It’s early, but there is no denying one early season trend that shows no signs of slowing down.
The Cubs have faced the most shifts in the National League, and they have three players in the top 40 in plate appearances against the shift as of yesterday’s off-day.
The shifting trend has grown to new heights recently, as teams devise plans to keep batters off base by placing fielders where data shows balls are most frequently hit. In July 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported the use of defensive shifts has doubled every year since 2011, reaching 13,298 in 2014 – a number that was nearly eclipsed by the 2015 All-Star Break with 10,262. And according to FanGraphs’ shift data, teams had shifted 4,137 times entering Monday’s games.
The Cubs find themselves in an interesting statistical area as far as shifts are concerned. Defensively, they have shifted for only 86 batters, which is the sixth fewest in baseball. On the other side of the coin, the Cubs have been shifted against 222 times – which is the most in the National League, and second most in MLB behind the Athletics (229), who lead the pack.
Overall, the Cubs’ numbers against the shift aren’t all that inspiring, as their stats trend toward the middle of the pack with a .260 average (24th), .338 slugging percentage (19th) and 0.078 ISO (15th).
Yet, the Cubs have two batters who have been regularly beating the shift.
Jason Heyward has faced shifts in 34 of 85 plate appearances – or 40 percent of times he has stepped to the dish. On a percentage basis, that is more than double what he faced as a Cardinals hitter in 2015 (18.03 percent) and more than five times what he faced while playing for the Braves (7.55 percent) in 2014.
Heyward has beat the shift with 11 hits (tied for 12th most) with a .324 batting average and a 29.4 percent line drive rate that ranks eighth.
Kris Bryant has been a shift beater in 31 plate appearances this season, hitting .290 with a 29 percent hard hit rate. This comes off the heels of a rookie season in which Bryant hit .283 with a 34.4 percent hard hit rate in 60 plate appearances.
No Cubs player has been shifted against more than Anthony Rizzo, who has seen defenses shift in 41 of his 86 plate appearances. To put it in perspective, Rizzo is seeing a shift in 47.7 percent of the times he steps to the dish – or in nearly half of his plate appearances. The numbers have not been kind to Rizzo and his .071 average against the shift in 2016. But it is important to note that FanGraphs’ shift data (which is and will be an excellent leaderboard to follow moving forward) only accounts for balls in play. So, homering over a shift is not tallied in this particular set of data. Indeed, beating the shift is likely one of the reasons Rizzo tries to hit the ball in the air so much in the first place.
Moreover, although Rizzo has been shifted in 27.5% of his plate appearances (718 of 2,614 PA) in his career, he has hit .280 with a 28.4 percent line drive rate. His track record suggests the best is yet to come for Rizzo against shifts. Or he can just continue to sock homers over the wall.
For what it’s worth, the Cubs (as a team) have hit a fair amount of line drives (23.5 percent LD% ranks 10th) and few grounders (38.7 GB% is fourth fewest), which helps against shifts.
Only time will tell how extreme the data will get. Early on, the Cubs have faced three of the six teams who shift the most, having played three games against the Rockies (231 times, 3rd), Angels (224, 4th), and Reds (199, 6th). In fact, they will see the team that employs the second most shifts in baseball starting tonight, when the Brewers (249 shifts) travel to Wrigley Field.