Is the shift even relevant?

Well, maybe, but my own view of this matter is that the shift is a red herring. As a factual matter, this is bolstered by the fact that Teixeira actually hit fewer ground balls from the left side of the plate, which is the only time the shift is really relevant. Believe it or not, Tex’s fly ball rate was 5.5% higher against right-handers than against southpaws at 48.3%. Unfortunately, his infield flyball rate was also slightly higher at 11.8%, which begins to help us explain where his BABIP issues stem from. After that, the next most obvious issue in Tex’s batted ball data is that his HR/FB rate over 5 points lower from the left side as well. So what we have here is fewer home runs and more pop-ups per fly ball hit relative to his performance from the other side of the plate, even though more fly balls were being hit. I believe we might be on our way to nutting this out.

Conceptually, there are two reasons why the idea of having Tex bunt to beat the shift is foolish on its face. First of all, it doesn’t really beat the shift. Sure, if he can lay a bunt past the pitcher down the third base line he’s got a free pass to first base, but if you’re the opposing team’s manager, are you really that broken up about giving up the base runner if it means that one your opponent’s biggest sluggers is squaring around to bunt, putting the ball onthe ground deliberately and not looking for an extra base hit? I’d certainly take that trade off every time, especially given the fact that there’s not even a guarantee that the hitter successfully executes the bunt in the first place. This basic fact, I would imagine, is why you don’t actually see very many sluggers bunting against the shift even though so many reporters and fans think it the obvious thing to do.

Secondly, and more importantly, Tex’s problem simply isn’t the shift qua shift, it’s that he’s become a conscious pull hitter from the left side of the plate, and that approach is affecting his ability to make solid contact when pitchers pitch him away. If that were squared away, and Tex was driving the ball more consistently from the left side, whether or not the shift is put on against him would be neither here nor there. It might shave a few points off of his BABIP to hit ground balls into the shift but, frankly, the other team has already scored half a victory if they’ve gotten one of your power hitters to put the ball on the ground. Adjusting a power hitters game to get a few more base hits out of his ground balls is the epitome of missing the forest for the trees. Rather, the important thing to focus on is keeping Tex back longer so that he can cover the outer half of the plate effectively. A few more opposite field extra base hits will more than cancel out a few extra ground balls hit into the shift

Born in Southwestern Ohio and currently residing on the Chesapeake Bay, Brien is a former editor-in-chief of IIATMS who now spends most of his time sitting on his deck watching his tomatoes ripen and consuming far more MLB Network programming than is safe for one's health or sanity.

28 thoughts on “Is the shift even relevant?

  1. williamjtasker

    Tex's pull rates since 2007: 33.9 percent, 34.7, 38.9, 37.5 and 40.3. So yeah, you could say that Tex is pulling the ball more. The real problem is that now defenses are playing him different. A batter has to adjust. I don't advocate bunting. Heck, that would suck. But there's no reason he can't focus on driving the ball where it's pitched a little more.

  2. jay_robertson

    I'm stuck with my eyes and a (likely) faulty memory here – I won't argue numbers, since numbers never lie. I do know that when I watched Tex hitting into the shift last year, it seemed like there was almost always a player in position to make a play; if the ball wasn't hit out of the park, someone seemed to make a play on it. I don't doubt the ground ball numbers – but the shift also worked well against sharply hit line drives. Time and again, he'd make good contact, only to have the second baseman or shortstop stick out a glove and snag it.

    I would even go so far as to suggest that the balls he did hit, that did fall for hits, were often against the few teams who DIDN'T use the shift on him. There were a few instances of that; in my faulty, non-numeric memory, it seems that he had much better outings against those teams. Short of going back and re-watching the games, I don't know where you'd get numbers to prove or disprove – but if Long & Co. are even mentioning doing something as outlandish as bunting, just to get the shift off – maybe there's something it.

    • BrienJackson

      You're not wrong, per se, I'm just saying two things that don't necessarily contradict your eyes.

      1. Worrying about balls that get hit into an *infield* shift to begin with is pointless, because if your power hitters are putting balls there you're already losing value in that at bat.

      2. Worrying about *where* Tex's hits are going isn't really the issue, it's *how hard he's hitting them.* If Tex takes a more balanced approach at the plate and can make *better* contact from the left-side, his production will even itself out on its own regardless of how the defense plays him. Even the most well designed infield shift is powerless to do anything about a double into the gap or a ball hit over the fence, which is what you want Tex to be hitting anyway.

