Over-Use of the Defensive Over-Shift

If you watched the Orioles play the Rays last Wednesday, you were treated to a great baseball game that included multiple lead changes, a blown save from Fernando Rodney (arguably the best relief pitcher in all of baseball in 2012), and a walk-off home run.  Unfortunately, that walk-off home run came off the bat of Matt Joyce, handing the Orioles their first loss of the season.  Fortunately, for my wife, it meant that the game would not be going to extra innings and she could change the channel.

The defensive shifts used by the Orioles in the 7th inning were a big part of Tampa Bay’s comeback.  Was it the result of bad luck or was it bad strategy?  It’s incredibly easy to second guess after the game is over, but let us take a closer look at the bottom of the 7th inning.

Pedro Strop entered the game with the Orioles leading 5-4.  No arguments with bringing Strop into the game here.  He doesn’t have the best command, leading to more walks than you’d like (especially in a 1-run game), but he had a good season in 2012 and was lights out in the World Baseball Classic for the Dominican Republic.  He was scheduled to face Ryan Roberts, Jose Lobaton, and Kelly Johnson…not exactly a murderer’s row.  Sam Fuld (career .347 SLG), pinch hitting for Roberts, hit a rocket right at Adam Jones for the first out.  Now here’s where I’m going to get fancy on you…

WE

Above is the Win Expectancy table for the game in question.  Fangraphs defines Win Expectancy as…“the percent chance a particular team will win based on the score, inning, outs, runners on base, and the run environment. These percentages are calculated using historical data, meaning if a team is losing and has a 24% win expectancy, only 24% of teams in similar situations in the past have ever come back to win.”  The numbers on the bottom represent the innings, and the center horizontal line represents a 50% chance of winning for each team.

Looking at the Win Expectancy Table, the Orioles chances of winning were 72.3% after the Fuld fly out.  Matt Joyce was then sent up to pinch hit for Lobaton, and as a result, the Orioles implemented a relatively common defensive shift, similar to the one shown below.

DA

Certainly, Joyce’s tendencies to hit the ball to the right side of the field (about 50%), as well as hit the ball on the ground to the right side (48.2% GB rate on balls hit to the right side of the field) called for that shift.  However, it leaves the entire left side open and Joyce bunted the ball down the third base line for an easy single.  That bunt single event decreased Baltimore’s chances of winning by 5.4%.  That doesn’t sound like a lot, but let’s take a look at the run expectancy matrix using the data from 2012 (the run expectancy matrix provides the number of runs that an average MLB team will score in an inning given any combination of baserunners and outs).

By employing the shift on Joyce, Baltimore was essentially trying to prevent a double at the expense of a guaranteed “single” (which Joyce took advantage of).  We’ll rule out a triple, since they’re not as common and Joyce isn’t a particularly fast runner, and home runs because the defense can’t prevent them.  With Joyce on 1st base and one out, the Rays were expected to score 0.51 runs that inning.  If Joyce would have hit a double instead, the run expectancy with a runner on 2nd base and one out only increases to 0.655.

Kelly Johnson followed, and again Baltimore shifted their defense to the right side, but this time, with JJ Hardy much closer to third base, as shown here.

Defensive Alignment

Where the shift was warranted against Joyce, the use of it against Johnson was suspect, as he has hit roughly 41.6% of his balls in play to the right side.  Johnson also showed a bunt on the first pitch, trying to catch the Orioles off guard a second time in a row.  Johnson ended up hitting a ground ball (where the shortstop is normally positioned) that went for a single instead of an inning-ending double play, resulting in Matt Joyce advancing to third.

Employing the shift and getting burned by it twice in subsequent at-bats lowered the chances of the Orioles winning from 72.3% to roughly 50%, even though they held a one-run lead at the time.  Additionally, now the Rays had a runner on first and third, with one out (a run expectancy of 1.15), giving them a very good chance to tie the ball game or even take the lead.  Tampa Bay ended up scoring 3 runs against Strop, taking a 7-5 lead.    And while the Orioles eventually tied it up, this inning played a big part in Tampa Bay’s victory.

So did the Orioles just run into some bad luck in the bottom of the 7th, or did they put themselves in a disadvantaged position that the Rays could exploit?  The short answer is probably a little bit of both.  Buck Showalter is considered one of the better managers in baseball, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend to know as much as he does or have as much information on the batted ball tendencies of the opposing team’s hitters.  Additionally, there are legitimate reasons to employ a shift on certain hitters, especially if they exhibit extreme batted ball tendencies (if teams didn’t think a shift is effective, they wouldn’t do it).

However, in this particular situation (7th inning, one-run lead), I do not think the shift was warranted given the detrimental value of putting runners on base.  Additionally, over-shifting could limit the pitcher’s ability to use both sides of the plate and his potential effectiveness (for example, left handed hitters will have an easier time hitting an outside pitch to the left side of the field, where bigger holes exist).  In fact, Kelly Johnson’s ground ball single was on a fastball on the outer corner of the plate.  You could possibly talk me into using the shift against Joyce here, but employing the shift against Johnson was unnecessary and ultimately changed the course of the game.

I’m not the first to have this idea, but I’m curious how many times it would take a particular batter to bunt against the over-shift for the defense to abandon it.  I don’t think anyone will ever try it, but having one person in your lineup guaranteed to reach base at every plate appearance would lead to more runs, especially over the course of the entire season.  At some point, you would think the defense would have to make an adjustment, and it would be interesting to see when that point is reached.  Perhaps this is a good topic for future post…

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