Travis Sawchik on the shifts

If you haven't yet, I strongly recommend you go to the Trib's site today and check out Travis Sawchik's feature on the Pirates' defensive shifts. In addition to the things that you probably already know about the shifts (you probably remember James Santelli's piece about it from earlier this summer; if you don't please go read that post, as well), Sawchik really provides some insight into how the shifts came about. 

There are a few really interesting aspects of this article that I want to touch on. The first is certainly Clint Hurdle. Like most baseball fans, I'm guilty of implicitly praising Hurdle while explicitly criticizing him. In general, I like Hurdle. He seems like a great guy that has a team full of guys that would run through a brick wall for him. I always say that this is the most important thing a manager can do and that many of the decisions that we, as fans, get bent out of shape about — who to pinch hit where or batting order or which reliever to bring in or position player bunts or ocassionally not sticking with a platoon — often end up amounting to very little, even over the course of a long season. Here's the thing: that's not strictly true anymore. Hurdle bought into the data compiled by Dan Fox and prestented to him by Fox and Neal Huntington and agreed to implement the shifts in games. It's easy to look at the number of shifts by the Pirates from year to year to year and see that the more the team shifted, the more Hurdle and company bought into the shifts. Hurdle's admission that he realized he had to change things up after getting fired by the Rockies gets a lot of respect from me; none of this defensive stuff happens without the right manager. 

What makes it all more interesting is the point that Sawchik brings up about the personnel that the Pirates have used to enact these shifts. With no intended disrespect to Neil Walker or Pedro Alvarez, it's hard to believe that one of the best infields at turning groundballs into outs has both of those guys playing almost every single out in the field. They both have their strengths (Pedro's cannon arm, Walker's soft hands), but neither is particularly rangey. Think of the way that the various small market success teams change the way that people think about baseball. The A's dropped defense from the equation entirely in the early 2000s, basically saying that they knew how to quantify offense so much better than anyone else that defense was irrelevant. The Rays brought defense back into the picture with the idea that sometimes it's OK to start a Jason Bartlett because defense is so important. Now the Rays and Pirates and the other shift teams are changing that paradigm again; you can get away with less-than-spectacular defenders if they're positioned properly. 

The final thing that I wanted to point out is the team's philosophy on ground balls. This, more than anything, drives home for me just how methodical the front office is. Their approach is almost scientific. What do we know? We know that pitchers mostly only control strikeouts, walks, and home runs, and that the main way that thye control home runs is through ground balls, because if you give up fly balls a certain amount of them are going over the fence, no matter how good you are. So how do we maximize is? You make your pitchers throw more groundballs. And what else? You throw out positioning and make your fielders stand where those ground balls are going, regardless of convention.

It sounds easy when you write it out like that, but think of all the work that went into Charlie Morton. Think of how closely regimented Gerrit Cole's minor league and early Major League career have been to turn him into a groundball pitcher. What Sawchik's story really brings into focus, for me, is that the shifts aren't an idea — they're a philosophy. They're a methodology. For years, it's been apparent that small market teams need to create their own advantages to succeed against the teams with money. For a while, it seemed like the Pirates weren't doing that, but now that we know what a successful Pirate team looks like, it seems clear that this is what they've been looking for all along.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.


When people ask me what I do, the first, answer that I always give is that science is about separating the things that we know from the things that we think that we know, and then figuring out how to move things that are in the second category into the first category. (If they press harder than that, then I start talking about mRNA and their eyes roll back up into their heads.) This is how I've always thought about the Pirates' defensive shifts (and defensive shifts in general), since they started using them a couple of years ago. Why do the seven position players stand where they stand, other than because it's where they've been standing since the days of Harry and George Wright? Why would it be wrong for them to stand somewhere else?

In that vein, James Santelli has an awesome look at the shifts and Dan Fox, the man behind them, at Pirates Prospects this week. I'm going to stop you here and say that if you haven't read James's piece, you should go read it before you finish what I'm writing here, because it's just a commentary on the points discussed in his article.

I love this quote from Fox in particular: 

“You want [the players] to be thinking ‘This is our normal positioning. This is where I’m supposed to be.I’m not out of position. I am perfectly in position because that’s where the ball is going,"

It is generally well-accepted that balls put in play turn into hits somewhere around 30% of the time no matter what a pitcher does; this is the basis for defense-independent pitching research and the hypothesis that gives us stats like FIP and SIERA. There are two ways that you can approach this; one is to just accept that pitchers will eventually regress back to a BABIP of about .300 and move on, and the other is that  to try and find a way to prevent that regression from happening. The Pirates have obviously been interested in this for years; when Neal Huntington first started cobbling pitching staffs together and rebuliding busted pitching prospects, they focused heavily on groundballs, because groundball pitchers have more of a chance to out-perform their FIPS. 

The shifts are a product of that goal. What if the reason that all teams and pitchers tend to regress back to the same BABIP is because all of the teams have their fielders standing in approximately the same place? And if that's the case, then why do all of the fielders on all of the teams stand in approximately the same place? The players have always stood there and it's certainly not the worst possible defensive alignment to space your seven position players evenly out on the field, but the reality is that we know much, much more about batter tendencies and where balls land than we ever have in the past. Why shouldn't we use that data?

It's probably too soon to really make any definitive judgments on whether or not shifts can cause a real change to defensive efficiency/BABIP, but there are some promising signs beyond the Pirates' success this year. The Rays were one of the earliest shift teams and they're annually among baseball's biggest shifters. They're also always near the top of the league in defensive efficiency. You have to have the right players to execute the shift, you have to interpret the data correctly to employ the right shifts, and so on. Still, the Pirates are trying something different this year and seeing good results. There's certainly some regression coming for the pitching staff, but if the shifts remain as effective as they have been early in the season it might not be nearly as much as some expect. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.