      Tex's issue isn't that he's hitting the ball into the shift, but that he isn't staying back on balls away from him and, as such, can't make solid contact on pitches on the outer part of the plate. And changeups. Good lord the changeups…

      • Herb Sevush

        The argument that it would be more effective if Tex became a better hitter is true and rather obvious – who wouldn't benefit from learning to stay back more and drive it the other way. But assuming that Tex is not an idiot and that he's not trying to suck intentionally and he's having problems he can't so easily overcome, the question still remains if it is ever advisable for him to lay down a bunt to beat the shift. If the opposing manager was so content to put him on first rather than risk the home run he would intentionally walk him, The fact that they haven't shows they are still trying to keep him off first. It's quite possible that if Tex learned to bunt to the left side opposing managers would be more selective in they're use of the shift.

        • BrienJackson

          "If the opposing manager was so content to put him on first rather than risk the home run he would intentionally walk him,"

          Well, no, because an intentional walk would present a 0% chance of converting an out, whereas even if Tex bunted against the shift every time, he'd still have to successfully get the bunt down and place it correctly, giving you a >0% chance of still getting an out.

          Anyway, I think the notion that he *can't* get better is rather dubious for two reasons. First, he *is* doing it from the right side of the plate, so it doesn't seem to be an overall deterioration of his skills. Secondly, people were noting as early as 2009 that Tex had switched his swing from the left side to one where he kept more weight on his back foot through the swing and swung up at the ball, rather obviously trying to elevate the ball to the short porch in right field. It seems pretty clear that that effect has gotten more extreme as time as passed, and Tex has probably had his mechanics get away from him a little bit.

          • Herb Sevush

            I don't think Tex "can't" get batter, I just think it's not an either or situation.

            Let's assume he's working on his mechanics, but until he fixes his swing he's still facing the shift – what to do.

            I think opposing managers use the shift as much as they do only because they know he never bunts – there is no risk. I think it would have to be a mentally tough manager to keep the shift on after 1 or 2 successful bunts against it – even thought the shift might be the right move statistically; and from what I've seen most managers are not that mentally tough.

  3. Bill

    Wouldn't want him to bunt all the time, but once in awhile when he leads off in the late innings down by three or four runs it might be a thought. At that point a solo homer doesn't do much. To square up a little better and try to drive the ball to left center would be the ideal.

    • BrienJackson

      1. Why would driving a double to left-center be better than a home run ever?

      2. It might not be a bad idea to try it every now and then, but the logic that this will make the other team call it off is flawed. Or at least it should be if we assume the other manager can accurately weigh the relative value of outcomes.

      • skeaney

        The Yankees hit too many homeruns, remember?

  4. Gabriel

    I have a conceptual disagreement with this sentence and the way it shapes the rest of the argument: "ground balls from the left side of the plate [are] the only time the shift is really relevant."

    The reason why this is flawed is that during the shift the second baseman goes deep and plays shallow right field. This frees up the right fielder to stay close to the foul line and the team can collectively cover substantially more outfield ground. In order for Tex to "beat" the shift he'd have to hit a homer every time and that's just unreasonable. That's why it seems that he's always hitting the ball to someone because there's literally someone everywhere on the right side, not just the infield.

    • BrienJackson

      That's not necessarily true, depending on how the defense plays the hitter. Just because they shift the infield doesn't mean they shift the outfield, because groundball and flyball distribution patterns aren't necessarily the same.

      • Gabriel

        http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/gallery/fe

        See how deep Cano is in that picture. I'm not saying they shift the outfielders. I'm saying that the extra infield coverage allows the 2B to move back and catch legitimate flyballs in shallow right that he wouldn't otherwise reach (unless he's Luis Castillo), which in turn allows the RF to play deep and close to the line.

        • Gabriel

          PS: Even forgetting the second part of the argument (about the RF), which the picture I posted doesn't quite support :) the extra flyballs that the 2B can reach have to count for something. They would be singles otherwise.

        • BrienJackson

          A pop up, yes, or maybe even a shallow bloop, but he's of no real value against a legitimate fly ball.

          And Swisher isn't really dramatically shifted around on that play, which makes sense because, while Ortiz is a heavy pull hitter on ground balls, he's much more evenly distributed when it comes to hitting fly balls.

  5. RPB

    Agreed. Kinda. I think that the "bunt more often" is the red herring. Tex needs a better approach. My remembrances (probably flawed) are that Tex gets fat off of bad pitches. His lack of a good hitting approach lets him hit a few more HRs against mistakes. It also makes him more susceptible to looking bad against good pitching. He was a black hole in the playoffs. Bunting wont help. Hitting to all fields and taki9ng what the pitcher gives you would.

