WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Tim Bogar has heard the Washington Nationals don’t shift enough and that, if you take a wide view of their defensive positioning, they are behind.
Bogar is the Nationals’ first base coach and oversees the infield. Opinions on Washington’s shifting habits are directly aimed at his work. And he disagrees with most of them.
“This is kind of a subject, I wouldn’t say it’s sore, but I think it’s a subject people don’t always understand,” Bogar said in early March. “I think we shift every guy that hits. We just don’t overshift. So what people don’t see is that we don’t always put three guys on a side, and that’s the only time it gets counted as a shift."
That last part is not up for debate. MLB Statcast counts a shift as any time three infielders are on one side of second base, and that metric shapes the perception of how meticulous each team is with its defensive positioning. There are flaws in that. The Nationals ranked 22nd in total shifting last season, doing so on 12.7 percent of defensive plays, but Bogar insists they move every at-bat based on analytics, matchups and pitcher tendencies depending on the count. The Nationals rank 20th in shifts for right-handed hitters (4.5 percent) and 21st for lefties (23.5).
Based on what Statcast offers, there is a gulf between teams that shift a lot and teams that don’t. The Houston Astros did most frequently in 2018, at 37.4 percent, while the next closest team was the Tampa Bay Rays at an even 30 percent. The Los Angeles Angels, conversely, were lowest in the league at 3.4 percent and did not shift for a right-handed hitter all season. The Astros did that 720 times. The Nationals did on 153 occasions. But teams don’t otherwise have their four infielders in set positions, and the numbers don’t account for that.
What does it all mean? A team that shifts a lot will insist internal analytics make it another part of their winning formula. A team that doesn’t probably will push back on the concept and, maybe, make a vague reference to numbers of their own. There is no clear tie between shifting and success or even shifting and defensive success. The World Series champion Boston Red Sox, winners of 108 games in 2018, were around league average when it came to shifting. The Nationals were below average — or above average if you’re against the shift — leading some to suggest they have been slow to baseball’s analytics movement. Bogar doesn’t see it that way.
“So you look at the numbers, I think we were 22nd in shifting last year, I think that’s because we were 22nd in what I would call ‘overshifting,’ but the positioning of our players isn’t the standard,” he said. “But what people take that as is that we are straight up. There is a ton of middle ground. The bottom line is even spacing for us, and if that means putting two guys on one side, then we do that. If it doesn’t and we need to cover the middle of the field, it doesn’t look like an overshift, but we’re shifting nonetheless.”
The Nationals, more than anything, want to shift smarter as they look for sharp defensive improvements this season. They had one of the league’s worst defenses last year — which both they and analytics acknowledge — and better positioning only can help. Manager Dave Martinez noted that Washington wants to be more deliberate with positioning in two-strike counts, whether that means easing a shift or moving infielders based on a hitter’s splits. Martinez sees a lot of batters shortening up and going the opposite way with two strikes and doesn’t want to get beaten in a shift that doesn’t adjust. Statcast doesn’t keep track of count-by-count defensive positioning.
After that, Martinez suggested the Nationals need to be careful about shifting with certain pitchers. He mentioned Patrick Corbin getting a lot of groundouts. Stephen Strasburg, Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson also induce more groundballs than flyballs. There is an underlying belief that pitchers don’t like the shift, especially when a hit goes where a fielder would normally be, and Martinez may have that to consider, too, as he handles a veteran staff.
“You want to compete and the shift is part of the game right now,” Sanchez said. “That doesn’t matter to me.”
Throughout the spring, the Nationals have practiced what Bogar calls “even spacing” or “strategic positioning.” The Nationals have shifted every so often during exhibitions, by Statcast’s definition, but almost always have shaded their shortstop or second baseman close to the middle of the field (the shortstop against left-handed hitters, and the second baseman against right-handed hitters). That’s why Bogar doesn’t like shifts as a statistic or the word “shift” at all, because he believes the Nationals are adjusting all the time.
So will they shift more in the coming season?
"Shifting, well . . . it’s positioning that is important,” Bogar said. “That’s why I don’t talk about shifting. It’s not shifting. It’s positioning. We position where we’re going to catch the most balls.”
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