In Friday’s paper, we explored the growth of defensive shifts across the majors, how the Nationals have lagged behind other teams and how Manager Matt Williams wants to use them more to the team’s advantage in his first season at the helm. The story was meant to be a primer of sorts to readers who don’t know much about defensive shifts, in which the infield is moved, normally to the right side, based on the opposing hitter’s tendencies. During the spring, the Nationals have practiced shifts more than in the past, under the guidance of defensive coordinator/advance coach Mark Weidemaier, who was brought to Washington with shifts in mind.
Below are a handful of interesting tidbits that didn’t make the story that further explain shifts, the nuance involved and how they relate to the Nationals.
>>> How do you beat the shift? A bunt, right?
Defensive shifts are usually employed against left-handed pull hitters and not right-handed pull hitters. (Why? That’s too much to explain here.) So when teams shift against left-handed hitters and leave the left side of the infield open, one would think the best counterattack is for the hitter to drop down a bunt to that side. The play would be too hard for the third baseman, playing where the shortstop would, or the pitcher or catcher to make a play in time.
Well, bunting to beat the shift isn’t ideal and, in many cases, doesn’t make sense. Pull hitters are often power hitters, which usually means slower baserunners. Would Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard have enough bat control and, more importantly, speed to drop a bunt down the third base line and beat it out? And if he reaches base, he’s a slower baserunner.
Even if he successfully bunts to the left side for a hit, Howard kept the ball in the stadium and on the ground. And in the bandbox of Citizens Bank Park, sure, a ball on the ground is better than one in the air to right field. Sure, the Nationals will now have to deal with a baserunner, but a significantly slower one at that. And now, the Nationals have the opportunity to double up Howard.
>>> During the season, the Nationals may end up using Ryan Zimmerman as the extra infielder on the right side during a shift and not shortstop Ian Desmond. That’s because of comfort and the chance at a double play. Often, the entire infield would just shift to the right and the third baseman would become the shortstop. But Weidemaier likes Desmond to stay at his normal position because he’s used to play there and is used to turning double plays from that angle. An interesting fact, but it also shows the level of detail involved in the team’s planning.
>>> Inside Edge, a baseball scouting and data company, provided statistics for the story. Included in the data were some statistics about National League East opponents. Based on the 2013 numbers, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, Marlins first baseman Garrett Jones, Mets first baseman Ike Davis, Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche and Howard are the left-handed hitters most shifted against on each team in the league. Howard and LaRoche faced the most shifts of the group. Freeman was least likely to faced shifts of that group because he’s a better overall hitter — but there could be reason to shift against him more.
Based on the data, some teams have shifted on limited occasions against right-handed second baseman Dan Uggla of the Braves. The sample size is small, but Uggla notched two hits on 39 balls in play with the shifts (a .051 average) while he managed 56 hits on 296 balls in play without the shift (.189 average).
>>> The shift will backfire. The Nationals understand that, as do other teams. Houston Astros starter Lucas Harrell, whose team employs more frequent and radical shifts than most, voiced his displeasure at the team’s shifting following a start last season when he believed a hit ball could have been caught if a defender was in his original position. Famed baseball stats guru Bill James has even argued that extreme shifts aren’t useful against Red Sox slugger David Ortiz because the new plays being made are offset by the old plays that can’t be made anymore.
“It will help you and will still hurt you at times,” said Ben Jedlovec, a vice president at Baseball Info Solutions, another analytics company employed by some major league teams. “It’s a risk. It’s something different. Everyone in the organization has to be on the same page and be like that even with the hiccups.”
Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann alluded to those missed plays when talking about shifts. People, and the pitchers, will notice when it fails and it may be harder to shrug it off. Zimmermann has no issue with shifts against extreme pull hitters, but believes that a straight defensive alignment works well overall. It has served him well, too.
“I’m for whatever they want to do,” he said. “But I’m still going to pitch to my strengths.”
The same applies to catcher Wilson Ramos. He said he will keep the shift in mind when calling for pitches behind the plate, and will adjust the defensive alignment if needed. But he said he will continue crafting game plans for opposing lineups as he normally does. He won’t, for example, call for more sinkers just because the shift is on if it changes the pitcher’s approach.
“Behind the plate, as the defenders are moved, I’m going to keep calling the game the way we’ve done it, knowing the batter,” he said. “If I know the batter pulls, I’m not going to throw him inside pitches because that’s what he’s looking for. He’s going to hit it harder to that side. It’s about knowing the batter and keeping the correct sequence.”
>>> LaRoche, who has faced shifts throughout his career, made an interesting observation about shifts, too: He believes there’s a mental advantage to using them.
“One of the things with the shift, and it’s not really talked about, is what it does to a hitter,” he said. “When you’re a hitter that uses this side a lot, and you look over there and see that side of the infield stacked with defenders, it can get in your head a little bit. You can start thinking and start changing your swing to try to guide the ball. And when you do that, that’s pitcher advantage right there. It’s as much a psychological thing as a defensive alignment.”
>>> One last nugget of information I found interesting. Despite the wealth of data, Weidemaier still charts every batted ball and hit for every opposing hitter in his notebook during the game. By visualizing where the ball went, his recall is faster and he can plan the defense accordingly even quicker.
“I want to physically do it because when I come back to that hitter it’s fresher,” he said. “It’s right there during the game. Boom.”