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To shift or not to shift?

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Putting their trust in a newly bulked-up analytics department, the Marlins are shifting to an extreme this year...but is the strategy paying off?

April 7 vs. the Braves
@fishstripes/Twitter

Since defensive shifting began to surge in popularity across Major League Baseball around a decade ago, it’s been a lightning rod for constant debate. Do the benefits actually outweigh the risk of leaving—in some cases—an entire side the infield being left unguarded?

While fans and media are encouraged to form their own opinions, the decision-makers within MLB organizations seem to be on the same page.

Shifting has increased exponentially. You’ll see it from all 30 teams during the season and 24.0% of plate appearances overall, according to Baseball Savant.

As the size of analytics departments and the amount of data available to teams has grown, so has the frequency of employing the shift. This would point to the logical conclusion that the data is telling teams that employing a shift on a consistent basis pays off in the long term.

The breakdowns for 2018 are below, and with the exception of right-handed hitters facing left-handed pitchers, that theory would seem to be confirmed:

However, there has been a small decrease in the number of shifts employed across the league in the last couple of seasons. One reason for this could be that the payoff has leveled off a bit, and so teams are getting less aggressive with it. Another could be that the increased emphasis on roster versatility and athleticism has resulted in defenses that are able to cover more ground, lessening the need for more extreme positioning. Or perhaps hitters are having an influence by beginning to adjust their approach at the plate and consciously using the opposite field.

Marlins fans in 2019 have had a negative experience with the shift (under the direction of new first base/infield coach Trey Hillman). Simply from watching the games, there seem to have been several balls hit already that would have been outs under traditional circumstances, that have instead led to base hits and costly runs scored.

Once very reluctant to implement data-driven strategy under previous ownership, the Marlins enter Wednesday as MLB’s “shiftiest” team with a 51.6% shift rate. When facing left-handed batters, they overload the pull side of the infield with defenders 75.9% of the time (leading the league in that split), while doing it against righties more frequently than many other clubs as well (25.7%).

This is certainly an interesting departure from previous years, when beloved infield coach Perry Hill was mostly responsible for infield positioning. The Marlins employed very little extreme shifting overall, at a rate of 22.5% last year and only 8.5% in 2017. The team’s growing reliance on analytics was likely a factor in Hill being relieved of his duties (he now holds a similar job for the red-hot Seattle Mariners).

So, how has the shift been treating them? Prior to Tuesday’s BullChen disaster, the batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against the Marlins while employing a shift was .335. That’s compared to only .200 when deploying a more traditional defensive alignment. This makes them the fourth most “unlucky” team in the entire league to this point, ahead of only the Reds, Padres, and Giants.

Baseball Savant

For MLB overall, we see only a 13-point average variance in BABIP between shifting and not shifting, to this point in favor of not shifting. It is important to note, however, that these early 2019 results are a departure from previous years, which have shown BABIP results in favor of shifting—10+ points per season on average, dating back to 2012.

Despite indications that their luck will normalize eventually, it will be interesting to see how invested the Marlins are in this strategy if it continues failing them in critical situations.

My personal feeling is they should be a bit more selective with which batters they shift heavily against, particularly with runners on base. Overall, though, I am encouraged that the organization as a whole seems much more engaged in the analytics of the game, which will help them in many different areas going forward.