hard and fast rules, and for hitters that spray the ball around, the extreme shifts would make no sense. The pitcher on the mound should also be a factor - Jason Hammel has been vocal about his displeasure with shifts - and Yost has said that pitchers can call off a shift at their judgment.
But I’m not sure I understand Yost’s argument that the shifts are skewed because of balls hit to players where they would ordinarily be positioned. Let’s keep in mind that I am Joe Dumbfan looking at my nerd computer, and Ned Yost has a championship ring and a team of analysts behind him with reams of data. Ned is right that those outs should not give added credit to shifts, but...is credit being given to shifts for those?
The value in shifting should be based in how many outs are you recording versus how many you would have had without a shift. Consider the shift against a left-handed hitter where the third baseman and shortstop situate themselves on the right side of the infield, leaving the entire left side exposed. A ball hit to the first baseman would be recorded as an out either way - the shift has neutral value to that play. A ball hit to where the shortstop would normally play, would get through as a hit - the shift has negative value to that play. A ball hit to where the shortstop is situated in a shift, up the middle where there would typically be no fielder, is recorded as an out - the shift has positive value to that play. The judgment should be - is there more positive value than negative value?
Baseball Savant has a good amount of shift data publicly available, and according to their numbers, the Royals have put on more shifts than any team except the Astros this year. According to Fangraphs, the 667 hitters who have faced the Royals with the shift on have hit a BABIP of .295. When the Royals don’t have a shift on, opponents have a BABIP of .315.
This is a pretty superficial reading of the efficiency of shifts, but the mile-high view suggests that the Royals are recording a lot more outs when the shifts are on. Sure, there are going to be times when a routine grounder turns into a hit. But as long as the shift is recording more balls that would have been hits into outs, it is a net win. As Whit Merrifield wisely explained it to Rustin Dodd at The Athletic, “Vegas might lose one night. But over the course of the month, the odds are in Vegas’ favor. So that’s why they always win.”
Craig Brown at Baseball Prospectus Kansas City looked at shifts and found that Royals starting pitchers were giving up more hits than most pitchers. However they may also be experiencing more hits saved due to shifts as well. Royals starting pitchers have the eighth-lowest strikeout rate in baseball - they’re just allowing a lot of balls in play period.
Craig also points out the psychological effect that may be weighing on Royals pitchers, which can be a real thing. Behavioral psychology has shown that losing something has a greater impact on us than gaining something. Groundballs that beat the shift can be viewed as “losing a potential out” that can grind on a pitcher, while an out saved due to the shift doesn’t have as much resonance with the pitcher, or is perhaps just seen as “a good play” made by his defense.” But this is just why we need objective data to overcome cognitive biases we may have.
Ned seems to be expressing some skepticism, and perhaps the analytics he is looking at take a deeper knife to the numbers. However, he recently suggested shifts should be banned because they are too effective and have reduced the amount of singles in the game.
“But you talk about low scoring, you talk about strikeouts, if you can eliminate the shift it’s going to increase offense. It’s hard to hit singles. It’s hard to bunch together runs. You’ve got to hit homers or doubles now.”
Shifts wouldn’t be making it hard to hit singles if they weren’t working. And the numbers seem to suggest they are working. Perhaps there is a lot more to it than I can see, or I am just not understanding how shifts are getting more credit than they are due. Maybe Ned can explain a bit more why he thinks the numbers are “skewed.” But I hope the Royals don’t abandon the strategy without solid evidence that the shifts are hurting their chances of winning games.