If you were among the few Chicago Cubs fans who were able to stomach watching a lot of the games last year, you probably noticed something anecdotally: it seemed like every time the Cubs did an extreme defensive shift, the batter hit it where the Cubs weren’t. Invariably, I would say to myself or to others around me that this was simply bad luck, and it still made sense to play the percentages.
Well, if a study by Beyond the Box Score is to be credited, what we noticed anecdotally was spot on. Either the Cubs were the unluckiest shifting team in baseball last year, or they were really, really bad at it:
That chart from BtB (it’s a great article, by the way, which you should read) shows the number of defensive runs saved – or lost – thanks to extreme shifts (i.e., three players to one side of the infield). As you can see, most teams saved more runs than they lost by virtue of shifting. In any system like this, you’d expect there to be some flukes, and there are.
But holy crap, look at that outlier there at the bottom. Yup, it’s the Cubs, who shifted the 7th most times in baseball last year, and gave up an extra six and a half runs because of it.
I am completely on board with defensive shifts as a concept, and maybe the Cubs were just unlucky last year. But, with a new manager in the house, maybe it’s a great time to rethink the way the Cubs were actually implementing their spray chart data and deploying their shifts. Maybe something was a bit off, despite having the right idea.
In the end, we know that defensive shifting, in the aggregate, works. We can see it in studies like this one by BtB, or we can see it in the ever-shrinking league-wide BABIP figures. That the Cubs were unlucky or terrible at it last year is not a reason not to employ extreme shifts this year, where appropriate. It’s no surprise that the Rays and A’s are atop the chart, being that they have for a decade (or longer, in the A’s case) been the forerunners of finding small advantages within the game. By saving as much as 10 or 11 defensive runs through shifting, the Rays and A’s bought themselves an entire extra win last year just by shifting.
Extreme defensive shifts are a necessary part of the game now if you want to remain on par with your competitors – at least until there is an efficient and effective wave of previously-shifted-on hitters who can really punish a team for shifting on them. (Also: the more you put runners on base, the harder it is to be shifted on. The lesson? Having a better offense will beget a better offense.)
In any case, the upshot here is: keep doing the defensive shifts, Rick Renteria. But figure out how to do them more effectively than Dale Sveum, or at least get a whole lot more lucky.