One of the best (or worst depending on your viewpoint) parts of baseball is incredible amount of data we now get. From how many times a Rich Hill curve spins to how fast your Billies are, we can put a number to just about everything that happens on the baseball field.
Over the past few weeks, we've been given even more. FanGraphs has released shift data, allowing us to dive into baseball's hottest trend of putting infielders where they don't belong, not including putting Marcus Semien at shortstop in early 2015. A shift isn't just a button on your keyboard that turns Billy Burns into Billy Butler, it's a way to hopefully give your team a defensive advantage by positioning your infielders where you anticipate the ball will be hit.
What information do we have?
FanGraphs has an excellent explainer page, but to summarize a few key points:
-Shifts are only recorded when the ball has been hit in play. So, if a team shifts to put all 7 fielders in the rightfield bleachers but the batter strikes out, that won't show up in the data.
-There are two shift types listed, traditional and non-traditional. The first refers to most all shifts (duh), specifically referring to those where three infielders are on one side of the diamond. The latter refers to those crazy ones, say if a team were to put all four infielders on one side of second base.
How often do the A's shift?
Since 2010, the first season in which this data is available, the A's are ninth in baseball in total defensive shifts executed. That includes both traditional and non-traditional shifts, and the A's have faced a total 2,385 batters in that span. Here's a list of how often the A's have shifted as well as where they ranked in the league.
|Year||Batters faced in shifted position||Rank|
Gives you a good idea of just how much shifting has risen at a pretty astronomical rate.
The Rays are first overall, shifting an astounding 4,211 times, over a thousand shifts more than third place Baltimore. This lends credence to the idea that Joe Maddon is a really, really good manager as he and the Rays were at the forefront of the shift revolution.
How often does the rest of the AL West shift? The Astros have shifted the second most, just behind the Rays with 4,154 shifts since 2010. It should be noted that these two teams are way, way ahead of the rest of the league. The Astros are notoriously progressive and were also lightspeed terrible when shifts started to take off, so it makes sense they were trying weird things to avoid that 112th loss.
The Angels rank 15th in total shifts because they are unremarkable in every sense. The Mariners are 17th while the Rangers are 12th. Those three teams all work out to be right around average in terms of total shifts.
How has shifting affected the A's run prevention?
Fun fact: the A's have pitched really well since 2010. Overall, their 3.61 ERA is 6th best in baseball in that time even with the existence of Jim Johnson. The friendly and spacious confines of the Coliseum have certainly helped, but regardless, we've been treated to excellent pitching so far this decade.
How have the A's done when employing the shift? As it stands, we have limited numbers to work with on a team level to go along with my limited cognitive ability. BABIP is a good place to start as ostensibly, the shift is implemented to prevent groundballs from becoming hits. It's not a perfect measurement as BABIP extends far beyond groundballs, but it gives us some indication of how the shift is working. The A's overall BABIP against since 2010 is .280, well below league average and coming in ranked 2nd lowest for that span. Only the Rays .279 BABIP is lower and as you might remember from above, they've led the league in shifts. So, probably some relationship there.
Interestingly, opposing hitters aren't seeing a change in BABIP as the A's have shifted. The A's BABIP against when they are shifting is .280. When they aren't, it's also .280. Talk about consistency!
Without shifts, hitters have a wOBA of .275 against the A's and with the shift on, that number increases by the tiniest amount to .276.
That might sound like shifts aren't doing much for the A's, but there are a lot of factors at play. For one, shifts only really matter on groundballs, so anything hit in the air is really just creating noise for the BABIP numbers above. Shifts are more likely to occur with better, more powerful hitters up, so while the A's numbers aren't different, keeping their level of run prevention against likely better hitters might be a good thing.
How often have teams shifted against the A's and how have the A's done?
The A's have seen shifts the 6th most in baseball over the past 6 seasons. A total of 2542 plate appearances have ended with the shift in effect, and the A's have done pretty well considering. Their 93 wRC+ against the shift ranks sixth in baseball, better than most teams who struggle to approach anything near average. The A's have a BABIP of .306 against the shift and a BABIP of .284 against normal defensive alignments, suggesting the A's have found ways to get basehits even with an overloaded infield.
What does it all mean?
There are some great pieces out there diving into the shift statistics more in depth, and if you like baseball numbers I'd recommend giving them a read. Reading about shift related BABIP on groundballs is some next level baseball nerd shit, but it can be quite interesting. There are sure to be more articles breaking shift data down, and some of those will be specific to the A's. When those come around, we'll be sure to keep you updated!