Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper, owner of a new $330 million contract, stepped up to the plate during a spring training game against the Toronto Blue Jays and saw something he had never seen before: a four-man outfield. Blue Jays Manager Charlie Montoyo moved his third baseman to left field and stationed players in left field, left-center, right-center and right field. All three of the remaining infielders stood to the right of second base, leaving the entire left side of the infield unprotected, literally daring Harper to hit the ball to the opposite field.
“I’ve never seen that. That’s intense,” Harper told reporters after the March 9 game. “If they start playing ball like that, it’s definitely different.”
Turns out it wasn’t so different, because the Tampa Bay Rays employed the exact same strategy against Harper two days later.
The defensive shift isn’t new. The alignment first surfaced in the 1920s as a way to neutralize left-handed Phillies slugger Cy Williams. It became famous in the 1940s when Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau put six fielders on the right side of second base against Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, a strategy that became known as the “Ted Williams shift.” Recently, however, its use has exploded: In 2018, there were 40,730 plate appearances featuring a defensive shift compared to 33,218 in 2017 and just 14,972 five years ago in 2014. Some, such as Kansas City Royals Manager Ned Yost, have voiced skepticism of its benefits, even calling for it to be banned altogether from the sport, yet that didn’t stop even Yost’s club from using it 1,710 times last season, the fifth most in baseball.
Shifts deploying four players in the outfield, however, are rare. According to MLB’s Statcast data, teams used a four-man outfield 59 times against 15 batters last season. It was effective: Batters hit .186 against the alignment with a .339 slugging percentage. Harper was not one of the 15 hitters who saw the unorthodox strategy in 2018 but he did face a shift 288 times last season, the 16th most among hitters qualifying for the batting title. And that reduced Harper’s overall weighted on-base average, a metric that combines all of the different aspects of hitting into one number, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value, from .416 in 2017 to .376 in 2018; league average wOBA is .315.
Shifting against Harper makes a lot of sense. The 26-year-old pulled the ball a career-high 42 percent of the time last season with the frequency of pulled groundballs rising from 47 percent in 2017 to 62 percent in 2018. Meanwhile, his batting average on those pulled grounders plummeted from .354 to .198 over that same span. His slugging percentage had a similar drop from .417 to .253.
One tactic Harper could use against the shift is to bunt, but that would rob him of his power, a trait Phillies Manager Gabe Kapler isn’t ready to cede, telling his new slugger to ignore the shift.
“Hit a lot of homers. Drive the ball like you’re capable of. Do exactly what you always do. Be Bryce Harper,” Kapler said.
Kapler should have added “maintain your patience at the plate” to that list. Harper was walked in 19 percent of his plate appearances last season, second only to Mike Trout, and he should see that increase if teams decide to shift against him more aggressively. Research by MLB.com’s Mike Petriello shows that the shift is good at lowering the impact of balls put in play (BABIP is reduced from .299 against standard defensive alignments to .281 against defensive shifts), but it also increases the rate of walks issued by pitchers (9.8 percent vs. 9 percent against the shift), perhaps negating any significant effects of baseball’s newest tactic. Russell A. Carleton of Baseball Prospectus found the shift eliminated 493 singles from 2015 to 2017 but put 574 men on base via walks, making the shift a net negative in terms of runners on base.
An increase in Harper’s walk rate might suppress his overall power numbers but could be a boon for the rest of the Phillies lineup, which includes J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura and Rhys Hoskins, four players expected to drive in 60 runs or more in 2019.