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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.

Yikes.

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.

  • Chad

    Ouch.

  • josh ruiter

    I would be highly interested to know the % on this. %shifting/runs saved….did the A’s shift less than others and make up for in that way? did they shift more and just be 30 runs better than the cubs? Curiosity harkens

  • josh ruiter

    btw, Brett, while you are in AZ, if you are still going to be at minor league camp, I was curious about a few guys in particular:
    1. Gioskar Amaya
    2. Pierce Johnsen
    3. Paul Blackburn
    4. Duane Underwood
    5. Bijan Rademacher
    6. Marco Hernandez
    If you get a chance to update any of these youngsters I would be grateful. They spark my interest as guys who could maybe break into the limelight as some of our top tier guys start to look ready or AAA promotions come in the early part of the season.
    Thanks.

  • Norm

    Theo’s fault

  • Voice of Reason

    I’m waiting for the study on how many runs we lost because of the color of the underwear our guys wore last year.

    I’ll bet it costs us 12 runs minimum.

    • Edwin

      I don’t get it.

  • Ron

    I remember Samardzja chirping about this a bit and wonder if this is something the front office noticed and was part of the reason Svuem was let go.

    • http://www.michigangoat.blogspot.com MichiganGoat

      I was just thinking the saw thing, I thought on of Sveum’s positive things was defensive shifting? I sure the FO keeps more detailed information than the public sees and maybe something about his defensive plan was really off.

      • itzscott

        and something the front office felt Sveum was incapable of learning to do better so the only option left was to eat the remainder of his contract and fire him?

        • http://bleachernation.com woody

          Correct me if I am wrong, but since Dale got hired right away I think the cubs are only on the hook to pay the difference between his current salary and his contract as manager of the cubs.

          • http://www.michigangoat.blogspot.com MichiganGoat

            Yes I think that is correct

            • itzscott

              So it becomes that the front office felt Sveum was incapable of learning the art of defensive shifts so the only option left was to eat the remainder of his contract and fire him knowing he would get hired right away (or even want to) so they would only have to pay the difference in salaries??

              I think there’s more to it than defensive shifts and relating to young Latin players.

              • http://www.michigangoat.blogspot.com MichiganGoat

                That’s not what I’m saying I’m just confirming the fact that the Cubs pay the difference between his contract and his new contract. Just like what happens if a player is cut before his contract is over. The “why” he was fired is unknown this might have been a reason. I find it odd because Sveum was often praise for his defensive shifts.

                • http://bleachernation.com woody

                  I think the reason Sveum was fired was because he was a tough love type guy and Castro in particular wasn’t responding to that approach. I know Dale was criticized for not playing Watkins enough last year, but it seems as though Watlins isn’t getting any love this year either. But it is obvious that Dale was not who they wanted to develope the core of Latin player coming up.

              • Ron

                I think there was more to his release than defensive shifts also. All I am saying from a purely speculative point is that it could have contributed. For instance if there was a disconnect from the Front Office-Svuem-the players. If Svuem when off the reservation so to speak with his over shifting and Samardzija complained (whick I am trying to find a link for).

                • itzscott

                  Something tells me that when a manager gets fired on a really bad team that wasn’t expected to be anything but a really bad team, there had to be something there that made Theo feel Sveum was making a really bad team even worse.

                  If that was even possible with the Cubs and the roster they had in place at the time.

                  Even the failed Castro & Rizzo experiments had to come from above Sveum and couldn’t be pinned on him.

                  • http://www.michigangoat.blogspot.com MichiganGoat

                    What failed Rizzo experiment?

                    • DocPeterWimsey

                      The one where we used Rizo as a control to see if Great White Sharks prefer Sox or Cubs farmhands. So tragic…..

                    • Darth Ivy

                      I think he meant, “castro & pizza”

                    • http://www.michigangoat.blogspot.com MichiganGoat

                      Well obviously Robot but that is a fact that didn’t need an experiment ;)

                  • Ron

                    “there had to be something there that made Theo feel Sveum was making a really bad team even worse.”

