9 Times Out of 10, Shift Happens

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I was a big proponent of the John Gibbons hiring. He’s a solid tactician with a track record of using bullpens effectively and putting hitters in the best position to succeed by using platoons. And while the nature of this piece may appear to be anti-Gibbons, it isn’t. It’s a single situation in a single game in which a poor decision was made.  Even if many managers would have likely made a similar move to shift an extreme pull hitter, it doesn’t make it the correct move. Just as it is with statistics in analysis, context is integral when it comes to making decisions like the one to keep the shift on for Chris Davis with the bases full; a decision that drastically altered the landscape of the game, and potentially could have cost the Blue Jays a victory.

Set Up: The Mother of All Innings

After 6 strong innings by Drew Hutchison, Neil Wagner was brought in to work the 7th. After getting Jonathan Schoop to line out to shortstop, Wagner gave up a hard double to David Lough. With one out and the runner on 2nd, Gibbons turned to Brett Cecil. Bringing in Cecil was the correct decision with lefty swingers Nick Markakis and Chris Davis sandwiching Nelson Cruz. In an uncharacteristic move, Cecil walked Markakis on 4 pitches. Then, with Cruz at the plate in a 1-0 count, Lough and Markakis executed a double steal on a strike curve ball, leaving 1st base open with the count 1-1.

Set Up: Part Deux, Just Walk Him.

I rarely agree with intentionally walking anyone, and the Cruz case is no different, even if it’s understandable. Cruz had been hitting extremely well coming into the game and with the left handed hitter on deck it certainly would have made sense to play the percentages. Also, the concept behind loading up the bases to create a force play at home plate or keep the double play in order definitely has its place in the game…just not in this case. My problem with the intentional walk is that not only did Brett Cecil have the count in his favour at 1-1, he is not a true LOOGY. While Brett certainly had a sizable split out of the bullpen in 2013, his numbers vs. right handed hitters were still quite solid. Cecil also had similar strikeout rate no matter which handed batter he was facing with very good hit rates on balls in play as well.

Lets look closer at Cecil and Cruz in this particular situation. For Cecil, we will use his 2013 numbers, which are admittedly a small sample size, but the numbers from starting to relieving are not comparable.

Brett Cecil in 2013 from a 1-1 count on: Opponents posted a batting average of .231 and struck out 38% of the time.
Nelson Cruz for his career from a 1-1 count on: Has hit .230 with a K in 26.8% of plate appearances.

While it’s true that Nelson Cruz has always hit left handed pitching fairly well, that has not stopped him from striking out nearly 20% of the time versus opposite handed hurlers. Given the type of player Cruz is, he didn’t warrant an intentional walk before the steal, nor after. With first base open the force play at the plate isn’t available, but Cruz is a heavily strikeout prone player which nullifies some of the risk. Cruz is a free swinger who has a high whiff% on the type of repertoire Cecil posses and can be coerced into swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.

I don’t agree with the Cruz intentional walk, but there was still a legitimate statistical reason to think it was the correct move. But when it comes to the shift, I completely disagree with its usage in the situation.

Why The Shift Was Wrong

The shift used on the 0-2 pitch to Chris Davis
The shift used on the 0-2 pitch to Chris Davis

The bases were loaded for Chris Davis, and Gibbons called for the heavy shift. This involves the 2nd baseman playing in shallow right field, the shortstop playing behind second and the 3rd baseman playing off the line at 3rd, but not quite in the shortstop position due to the runner on third. I completely disagreed with this for a multitude of reasons.

Reason #1 – With Lough’s presence on 3rd forcing Brett Lawrie to play closer to the line than he normally would in a shift, the gap up the middle for Chris Davis was much larger. