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The Rockies are 'more relaxed' with infield shifts, but players remain skeptical

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Arizona Diamondbacks v Colorado Rockies Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The infield shift is evolving, and the Rockies are evolving along with it.

When I first wrote about the Rockies and the shift in April 2014 (about the 2013 season), I concluded that while the Rockies didn’t shift very much the previous year, they still did pretty well at turning groundballs into outs. That was because they had great defenders: Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado on the left side, and DJ LeMahieu (for most of the season) and Todd Helton on the right. That didn’t mean that the Rockies should disregard shifting; it only meant that the Rockies’ infield defense was good even without the shift.

I argued more or less the same at the beginning of 2015 about the 2014 season. In both cases, I also suggested that the Rockies should be shifting more, despite evidence that they already defended groundballs well. On the whole, the articles endorsed the shift while admitting that the strategy offered a marginal gain, especially for the Rockies.

The Rockies have since become one of the shiftiest teams in baseball. In 2013, the dataset I used for the first article, the Rockies had 177 shifts recorded for balls in play (traditional and non-traditional shifts, the definitions of which can be found here; the data is only for balls hit into play, so it does not account for plays in which the shift was on and the player walked, struck out, or hit a home run). That ranked 23 out of 30 major-league teams. The Rockies only shifted a few more times in 2014, 192, which ranked last in baseball.

The dramatic change came in 2015, when the Rockies shifted 1,252 times, the fourth most in baseball. In 2015, the Rockies shifted about 6½ times more than they did in 2014. So far in 2016, the Rockies are again among the leaders in shifts. Through Saturday, the Rockies have 458 shifts (again, only balls in play are recorded), good for fourth in baseball.

We’re beyond the point where enacting the shift is a self-evident positive reflective of a team's progressive thinking, and we’re well beyond the point where “more shifts” is even an argument. When I prompted the Rockies to shift more, despite the already good defense against groundballs and the small gains it would bring, part of it was the desire for the team I follow most closely to be counted among the “smart ones.” That’s why it was so gratifying to see the Rockies near the top of the shift "leaderboard" in 2015. In 2016, it’s less gratifying. While it should have been clear before, it is now obvious that "the shift" is not a strategy that benefits a team simply by virtue of its implementation; rather, it is an approach that has to be refined and applied within contexts subject to change.

The shift should be employed selectively, and it is imperative to understand and address any skepticism that might exist among those responsible for doing the shifting. While the Rockies are shifting a lot, there are indications that they no longer view it as a blanket approach. They are thinking with the evolution of the shift. But the Rockies still face more difficult challenges. Namely, some players remain skeptical, and remaining hesitancy with regard to the shift could have unintended consequences.

A case study in selective shifting: Derek Norris

The shift is a strategy that has yielded a counterstrategy—as strategies do roughly 100 percent of the time. There are consequences for shifting, and some of them might be unexpected. Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus writes, "we need to stop pretending that when you push a button, all of the other buttons stay the same."

The Rockies appear to be paying attention to some of the other buttons. One of the ways in which the Rockies are adapting the shift is by understanding how some batters might be adjusting to it.

One of those hitters is Derek Norris. In 2013 and 2014, Norris caught for the A’s, and he was one of the better hitting catchers in the American League, despite the tough hitting environment in Oakland. Since getting traded to the Padres prior to the 2015 season, Norris’s offense has been down. He was roughly league average in 2015, and he’s well below average so far this season. Norris found success by being a pull hitter. From his time with the A’s through last season, Norris had a pull percentage over 40 percent, and only about 20 percent of his batted balls went to the opposite field. It’s an approach that lends itself to shifting. Those tendencies roughly map onto David Ortiz’s profile, and defenses have long shifted Ortiz.

While the sample remains small, Norris’s batted ball profile has changed in 2016. So far this season, Norris has pulled 34.4 percent of his balls in play, which is the lowest of his career and ten percentage points lower than his career average. At the same time, he’s gone the other way 36.6 percent of the time, which is a career high by far and 14 percentage points higher than his career average.

