For generations, baseball fans knew where defenders stood on the field. The first baseman played near first. The second baseman played on the right side, near the bag at second. The third baseman of course, stood near third. The shortstop stood between second base and third base, and maybe he’ll move in, or play back, but that’s where he generally always played.
But recent analytics have turned defensive alignments on their head with radical shifts. Now, you may find the third baseman on the right side of the infield, with the left side completely uncovered. The shortstop may be standing in the shallow part of the outfield. The Astros have gone as far as just putting four players in the outfield against some hitters.
Shifts are not entirely new - teams notoriously used radical alignments against Hall of Famer Ted Williams where all four infielders were on the right side of the field against the left-handed slugger and the Reds even played with four outfielders against Stan Musial. But the use of shifts has exploded in recent years, thanks to spray charts that show where hitters tend to hit the ball. In 2011, teams combined for 2,350 defensive shifts, while last year there were over 27,000, which actually represented a small decline from 2016.
The Royals were a bit slow to the idea of using radical defensive shifts. In some ways, it was understandable due to their personnel. They had a veteran team noted for their defense. The Royals hadn’t needed shifts to post one of the best team defensive seasons in recent memory in 2014.
But in 2018, with Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer gone, and with an older, and perhaps less mobile Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar, it made sense to join the rest of baseball and buy in on this new idea. Ned Yost, who fairly or unfairly has a reputation for being more old school, has publicly supported the idea from his analytics department.
“If you shift 2,000 times over the course of a year, it will save you a bunch of hits. Let’s give it a wholehearted try and see. Let’s get out of our comfort level a little bit, or at least me out of my comfort level.”
It is possible Yost is just giving lip service so he’s not a squeaky wheel, but the idea does seem to have a big proponent in assistant coach Pedro Grifol, who told Rustin Dodd at The Athletic:
“I love combining the old-fashioned gut feel and looking at the large sample numbers to see how they match.”
Even the players, who might be resistant, seem to understand that although there may be times where a routine grounder to short may lead to a hit because the shortstop was not stationed at his regular position, there will be more times where the ball is hit right at a defender because of where he is stationed. As Whit Merrifield told Dodd:
“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.”
And over the course of the first month, the Royals defensive shifts have been winning as well. According to Sports Info Solutions, which tracks shifts, the Royals have become one of the most shifty teams in the league. And it has led directly to results, saving them more runs than almost any other team in baseball.
Royals Shift Frequency Rank— Sports Info Solutions (@SportsInfo_SIS) May 7, 2018
They are tied for the league lead in Shift Runs Saved with 11. pic.twitter.com/VtuLTz4hhX
The shifts have almost certainly helped mitigate the decline of this defense that now ranks ninth-worst in baseball in overall Defensive Runs Saved. Although some balls get through that wouldn’t ordinarily, there have been more plays where a sure-hit turned into an out because the Royals had the defender stationed perfectly.
There are downsides to the shift, particularly when you have players unaccustomed to the practice. The Tigers found out the hard way on Sunday against the Royals that when you shift with players not familiar with their positions, it can lead to missed assignments, allowing basestealers to run wild. And there is the mental anguish pitchers may experience from seeing a routine grounder to third become a hit because the third baseman was playing way over on the right side of second. Jason Hammel admitted to Dodd he gives pushback on the idea of shifts, although he is much more receptive to the idea than he was when he was first introduced to it on the Cubs many years ago.
It is still rather early, but these positive results a month into the season should give the Royals incentive to continue on with this experiment. They may not have the world class defense they once had, but if they can be smarter than other teams, perhaps they can still save some runs on defense, if they give a shift.