Inside Pitch Magazine, Spring 2015

The Hot Corner: The Shift is On!

 By Scott Patrick
Diamond Chart

Many collegiate teams are employing Diamond Charts, a company that has streamlined the process of creating spray charts at the NCAA level. During their first season last year, more than one-third of Division-I programs used Diamond Charts, who sends spray charts of clients’ opponents each week during the season. Included in the charts are left and right split sprays, pitcher per plate appearances, ground ball-to-fly ball ratios and more.

Diamond Charts Founder Kellen Hurst shared his thoughts on defensive shifts with Inside Pitch:

“As shifts prove to significantly reduce the BABIP [batting average on balls in play] of dramatic pull hitters at the major league level, we envision college teams slowly adopting these more aggressive shifting methods. However, due to lack of pitcher command at our level, dramatic defensive shifts will be used less. Other factors (e.g. runners on-base, hitter speed, bunting ability) should be considered when deciding to dramatically shift or not. I think the ultimate future for dramatic defensive shifts in college baseball is that it will be used sparingly for only a select few players, similar to what we've seen recently."

“We’re continuing to grow approaching the 2015 season.  Our system is more focused on saving coaches’ valuable time while preparing scouting reports as we provide data to help make more decisions than simple shifts; our data helps with areas such as pitching strategy, hitting approach, platoon/substitution match-ups, game strategy, and more; however, we have had feedback that marginal shifts, against certain players, have shown to gain a couple of outs each game.  Sometimes this is the difference in one-run games.”

There are a wide range of opinions out there when it comes to shuffling the defensive deck, including some who wonder if shifts should be allowed at all. MLB Reports chief writer Hunter Stokes is calling for a rule that prevents the third baseman and shortstop from being able to shift to the other side of second base (and vice versa). “With the new approach of the players not caring about strikeouts,” Stokes adds, “it would cause them to make an out on a more frequent basis than just trying to plow through the shift.” writer Paul Hoynes’ take isn’t quite as dramatic:

“Baseball is a game of adjustments. Pitchers adjust to hitters, hitters adjust to pitchers. Over the last few years teams have made more and more use of defensive shifts. They especially hurt left-handed, pull-hitting power hitters How many hits do you think Travis Hafner lost to the shift? How about David Ortiz?”

“…the shifts will change when hitters change. When hitters, including power hitters, start hitting the ball the other way and bunting to the open part of the infield, then you'll see the shifts become less drastic. People think that could take three to five years, but I saw Carlos Santana bunt for two or three bases hits this year when the opposition had the right side of the infield stacked against him. I think hitters can adjust much sooner than that.”

“Baseball isn't football,” adds Hoynes. “Do you really want yard markers all over the infield and outfield to determine where defenders can stand? Umpires have enough to do with the expanded use of instant replay besides asking them to throw a yellow flag every time an infielder is offside in a shift defense.” writer Rick Delgado doesn’t see an end to shifts in the near future:

“Ever since the days of ‘Moneyball,’ advanced statistics have had a large influence on team strategy and personnel decisions. But despite the advances, stats were still recorded in the traditional way through observation. That has all changed with the arrival of big data at the baseball stadium. In 2010, about 2,400  defensive shifts happened in MLB contests. That number had increased to more than 8,000 by 2013. Some purists have expressed their dislike for the tactic, but all indications point to defensive shifts continuing.”

NY Times writer Pat Borzijune penned an article during the College World Series last spring, asking some of the head coaches in the event how they employ shifts on their teams. “We do what everybody does,” Texas Tech head coach Tim Tadlock said in the article. “We’re not reinventing everything. We do watch video, and we do try to figure out where they’re going to hit it. It doesn't always work, you know what I mean? It all depends on the pitcher.”

“One poorly placed pitch defeats a shift,” wrote Borzijune. “So does a bunt. That makes coaches hesitate. And while digital scouting is growing in college baseball, available information pales next to the data that companies like Baseball Info Solutions and Inside Edge supply major league teams.”

“We can’t pitch to a pitching plan like that,” said University of Texas head coach Augie Garrido. “We don’t know where it’s going. You say throw it inside, and he walks a guy on four pitches outside. To be able to make those plans work, you have to have real confidence in your pitcher’s ability to pitch to where that guy is going to pull that ball into that defense.”

Here’s what a few college coaches had to say to Inside Pitch about defensive shifts at their level:

“It’s very intriguing, watching Major League Baseball. They have so many more stats than we have. I think you have to have the information to be able to shift, and sometimes it’s hard at the college level. I think we’re going to have a little more every year. We’ve always shifted based on the situation, but I think it’s getting more and more about the hitter.  – Chris Lemonis, head coach, Indiana University

“A lot of things go into a shift- the pitcher, the hitter, the situation, does the hitter hit in certain situations or not, does the team hit situationally or not. Just as anyone would do, we’re trying to play the law of large numbers if the percentages are in our favor. I don’t usually base it on a large test bank because you don’t have one in college baseball, you have sixty games. I think it totally depends on who you have on the mound and what the situation is in the game- the inning, men on base, the hitter at the plate, the hitter’s approach and team’s approach.” – Karl Kuhn, assistant coach, University of Virginia

“I haven’t seen it near as much at our level as you do in the big leagues now. Of course, they have massive amount of data that we don’t have access to. We have spray charts and scouting reports and things like that, but not near the resources to put on that dramatic of a shift that you see in Major League Baseball. We’ve been pretty traditional [at Houston]; we try to play to what we know on the scouting report but I don’t like to vary too much from straightaway or a step or two either direction.” – Todd Whitting, head coach, University of Houston

“I’ve played shifts on guys for years without really a whole lot of data behind it. It’s just obvious sometimes how we’re going to pitch someone and what kind of swings you’re going to get out of the guy. I think in the big leagues, the data can be so overwhelming that you have to play the odds. For me, the shift is more psychological than anything else; we’re telling a guy to go ahead and bunt or hit the ball the other way. So sometimes we’ll pick out a guy in a lineup to shift on and pitch a certain way, just to see how they handle it.” – Matt Deggs, head coach, Sam Houston State

“That's something we had seen a little bit at Ole Miss, when you had players like Sikes Orvis who were big pull guys. We don't have the access to information in college like they do in the big leagues that says '90 percent of the time this guy's going to hit it here,' but I think it's something that can help if you've got a good feel for your opponent.” – Cliff Godwin, head coach, East Carolina University

With all of the differing opinions out there regarding shifts, most can agree on three simple ‘rules’ that must be in place before coaches start moving their defenders around: access to information, the pitcher’s ability to throw to location, and the hitter’s willingness to bunt or hit to opposite field.

What do you think about defensive shifts?

Inside Pitch Magazine is published six times per year by the American Baseball Coaches Association, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt association founded in 1945. Copyright American Baseball Coaches Association. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way without prior written permission. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained herein, it is impossible to make such a guarantee. The opinions expressed herein are those of the writers.