The use of radical defensive alignments has been a tactical revolution in baseball over the last half decade. Teams like the Pirates, Rays and Astros have pioneered the way, attempting to streamline their run prevention with groundballs and spray charts. While the Tigers under Dave Dombrowski were slow to adapt, major strides were finally made last season. The new front office under Al Avila seems likely to push things to the next level in 2016.
The statistics gurus over at Baseball Info Solutions have recently partnered with Fangraphs to provide data on defensive shifts ranging back to 2010. And the results are pretty interesting. They show the Tigers' initial resistance to using shifts under Jim Leyland. They also show the growing deployment of alignments customized to the pitcher and hitter under Brad Ausmus. That trend accelerated in a big way in 2015, and is primed to continue this season.
Defining the many forms of defensive shifts
Baseball Info Solution defines two basic categories of shift. A traditional shift is basically what we've become accustomed to seeing over the past few seasons against left-handed hitters with strong pull tendencies in their ground ball profile. Baseball Info Solutions defines the different variants as follows.
1) If there are 3 infielders playing on one side of the infield, we consider that a Full Ted Williams Shift.
2) If two players are positioned significantly out of their normal position, we consider that a Partial Ted Williams Shift.
3) If one infielder is playing deep into the outfield (Usually the 2B 10+ feet out into right field), we consider that a Partial Ted Williams Shift. If the 2B is only a few steps into the outfield, that does not count.
Non-traditional shifts are situational shifts not covered under the definition of traditional shifts.
The Houston Astros have used shifts more than anyone in baseball recently. The Astros' front-office has quickly gained a reputation over the past few seasons as one of the more forward thinking and innovative in the game. As they worked through a painfully slow rebuild in 2013-2014, they took the opportunity to experiment with new approaches in numerous areas, from defensive alignments to pitcher injury prediction. The ability to innovate under conditions of very low expectations may be reflected in what we saw from the Tigers in 2015.
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The Tigers ranked 10th in total shifts, using them against 853 batters in 2015. In both 2013 and 2014, the Tigers were well behind the curve here, ranking 25th in total shifts in both seasons. This represents a significant change in direction for the Tigers' use of batted ball data to align their defense. The Tigers committed to the shift in a big way last season.
Unfortunately, the pitching staff last year was either too banged up, or just plain bad, to reap any tangible benefits. One wonders if the struggles of the pitching staff, and the team generally, weren't a bit of a lease for Ausmus to experiment as well. Whether it was the change of general manager or simply Ausmus feeling free to just try some thingsBeing able to split this data before and after the trade deadline might indicate a clear departure in the attitudes of former GM Dave Dombrowski as compared to Avila as well.
Since most shifts are a tool for limiting left-handed hitters who pull the ball on the ground, a decrease in BABIP of almost .20 to the pull field is a decent argument for their effectiveness. Nothing takes the place of good pitching and good defenders. But used in concert with those skills, the shift is an edge teams shouldn't overlook.
The Tigers led in non-traditional shifts in 2015
Perhaps the most tantalizing bit of data here, is also the most difficult piece to unpack. The Tigers were first in all baseball in their use of non-traditional, situational shifts last season, registering such a move against 333 batters. That seems promising, and with new GM Al Avila beefing up the Tigers' analytics department substantially this offseason, it will be interesting to see if that continues.
The question though, is what exactly does the term "non-traditional, situational shift" refer to? I can't help but think the Tigers' use of Nick Castellanos as almost a rover, playing in shallow right field near the line to prevent doubles, possibly qualifies. Typically teams will position a fielder just into the outfield grass between first and second base. There's also the likelihood that this refers to the Tigers shifting in certain counts against the hitter, and not others. Still, it's a bit of a quandary trying to pick out exactly what unique alignments counted as non-traditional. That will be something to look for this season.
The Tigers currently have three distinct groundball pitchers in their starting rotation. Anibal Sanchez, Shane Greene, and especially Mike Pelfrey, should benefit substantially from the Tigers more aggressive approach with defensive shifts. We can speculate that a greater reliance on batted ball data, and a newly empowered analytics department, should continue the trend we saw develop last season.
When will we hit peak shift?
At a certain point, hitters may be valued a little more on their ability to spray the ball around the field. Certainly the better hitters will thrive regardless of increased attempts to thwart them with defense tailored to them. Victor Martinez, for example, isn't going to be stopped by three infielders on the right side of the infield. Likewise, power hitters like Chris Davis or Bryce Harper may take a little hit to their average, but there's no defense beyond the outfield walls. Lesser hitters, however, may suffer disproportionately if they can't adapt.
Baseball is a game of adjustments, and eventually offenses are going to compensate more effectively to the new defensive alignments. However, the fact that so many teams have yet to really embrace the shift defensively still indicates that we're not there yet.
Where the Tigers are concerned, the lineup raises a point regular BYB reader, Robert Lohman, first raised this offseason. The Tigers are one of the most right-handed heavy lineups in all of baseball. While this may at times present difficulties against the best right-handed pitching, it also makes the Tigers' regular lineup virtually shift proof outside of Victor Martinez. And Martinez' quality of contact and line drive rates already limit the effectiveness of any shift against him.
The Tigers are finally in an excellent position to capitalize on the new defensive paradigm. They're once again quite unlikely to suffer much from it.