One of the debates among baseball fans and media members is the use of the infield shift. Many people want this alignment to be banned. Let’s take a look at the shift’s impact upon the 2020 Jays performance and the arguments for and against banning it.
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The starting point for infield shift analysis is Statcast, which organizes the infield alignment data according to the following definitions:
Standard (not shifted) – two infielders on each side of the infield
Shift – three infielders on either side of the infield
Strategic – infield alignments not covered by the first two scenarios
The examination of shifts will exclude consideration of the strategic alignment because it accounts for less than 7% of infield positioning schemes (as measured by plate appearances).
Increased usage of the shift
Table 1 illustrates the increased usage of the shift from 2015 to 2020 for both leagues. The American League’s utilization of this positioning has increased from 2015’s 12.5% of plate appearances to 35.4% in 2020. The National League started from a lower base in 2015 (7.0%), but that league’s usage rose to 32.8% in 2020.
The impact of shifts on Blue Jays performance
Table 2 details how the Jays performed when they faced the shift and implemented the tactic.
As a percentage of pitches thrown, the 2020 Jays hitters faced the shift 35.2% of the time; they saw the standard infield in 58.1% of the pitches thrown. Interestingly, the Jays produced the same BABIP (0.294) against the standard and shifted-infield defences.
On the pitching front, Toronto used the standard infield alignment for 58.4% of the pitches thrown to opposition batters; the shift’s comparable figure was 35.6%. The other team generated a 0.316 BABIP against Toronto’s traditional infield defence. However, the Jays fared much better (0.266 BABIP) when they set up the shift. This infield alignment was a friend to Toronto’s pitchers in 2020.
The impact of shifts at the player level
Table 3 presents a sample of Jays hitters from 2020. In terms of pitches seen, Bo Bichette saw the traditional infield defence in 93.6% of the pitches thrown to him, the Jays’ highest figure. As a percentage of pitches seen when the shift was in force, Cavan Biggio had the highest rate (69.2%). Concerning BABIP, Teoscar Hernandez had the most success (0.375) when challenged by the standard infield slotting; Travis Shaw was the best Jay when confronted by the shift (0.358).
Table 4 tells the story of Toronto’s pitchers. For Hyun Jin Ryu, the standard infield was in effect for 78.4% of his pitches, which led the Jays. Tanner Roark was the leader in terms of the percentage of pitches (46.5%) thrown when the Jays implemented the shift. The tale of BABIP shows that Thomas Hatch had the lowest BABIP (0.209) when standard infield positioning was in place. With a 0.161 mark, Matt Shoemaker took the best BABIP title when the shift was in use.
Should the shift be banned?
Statcast was the primary source for the numbers, which are available for the 2015-2020 seasons. Furthermore, the focus will be upon the American League’s data because I wanted to eliminate the National League pitchers’ effect on the results.
The case against the ban
The people who advocate for a rule that makes the shift illegal often cite the following reasons:
- The number of hits and runs will increase; and
- There will be a reduction in the frequency of home runs, and relatedly, strikeouts.
Hits and runs
Table 5 presents the BABIP produced against the standard infield alignment and the shift from 2015 to 2020. On average, the BABIP against a traditional infield setup was 0.300; against the shift, it was 0.278. Batters were more successful putting balls in play against a standard infield than when they confronted the shift.
Table 6 presents an estimate of the impact of a shift ban on the number of hits and runs related to BABIP. To calculate the effect, I applied the 2019 BABIP from the standard infield defence to the number of at-bats (where there was a batted ball in play) in the shift scenario. Accordingly, the number of base hits (assumed to be singles) in 2019 would increase by only 1.6%; runs would rise by approximately 2.0%. When I applied the ratio of singles, doubles, and triples from the standard infield alignment to the estimated increase in hits, runs would rise by 2.3% instead of 2.0%. It appears that banning the shift would do little to increase hits and runs.
A reduction in the frequency of home runs and strikeouts
The argument is that some hitters attempt to beat the shift by hitting the ball hard, which should increase the number of home runs. A by-product of more home runs is a corresponding rise in strikeouts. Matt Snyder made these arguments in a recent article.
It is not clear that the shift has contributed to a rise in home runs. The evidence follows below.
Table 7 contains hit type data for the standard and shift alignments. The average for the 2015-2020 period shows that batters facing the shift have lower at-bats/home run than players batting against a traditional infield. Also, batters challenged by the shift have higher at-bats/triple and at-bats/single than those facing the standard infield. The at-bats/double are similar in the shift and traditional alignment situations. It is not clear that the shift causes hitters to beat this infield positioning by hitting home runs. A possibility is that teams employ this tactic against batters with more power (home runs) but less foot speed, and this accounts, in part, for the lower at-bats/home run figure. That is to say, the lower at-bats/home run rate for hitters facing the shift maybe because they are home run hitters and not so much because of the shift.
Table 8 shows the average launch angle in both situations (standard and shift infield defences); they have not changed much during the 2015-2020 period despite the increase in the shift’s usage from 7.0% in 2015 to 2020’s 32.8%. Therefore, the relative stability of launch angles suggests that batters are not seeking higher launch angles because of the shift. In other words, the desire to increase launch angle has occurred when hitters see the shift and when they do not. It appears that the rise in launch angle over time is attributable more to analytics than the shift. Specifically, Statcast data demonstrated the link between launch angle, exit velocity, and the distance travelled by a batted ball. Analytics is a reasonable explanation of the rise in launch angles during a period of increased shift usage.
Table 9 highlights the K% data. The K% has been rising more quickly in the standard infield situation than in the shift defence. Accordingly, the K% rise appears to be weakly associated with the shift’s increased usage.
Other arguments against a ban
It would be a big decision for MLB to implement a rule that would prohibit the shift. MLB adopted significant rule changes before the 1969 and 1973 seasons. In 1969, pitchers threw from a lowered mound; the American League implemented the designated hitter rule in 1973. Runs-per-team in the American League was 19.9% higher in 1969 compared to 1968. The higher run production was likely partially inflated by the two expansion teams (Kansas City and Seattle). However, the mound lowering had the desired effect of increasing offence. When the designated hitter rule came into being, American League runs-per-team rose by 29.1% compared to 1972. Therefore, significant rule changes in 1969 and 1973 had a material impact upon game results. As outlined earlier, the estimated boost to offence from a shift ban would be immaterial.
My view is that such a small increase in offence does not outweigh the ban’s complications. For example, what penalties would MLB impose if a team used an illegal infield defence? Would a ball be added to the ball-strike count? Will the umpire’s call be reviewable? These are some of the issues that MLB would need to consider before adopting the shift ban.
The last word
Every team seeks an edge that would increase their chances of winning, even if the advantage is slight. Using the shift is a sound decision at the team level because it reduces the opponent’s hits and runs. For example, the Blue Jays pitchers probably benefited from the shift’s deployment during the 2020 season. Nonetheless, at the MLB level, a prohibition against this infield positioning would produce a minimal uptick in offence. Furthermore, the connection between increased shift usage and the rise in home runs and strikeouts is unclear. Moreover, the inherent complications associated with enforcing the shift ban would far outweigh the negligible benefits achieved by such a ban. Accordingly, MLB should not impose a rule that would make the shift illegal.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.