The Rockies noticed these changes early. When the Padres were in Denver for Coors Field's opening weekend in April, I asked DJ LeMahieu about the differences between the shift this year compared to last. He indicated that while Norris had previously been profiled as a dead pull hitter, the Rockies determined that he’s been going the other way more early in the season. In the series, the Rockies “already took away the shift on Norris.” In the first week of the season, the Rockies noticed a change in Norris that has persisted since.

The more directed approach is part of a broader change this season. LeMahieu asserted that the team is more “relaxed” this year with shifting.

“Last year it was a very strict shift,” LeMahieu averred. It was an absolute approach, but the unconditional shift could be viewed as a necessary first step. Regardless, it fell short because it wasn’t flexible enough. LeMahieu became more animated: “no matter what happened in the game we were going to do that shift.” This year, he feels that “we’re using our instincts a little bit better along with the numbers.”

The intuition they are following, according to LeMahieu, is two-fold. This is where the Rockies might be separating themselves from other shifting teams. First, he indicated that they are modifying the shift for their pitchers. LeMahieu identified four- and two-seam fastballers as two types of pitchers who require different defensive alignments. As long as the shift is conforming to the pitcher, not the other way around, the pointed approach they are taking is a sound strategy.

At Baseball Prospectus, Russell Carleton argues that the obverse, adjusting a pitcher's approach in order to fit the shift, ends up allowing more hits (though fewer total bases). In other words, they might be pitching to the strengths of the shift instead of pitching to their own strengths. Based on what LeMahieu told me, the Rockies don't appear to be doing that. If they are, they shouldn't.

The other instinct LeMahieu identified emerges from advanced scouting of the batter to complement the pitcher and defensive alignment. Batters change over time, and they also adjust. This combination shaped the team’s approach to Norris in 2016.

While we don’t have Norris’s batted ball profile limited to the first week of the season, which is when I spoke to LeMahieu, it is perhaps even more convincing that this early observation has held since then. The charts below show Norris’s singles on the left and groundballs on the right—the types of hits the shift is designed to guard against. He’s spraying the ball more than he has in the past, but he’s not finding hits.

Via FanGraphs

It’s possible that Norris is just in a slump, although his batted ball profile is different enough from his career norms to suggest that it’s something more. Another possibility is that he’s losing bat speed, although Norris is only 27, so he hasn't reach the age where bat speed decline is expected. If he is consciously changing his approach to beat the shift, it’s not really working.

Finally, there is growing evidence that Derek Norris is the type of hitter that teams shouldn't shift. Matt Jackson of Beyond the Box Score shows that the shift is a net positive for some of the extreme pull hitters in baseball, such as Ryan Howard and David Ortiz; however, applying the shift in too many batters dampens the advantages. At ESPN, Eno Sarris, for ESPN, writes that Jed Lowrie and Kyle Seager have responded to the shift in different ways. Lowrie, who is not a power hitter, has started hitting to the opposite field more, and has found it effective. When Seager tried it, his new approach sapped his power. He returned to playing to his strengths. Norris doesn’t fit either mold. He’s not the power hitter Seager is, so the modified batting approach might make sense; however, he’s not having the success that Lowrie is based on adjustments (if Norris is in fact making adjustments for the shift).

Either way, it looks like the Rockies noticed something real about Norris early on and re-strategized the shift. That is exactly what they should be doing.

The long process of normalization

There’s another, more difficult, bridge to cross. Even with all of the shifts, the Rockies infielders are still not completely sold on it. With more time will come more acclimation, but there are other walls that are more difficult to breach. While taking advantage of instincts is a good strategy in the big picture, too many shifts might sap a player’s instincts within the game.

LeMahieu and Arenado, both holdovers from last year’s massive increase in shifting, are more comfortable with the shift in 2016. Part of the reason is because they expected it. Last year, the Rockies didn’t start shifting, according to LeMahieu, “until the last day of spring training.” It took a couple months for the team to get used to it. “We’re a little bit more ready for it,” LeMahieu professed.

In this respect, the shift could be viewed as an experiment, similar to the raised outfield walls. While he wouldn’t say this publicly, perhaps Jeff Bridich saw a 2015 squad that had an extremely slim chance to compete, so he experimented with something. This might also explain the mechanical way the Rockies used the shift. A refined sculpture has to start with an unshaped slab of stone. In the same way, a comprehensive application might have conditioned 2016’s flexibility.

