Yesterday, we thought about the proposition that some competitive advantages might be as much about zigging when everyone else is zagging as they are about finding something that’s fundamentally or inherently better practice.
For example, getting on base is probably going to be one of those competitive advantages that is always good practice no matter what everyone else is doing. But by contrast, the launch angle revolution might plausibly one day be exploited by a front office willing to go hard in a different direction. In real world terms, this is notable because there might be large subsets of players out there with undervalued skill sets. Put differently, we/front offices might be ignoring players that are cheaper, more effective, and more available simply because their skill set doesn’t seem to fit the modern times. It’s a lot like game theory and I like it.
Now, this idea that an edge may be gained by going against what everyone else is doing, even if that makes you a “dinosaur,” doesn’t necessarily have to zero in on individual players or skill sets. Instead, it could also be applied to broader team strategies, like … shifting. And that’s an example I want to get into today.
No one could or would argue that the current iteration of the Chicago Cubs – led by Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod, and Joe Maddon – is somehow “behind on the times.” Indeed, they widely considered one of the most modern and forward-thinking organizations in the game.
Yet, they’re doing something that no one would currently label “modern” or “forward-thinking”: they’ve basically abandoned the extreme shift.
From 2016 – 2018, opposing teams have shifted against the Cubs more than almost any other team in the baseball at the exact same time the Cubs have shifted against their opponents less than any other team in baseball.
2016 MLB Season:
Cubs shifts: 603 PAs (30th in MLB)
Cubs Opponents shifts: 1607 PAs (3rd)
2017 MLB Season:
Cubs shifts: 526 PAs (30th in MLB)
Cubs Opponents shifts: 1493 PAs (2nd)
2018 MLB Season:
Cubs shifts: 671 (30th in MLB)
Cubs Opponents shifts: 1708 PAs (4th)
We more or less knew this to be true simply by watching the games, but it always helps to see the data match our eyes. The Cubs get shifted on a ton. The Cubs do very little shifting themselves.
What’s stranger about the Cubs defensive choices is that their manager, Joe Maddon, was one of the earliest adopters of the shifts back during his time with the Rays. Surely there must be a reason – a thoughtful, well-considered, and well-researched reason for the Cubs going so far against the grain in this current era, right?
Well, let’s dig in on some numbers. Specifically, let’s look at how opponents performed (by wOBA) against the Cubs when they shifted, and when they didn’t.
2016 MLB Season:
No Cubs shift: .250 wOBA (1st)
With Cubs shift: .240 wOBA (1st)
2017 MLB Season:
No Cubs shift: .278 wOBA (5th)
With Cubs shift: .277 wOBA (6th)
2018 MLB Season:
No Cubs shift: .278 wOBA (9th)
With Cubs shift: .275 wOBA (2nd)
Over the past three seasons, the Chicago Cubs have shifted less than any other team in baseball, and yet, the data seems to suggest that they’ve been among the VERY MOST effective pitching staffs/defenses in the game. Given that they have held opposing offenses to the lowest (2016), sixth lowest (2017), and second lowest (2018) overall offensive outputs (wOBA) when they do shift, as well as the lowest (2016), fifth lowest (2017) and ninth lowest (2018) wOBAs during that same period of time, you might say they’ve actually been both the most selective *and* the most effective shifters in all of baseball.
WHY this has happened might be a little more difficult to determine, but I have some thoughts on the matter – starting with, poo-pooing my own idea. Maybe, just maybe, the Cubs have simply had really great pitching staffs and really excellent defenses over the past few years and these results would’ve born out regardless of how often they shifted relative to the rest of the league. Maybe their player personnel has simply been such that shifting doesn’t make as much sense for them, regardless of their overall perspective on the strategy.
Given how the data seems to suggest that the Cubs are doing something right, however, I’m not particularly keen to that explanation, especially spread over three full years of what seems to be a concerted effort not to shift as much as other teams. Instead, perhaps, simply zigging when everyone else is zagging *with this particular competitive advantage* has led to an edge – especially because of how widely-adopted shifting now is.
One explanation could be that the best hitters who are successfully shifted against the most – think someone like Kyle Schwarber or Anthony Rizzo, if they were on another team – have adjusted their entire approach at the plate/swing to combat the shifts they see so often. And in so doing, they’ve improved their chances for success against most teams and pitchers, but not the Cubs, because the Cubs would be 1) attacking them differently at the plate *and* 2) defending against them in ways the batters aren’t otherwise used to seeing anymore.
Put another way: by simply doing what everyone used to do, the Cubs have become the rarity, and maybe it messes with hitters.
Another explanation – which isn’t mutually exclusive from my last point – has less to do with the opposing hitters, and more to do with the Cubs pitchers. There’s something to be said about the psyche of a pitcher throwing in front of a shift that may not be advantageous. Some guys might simply be uncomfortable pitching in front of an extreme shift – some pitchers have suggested they don’t love it – and might lose some confidence in their approach. On a more tangible level, those same pitchers might think they must (or might be literally be asked to) change their entire plan of attack against a certain hitter simply because the shift is on. Sometimes, with some pitchers, in some circumstances, that might be great.
But perhaps the Cubs’ data shows that allowing pitchers to be themselves and pitch under the most familiar circumstances and with their usual plans of attack while *very* selectively choosing certain moments to shift is the most effective overall team strategy.
AND PERHAPS this entire concept has advantages off the field, as well. For example, maybe the Cubs front office can continue developing *and* targeting the sort of pitchers who are being tossed aside by other teams because they don’t pitch as well in front of a shift. Just thinking out loud.
It could very well be the case that dramatic infield shifts are not the kind of competitive advantage that is always good practice. Instead, perhaps they were only an advantage while most teams were not shifting. So in this case, I might argue, the actual, real-life competitive advantage gained by the Cubs both on and off the field in this area is directly due to the fact that they’ve purposefully and strategically shied away from shifting despite the seemingly widely-accepted advantages.
I wonder what else this mode of thinking could be applied to … or what else it already is.