                    Maybe poor execution of a game plan?

      • Funn Dave

        It’s funny, I remember Brett saying recently that defensive shifts were one of the few things Sveum did right.

  • Diesel

    Could it be that our pitchers were horrible at pitching to the shift? If you shift for an extreme pull then pitch him away the whole at bat wouldn’t it seem that the guy would hit away from the shift and the shift would be a waste?

    • Joshua Edwards

      You beat me to it by 1 minute. Great minds think alike…and so do ours!

    • http://bleachernation.com woody

      Every pitcher had a game plan last year that they were supposed to pitch to. A good part of Woods success was that he followed that plan successfully. If you are shifting on a lefthanded hitter you surely don’t want to be leaving the ball on the outer half of the plate. It will be interesting to see if RR plays the shifts as much as Sveum did. IMO the problem Shark had to pitching to a game plan was the fact that he has relied on his velocity too much rather than taking a little off of the pitch to facilitate superior control. He is somewhere in that transitional state between a pitcher and a thrower. If he somehow makes that adjustment he will be a dominant force to feared. Another thing I have noticed about Shark is that when he gets a base runner and pitches from the stretch he seems to lose some of his command.

      • Edwin

        I think it’s been shown that almost every pitcher pitches worse from the stretch. I’m also skeptical whether or not “taking something off” the fastball can really lead to that dramatic of an increase in control. It looks like Sharks bigger problems were controling his slider and splitter.

  • Joshua Edwards

    The defensive shift is one thing, but what about whether or not the pitcher put the ball where it needed to be?

    For example, assume a shift to the 1b side against a lefty that tends to pull, and the call is for a pitch down and inside. Instead, the pitch to him is a bit up and away. That’s a pitch the hitter can push to the opposite field more easily.

    So what happened? Poor choice to shift? Bad luck? Bad pitching? Good hitting? All of that?

  • Spoda17

    yet another example of why it was time for Dale to go… and it had nothing to do with wins… The fact that Dale said he wouldn’t change a thing is an indicator that he doesn’t choose to learn from his mistakes, and seems to not respond well to advice. Maybe Theo was trying to help Dale, and he did not respond well forcing Theo to let him go…

  • Edwin

    I wonder if there would be a way to compare the shifts the Cubs made on certain batters with the shifts that other teams did for the same batter.

    • Funn Dave

      Nope. That would just be way too nerdy. You’d have the geek police at your door in seconds.

      • FFP

        You’d only get a tiny fine for having too small a sample size.

  • 1060Ivy

    Seemed that the Cubs positioned infielders more often in 2013 than previous seasons. Considering it was supposedly a strength of Sveum’s it would stand to reason that he would employ more positioning.

    Unfortunately, the article only deals with situations where extreme shifts were employed as that’s when the situation is most easily tracked. I would be curious if Cubs or any other sources had data when more subtle positioning was employed and how the Cubs did in these less extreme shifts.

  • Darth Ivy

    I wonder if this has anythnig to do with that episode last year when samardzija got mad at one of the coaches. Maybe the defense kept getting shifted away from where grounders were getting hit (balls being hit to standard defensive locations, but the defender is shifting away). This graph seems to indicate that.

  • Grant

    Wasn’t there an article here over the past month or two saying that the Cubs were also one of the hardest teams to shift against?

    If that’s the case, might there be something about certain fields that makes a shift more or less effective? If both the Cubs and their opponents aren’t very effective with the shift, half of the games that go into that calculation are played at Wrigley.

  • Fastball

    Seem had Theo’s old lady on the back of his Harley at bike night in Chicago. That probably sunk his ass.

  • Diehardthefirst

    Barney was asked last year to cover part of Castro’s position as Castro was usually out of position – another reason why need a different SS 2B combo – Barney at SS and Valbuena at 2B would be more effective – Castro is becoming a liability

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