Regarding the difference between 2015 and 2016, Arenado’s response was more mixed than LeMahieu’s. Initially, he indicated that the shift has “become pretty routine”—but “it used to be kind of weird.” “Weird” is a significant word because it’s the converse of “normal.” As long as players think of the shift in terms of “weirdness,” there is going to be unease. More than player acclimation, the shift will truly be ingrained within an organization when it is normalized. Arenado gave a limp assessment of the shift: “it is what it is;” “I’m on and off about it;” “it’s a weird thing.”

Tellingly, Arenado framed the shift as something that the he and the infield are in competition with—a strategy that can beat the team. Ultimately, Arenado acknowledge that the shift has “helped us a lot.” But when someone like Kemp gets a hit, it’s an example of the team getting “beat[en] by it.” If players view the shift, rather than the batter, as the agent that defeated the pitcher and defense, it’s a sign that the normalization process is incomplete.

Like LeMahieu, Arenado referred to an instinctual approach to the shift, but unlike LeMahieu, he didn’t acknowledge the integrated approach of scouting and stats. His example was Matt Kemp, who has a roughly 40/20 pull/opposite field profile that resembles Derek Norris. Arenado stated that Kemp “stays inside the baseball,” which would allow him to muscle inside pitches the other way. Arenado’s intuition appears to tell him not to shift Kemp.

The Rockies started from behind with LeMahieu and Arenado.

They began shifting while both players were already major-leaguers. Normalization is a long-term process that has to start in the minor leagues. It was different for Trevor Story. Part of the 2015 sea change involved wider implementation of the shift throughout the system. Story stated that he experienced the shift a little bit in Double-A—“it was a little weird at first but after a while you get used to it”—but that it was deployed more frequently while he was at Triple-A in 2016. Indeed, each Rockies affiliate uses the shift in games. Purple Row’s Bobby DeMuro, who spent several weeks in Arizona during spring training, stated that the affiliates practiced the shift a lot during spring.

This is the way to normalize something—to get to the point where not shifting is weird.

"That's what the report says"

There’s another consequence of the shift that normalization might not be able to solve. Namely, the shift risks robotizing players. It might help turn some groundballs into outs, but while doing so it might also hollow players of an emotional connection with their play. Recently, Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus suggested this with an illustrative analogy worth quoting in full:

I have a chess app on my phone that I'll occasionally play, but it has a little button that I've come to have a love/hate relationship with. The button is a little light bulb (I think it's supposed to represent “give me an idea”) that suggests a potential move that I might make. Seeing that I'm not much of a player, I find myself hitting that button a lot. Worse than that, I find myself saying, “yeah, sure, I'll make that move.” Do that enough times, and suddenly I realize that I didn't actually play that game. It was the computer playing itself with me as the intermediary. Even if I win, it's something of an empty victory. I didn't come up with those ideas.

I have to imagine that there's a certain resistance along the same lines for the second baseman who finds himself in short right field making what has suddenly become a routine ground-ball play. Sure, he made the play and the batter is out and that's a good thing for his team, but he might be asking himself, “Why am I even out here?” Even if he understands it intellectually, there's probably a bad taste in his mouth. If he had made an amazing play because he had worked on his fielding drills more in the offseason or done some agility work to improve his range, the extra play would have felt good. Even though we should probably credit the coaches or trainers that he worked with some, it's pretty obvious where the on-the-field credit goes. If he makes an easy play that is easy because some computer told him to stand there, is he merely a pawn in the game to be moved around?

Seeking to find out whether or not players had this response to the shift, I posed a series of questions to LeMahieu, Arenado, and Story. The goal was to determine if there was a gratification gap between turning balls in play into outs with and without the shift. I asked them to rate their personal satisfaction, from 1 to 10, for different in-game scenarios: a routine groundball turned into an out while playing straight-up, a routine groundball turned into an out while in the shift, a high-effort play turned into an out while playing straight up, and a high-effort play turned into an out while in the shift. Before presenting the scenarios, I acknowledged that the team is ultimately the most important thing, but that doesn’t mitigate a natural response of personal satisfaction. (In hindsight, I should have asked what is “more or less satisfying” rather than the number scale, but the responses can still be mapped onto the “more or less” scale.)

