In 2012, less than five percent of batters throughout Major League Baseball faced a defensive shift when stepping to the plate. This number rose to 6.7 percent the next year, then to 11.8 percent, and all the way up to 19.5 percent in 2015. During the 2016 season, MLB teams have chosen to employ a defensive shift on over 28 percent of all plate appearances, a rate that is over five times higher than the mark just five seasons ago. What once was an occasional fielding gimmick has become a staple across the game.
The Detroit Tigers have shifted 19.4 percent of the time this season, which is just slightly lower than the rate they utilized last year. However, while the Tigers recorded the 12th highest shift rate in 2015, they have become a bottom-six shifting team in 2016. The Tigers have been content to stick with their traditional strategy while most other teams have upped their aggression with defensive formations. Is this the right decision?
The need for the shift
When playing a standard defensive alignment, the Tigers have not been great. Opponents are batting over .300 against them, and Detroit ranks near the bottom of the league in all main categories. Much of this has to do with sub-par defense, a narrative that has been beaten to death but still remains true. Though the Tigers have a top-five fielding percentage, advanced defensive metrics highlight the true state of the defense: the Tigers rank 23rd in ultimate zone rating (UZR) and 28th in defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2016.
Unfortunately, 80 percent of opposing batters do not face a shift when taking on the Tigers. While they produced slightly lower stats against standard formations in 2015, hitters for the most part have found success against a standard Detroit defense.
Picking their spots
When the Tigers do utilize the shift, good things happen. Opponents have a batting average, on-base percentage, and weighted on-base average (wOBA) under .300, and the Tigers rank in the top 10 among MLB teams in each of these categories. Their allowed slugging percentage on shifts is also very good, ranking as the seventh lowest. This is not a huge anomaly, as the Tigers showed similar effectiveness in 2015; Detroit ranked among the top-10 in all four stats last season.
The differences in results between standard defensive formations and shifts is very dramatic for the Tigers. They have the eighth-largest drop in average and on-base percentage, and the third-largest drop in slugging and wOBA. In other words, few teams show more improvement when utilizing the shift than the Tigers. This fact becomes a little puzzling when considering that the Tigers have not desired to increase their shift frequency from last season.
Quality over quantity
Of course, simply increasing the number of shifts used does not guarantee improved numbers. The Tigers only shift when they feel comfortable and have a set plan of when to do so. Shifting too often could open up holes in a shaky defense and bring about additional risks that could otherwise be avoided. There also is some benefit in being selective in their usage to maximize the effectiveness of the strategy.
Still, it would be nice to see the Tigers grow in their defensive maneuvering. Eighteen MLB teams have shifted on over 25 percent of opposing batters in 2016, and nine teams have shifted in over 30 percent of plate appearances. The Tigers may not need to become this drastic with their positioning, but considering their struggles with standard defensive formations and successes when utilizing a shift, there is a strong argument for Detroit to progress more in this area.