  6. Jacques

    I remember the time during Rays-Yankees matchup where there was a runner at third and Tex batting. The Rays infield made the shift, with the shortstop going all the way to the right infield. However, Evan Longoria had to protect the runner, and thus stayed at third base, leaving a wide gap on the left with the potential of driving an easy run.

    I don't exactly remember how the play turned out, but Tex failed to drive in the run.
    I suppose for a #3 batter, your job is to pull the ball for a homer, but I believe Teixeira needs to work on hitting the ball to the opposite side every now and then especially in key situations where the team is down by a run

  7. Bill_S

    This is where I get confused about the “value of the at-bat.” I don’t see why him bunting to beat the shift is a bad thing. Yes, it removes the possibility of him getting an XBH. Let’s say he practiced laying down a bunt. Would it be reasonable to say that he could successfully bunt down the 3rd base line for a base hit… 60% of the time? 50% of the time? Either case, his OPS would be 1.000+. I don’t know about his other peripherals… WAR, wRC+, etc.

    Even from a more practical standpoint, runner on 3rd, 2 outs – Tex up – you’d score 60% of the time (in theory).

  8. The thought that immediately comes to mind, looking at his numbers as a lefthander and the picture above (his frustration with the shift) is that when he's batting lefty, he's actively trying to lift the ball, because he thinks (correctly) that there's a lower chance of ground balls becoming hits.

    This sort of tactic is exactly the type of approach that leads to more squib grounders and infield popups. It's also supportive of lower BABIPs.

    Now, as someone who has worshipped at the altar of BABIP in the past (and who still does, to a degree) this isn't me suggesting that 80 points come from trying to lift the ball as opposed to square it up — but some part of that differential could be caused by it.

  9. Also —

    If Tex is able to bunt his way on, say, 60% of the time (not saying he'd be able to….but heck, with no one playing third it's entirely possible) it wouldn't matter that he wasn't hitting home runs. His OBP and SLG would rise dramatically. I think you'd see a pretty quick reversion back to more typical defensive positioning (or at the least, a modified version of the shift with someone playing closer to 3B).

    My main worry would actually be that as an inexperienced bunter, he'd take a pitch off his fingers and we'd lose him for significant time.

    • ResumeMan

      I think this is the key reason why the occasional (practiced) bunt-single attempt is worth considering. It's not that we just want Tex trying to get on base instead of trying to make an impact hit. It's that it punishes the defense for putting on the extreme shift, and makes it harder for them to confidently execute that strategy.

      If, say, he tried the bunt 25% of the time and succeeded half the time (and again…nobody's playing up the 3rd base line), that would be a huge number of bases that the defense was giving away, and I thnk many managers would start thinking twice about it.

      • BrienJackson

        I'm pretty sure that successfully bunting against the shift 1 out of 8 times it's put on wouldn't have much impact on opposing strategies.

        • Succesfully bunting 1 out of 8 at bats would make his triple slash line (in those at bats) come out to .500/.500/.500. You weight that 1/4 and his slash line 3/4 (which is what we're talking about here) and you come out with a .293/.369/.465 line.

          I have to think that changes opposing teams strategy (at least the smart ones…) very significantly.

          • BrienJackson

            But you shouldn't use his regular slashline, only his production against the shift.

            And, again, this wasn't really the point of the post, which is that the shift isn't actually Tex's problem. To paraphrase: it's the weak fly balls, stupid.

            Maybe I'll take another crack at that point tomorrow.

          • Sure, agreed. But that's his slash line batting lefty — and unless we assume that he actually did better against the shift (which, from comments above, we are not), the impact will only be greater by using this methodology on his "shift slash line". That's actually going to help my point.

        • ResumeMan

          Seriously? You don't think increasing his BA and OBP by .125 without a fight will affect opponents' tactics? I think any player in the game would be happy to increase their batting average by that much. Yeah it's a hollow .125, but it's still a big increase – and a lot of extra baserunners over the course of the season.

          I don't have any idea what the formulas are, but even just assuming nothing changed but that, I would love to see how things like RC or WAR changed if you transferred 12.5% of a player's total PAs into singles…

    • LarryAtIIATMS

      What Will said.

  10. sam

    How bout Tex becomes the .300 hitter we got a few years ago and throw bunting out the window.

  11. humanexcrement

    I sometimes wonder if certain switch-hitters who lose ability from one side of the pate might benefit from giving up switch-hitting. Then again, you're asking a player to start all over and learn their approach from scratch, but what does it hurt to try it in a few exhibition games? I think Tex has a shot at beating .224 if he tries batting exclusively from one side. What might have happened if Posada had tried it?

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