Who's on Third? as Baseball Defenses Shift, Often It's No One ; Tradition Is Abandoned as Teams Follow Statistics and Move Fielders Around

Article excerpt

Major league teams are embracing the shift on defense as never before, and it is radically reshaping how the infield looks and plays.

For more than 100 years, baseball looked pretty much the same from the grandstands. There were three players spread in the outfield, a pitcher on the mound, a catcher behind the plate, and four infielders neatly aligned, two on each side of second base.

But a radical reworking of defensive principles is reshaping the way the old game is played, and even the way it looks. If you cannot find the third baseman, he might be the one standing in shallow right field. The second baseman? That's him on the other side of the diamond, next to the shortstop.

Some baseball positions as they have long been known are changing before our eyes. The cause is the infield shift, a phenomenon exploding this year as more Major League Baseball teams are using statistical analysis and embracing a dynamic approach to previously static defenses.

Now, armed with evidence that shows how a batter has a propensity to hit the ball to certain parts of the field, teams will position their infielders accordingly -- at times taking them far from their traditional spots.

"The shift is on the verge of becoming the norm," said Joe Maddon, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays and one of the early leading proponents of the shift. "When you're not shifting now is almost going to be the anomaly defense."

From 2010 to 2013, infield shifts steadily increased, according to research by Baseball Info Solutions, which tracks every shift and the number of runs it saves. But from 2013 to this season, the rate of shifting in the major leagues has mushroomed.

Last year there were 8,134 shifts on balls in play. Through the weekend, teams had already shifted 3,213 times, putting them on pace for nearly 14,000 for the season. Teams that shift regularly are lowering opposing teams' batting averages by 30 to 40 points on grounders and low line drives.

"You do it because it works," said Mark Teixeira, the New York Yankees first baseman. As a batter, he has been a victim of the shift for the past few years, perhaps explaining, in part, why his batting average went from .290 over his first four years in baseball to .249 since 2010, when teams began shifting on him regularly.

Ben Jedlovec is the senior vice president for product development and sales at Baseball Info Solutions, a company that was started by John Dewan, the author of the book "The Fielding Bible." The company tracks every pitch and every play and provides software and tools to about two-thirds of major league teams. "There's no end in sight," Jedlovec said about teams' willingness to employ the shift.

At first, the natural targets of the shift were sluggers like David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard -- all big left- handed hitters who regularly pull the ball to the right. Now, with statistical analysis influencing more managers' decisions, even lightly regarded hitters like Kelly Johnson of the Yankees might see fielders shifting against them, and more right-handed hitters are seeing the shift as well.

"Baseball isn't big on change," said Dewan, who began advocating defensive shifts about 10 years ago. "But once other managers and teams saw the Rays doing it successfully, perhaps they didn't feel as if they were going out on a limb so much, and wouldn't be criticized when someone happens to get a hit against the shift. …