Major league teams are embracing the shift on defense as never
before, and it is radically reshaping how the infield looks and
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
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
"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."
Following the Rays, the Houston Astros have embraced the shift
with zeal, from the depths of their minor leagues up to the majors.
As of the weekend they had employed 368 shifts, more than one per
inning and far more than any other team, even the Rays. …