One of the interesting things about baseball is that, even though the game has been around for over a century, there are always new ideas about how to win the game. A recent si.com article talked about the extreme defensive shifts the Milwaukee Brewers employ based on both left-handed and right-handed batters’ tendencies to pull the ball. The strategy undoubtedly had an effect on the Nationals series against the Brewers, providing evidence that it doesn’t always work. The point of the Brewers’ strategy isn’t that it works all the time, but that it works on average. The Sports Illustrated article did a good job of analyzing the reasons for and against right-handed shifts, so let’s take a look at whether it’s had any effect on the Brewers’ fielding statistics early this season. Since, this is a Nationals blog, let’s also compare the Brewers stats to the Nats, who employ a more traditional defensive alignment most of the time.
Now, there are probably way too many variables and too small of a data set to really to determine a true cause and effect relationship between extreme shifts and defensive statistics. For a true analysis, we’d want years of data with different players involved. That being said, although the Brewers have been a pretty good defensive team, it doesn’t seem like the strategic shifts have put them head and shoulders above the rest of baseball. You might expect a team that shifts strategically to have a lower batting average on balls in play. Think of it as the inverse of “hitting them where they ain’t.” However, the Brewers are in the middle of the pack, ranking 16th in the majors at .288.
The advanced statistics show the Brewers are an above-average defensive team and those numbers have been decomposed to look at the only part of defense that we’re concerned about in this analysis, and that’s range. It stands to reason if players are shifted to areas where batters hit the ball most, they get to more batted balls and therefore have better range. The Brewers are sixth in the majors in The Fielding Bible’s Plus/Minus Runs Saved which measures range and seventh in Ultimate Zone Rating’s range component.
It’s interesting at least to note that the Nationals are the fourth-worst team in baseball according to UZR’s range component, and sixth-worst in Plus/Minus. The comparison is not worth much at this point, but the numbers are interesting standing alone. The Nationals, who were supposed to be much improved this year on defense have not been. The Nats had a UZR of 4.8 last season and are on pace for -3.3 UZR in 150 games this season. Also, defensive range was supposed to be the improved component with the additions of LaRoche and Werth.
Also, the Brewers new strategy was employed by Ron Roenicke, their new manager this season. They were 6th worst in baseball in Plus/Minus and 16th in UZR range, so they have improved range-wise with a new strategy and many of the same players, for what it’s worth.