LeMahieu viewed routine groundballs as equally satisfying, regardless of whether or not the shift is on. He gave them a both a 5, which I take to be equivalent to “great because it’s an out, but ho-hum otherwise.”

It's notable that while he viewed routine outs the same, LeMahieu suggested that there is a difference between high-effort plays with or without the shift. He rated a high-effort play while in the shift an 8. When I asked him about high-effort plays without the shift, he provided the quickest response I got from anyone: “10.”

LeMahieu’s swift response could have been due to him becoming familiar with my questioning, but it still stood out. Regardless, the answer indicated higher satisfaction for a high-effort play without than shift than with it. He, not the integration of scouting and stats to create a more precise execution of a shifted defense, is the primary agent of the positive outcome.

Story’s responses were similar, but they differed in one respect. Story didn’t equate the personal satisfaction of routine groundballs. He rated a regular out while playing straight-up a 7 of personal satisfaction, but he pegged a routine out with the shift an 8. One way to interpret this small distinction is that Story views an out because of the shift as beating the hitter and his tendencies. It’s more satisfying because it’s a smarter approach. And yet, like LeMahieu, he rated the high-effort plays without the shift higher, a 10, than a high-effort play with the shift on, which he gave an “8 or 9.”

Story shed additional light on why this might be. “It depends on where it’s hit,” he admitted and continued, “if it was hit where I would have been (playing straight-up), it would be different.” Another way of reading this is “if it was hit where I normally play,” there is less satisfaction. In other words, high-effort plays that bring him back to traditional positioning, even if they turn into an out, are less rewarding than high-effort plays that began in the traditional spot. It’s as if the effort is compensates for the shift and is necessary in order to make sure that the shift doesn’t beat the infield.

Arenado was most resistant to attaching numbers to personal satisfaction, but his responses are still revealing. He characterized a routine groundball without the shift as “ideal regular old baseball”—something that is extremely satisfying because everyone succeeded in making an out.

Arenado waffled in response to the routine play. First, he described it as “more satisfying because of the shift,” but then he conceded that many shifts require that he play in the traditional shortstop position. It would be an out anyhow, so the personal satisfaction would also remain the same. Regarding high-effort plays, Arenado responded with the significance of turning all groundballs into outs so as to support the pitcher. While those responses didn’t get me closer to an answer about the potentially robotic consequences of the shift, something else Arenado told me did: “Sometimes we don’t really like to do it, but at the same time we got to because that’s what the report says.”

"That's what the report says." It’s not surprising to hear Arenado say this. He’s the quintessential instinctual defender, and he plays like he believes that he can make every play within his vicinity, and some outside of it. He knows that shifts help, but he also plays as if he doesn’t need any help. If Arenado feels the same gratification gap that LeMahieu and Story also expressed—if Arenado ever has the “why am I here?” thought on the field while in the shift—it might blunt Arenado’s instinctual edge, if only a little.

The Rockies and the infield shift in 2016

The Rockies are probably in as good of a place as they can be right now with regard to the shift. The shift is evolving because batters are adapting to it, but the Rockies are also changing their approach. They don’t seem to be trying to change their pitchers in order to work for the shift instead of working for an out. Failed experiments to get Rockies pitchers to mold themselves to Coors Field might have contributed to this position. Rather, Rockies infielders suggest that the shift is being modified to fit the context of the pitcher-batter matchup.

The barriers that remain—persistent discomfort and the unknown consequences of subtly denaturalizing defenders—can likely be changed over time with increased normalization. But that won’t happen until the current infield personnel either plays somewhere else or, more likely, has retired.

In the midst of it all, there’s evidence that the shift, in aggregate and as currently employed, is not all that effective. The Rockies might be among the teams deploying it well. Based on what LeMahieu, Arenado, and Story expressed above, there are some encouraging signs that they are.

The conclusion we’re left with is a curious inverse of previous analyses: the shift provides marginal gains and losses, and while either of these might add up to produce something substantial, the abundance of shifts the Rockies have been using, at least, aren’t damaging.