Joe Girardi Must Have Been Out of His Mind When Talking About Defensive Shifts

The other day, my friend Eddie asked me what I think about the shift. His reasoning was two-fold, as New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi‘s comments were still fresh in his memory and Kyle Seager was facing a shift at the moment of his question.

Girardi, in summation, would ban the use of defensive shifts if he were commissioner. He believes it is an “illegal” form of defense. The Yankee skipper even went so far as to equate it to illegal defensive formations in basketball by saying you are supposed to “guard your man.”

Joe, I stopped watching the NBA after my Seattle Supersonics got the Brooklyn Dodgers treatment, but even I know the NBA allows zone defenses now.

That faulty analogy isn’t really what I take umbrage with, however. What I don’t like is the ignorant traditionalist viewpoint, particularly in a hypocritical light — the Yankees employ the shift quite often. I unfortunately don’t have access to proprietary data on shift usage — Baseball Info Solutions doesn’t want to give it to me for free, curious — but I have heard on broadcasts that the Yankees employ the shift third or fourth most in the majors.

I have a couple of reasons to disagree with Girardi.

First of all, the age of big data in baseball strategy arrived throughout the last decade. For example, PITCHf/x data has been collected league wide for almost exactly 10 years now, which means there is a metric ton of data for any willing team to use.

If a front office, coaching staff, and players on a team can utilize PITCHf/x data to their advantage, then they should march forth. This can be beneficial to both a pitching staff and the hitters attempting to give them run support.

Pitching coaches and their pitchers can employ PITCHf/x data to pitch to each and every hitter’s weakness in tandem with a pitcher’s strengths. Conversely, hitters and their hitting coaches can look at the data to find patterns in the opposing pitcher’s repertoire and how that complements a hitter’s strengths.

So, this leads to employing batted-ball tendency data and how it is an impetus for using the shift. If Girardi is electing to pitch to, say, David Ortiz, he is very likely to employ a shift to offset Ortiz’s career-long pull tendencies. That’s not to say Ortiz is incapable of going the other way, but you can clearly see the pull tendencies below.

Source: FanGraphs
Of his nine home runs this year eight have been to the pull side. That’s 88.9 percent of his bombs to the pulls side. But that doesn’t concern the defensive shifts, of course. Directly correlated to utilizing the shift against Ortiz is where his infield groundballs end up. So far this season, Ortiz has hit 26 infield groundballs — presumably a high percentage of those go for outs — and 20 of those are to pull. That’s 76.9 percent groundballs to pull. Therefore, if you employ shifts to that side, you are nearly guaranteeing at least one out almost every single time he grounds to that side.

Those numbers are even more helpful when you consider Ortiz will ground into a fair number of double plays. In just 31 official games this season, Ortiz has grounded into five. All five of those have been into the shift. Further, all of this supports the employment of the shift. This is a very small dabbling into tendencies to be sure, but a micro attempt to support the macro data and what it tells general managers, managers, coaches, and players.

Secondly, if you don’t like the shift (think it is “illegal” even), then you should use the data to combat that somehow. You often hear commentators and analysts talk about learning to hit to all fields. Quizzically, I don’t feel like that narrative enters this context as often as it should. Maybe a coaching staff should be working with hitters to beat the shift as much as possible.

The onus, Mr. Girardi, is on you, your coaching staff, and your hitters to get better at hitting to all fields consistently and negating some uses of the shift.

Mark Teixeira‘s numbers against traditional shifts since 2010 seem to support that, to some extent. In 966 plate appearances against traditional shifts in that time frame, Teixeira is hitting .232. Granted, he’s only hit .242 overall in that timeframe, but I’m running with it. Some deeper metrics make it look worse.

Against the traditional shift (since 2010), Teixeira has a wRAA (weighted Runs Above Average) of -68.3, yikes. His wOBA (weighted On Base Average) is .225 and he’s sputtered out a 34 wRC+ (weighted Runs Created Plus).

On the other side of the argument, Ortiz appears to have adjusted more positively to facing traditional shifts. Also dating back to 2010, Ortiz has 1950 PAs against traditional shifts. He has hit .299 with -19.0 wRAA, .302 wOBA, and 84 wRC+. Don’t miss the fact that he’s hit into 74 double plays in this sample. In basically twice the PAs as Teixeira, that’s more than triple the 20 GIDPs for the Yankee slugger. Of course, that is situationally dependent and hard to simply compare side-by-side.

This is not to pick on Teixeira or the Yankees, but Girardi seems to be arguing in the wrong direction. It’s understandable that managing a losing team, weighted down with some declining, older sluggers can lead to these frustrations. Yet, I would encourage Girardi — even as much as I want the Yankees to flounder and miss the playoffs — to catch up to the culture change and employ big data to better your team.

Oh, and by the way, David Ortiz grounded out to Jose Altuve to lead off the fifth inning of last night’s game. The ball, a 15-hop grounder, was hit directly at Altuve who was positioned in shallow right within the shift. It works!

It can work both ways, Joe.

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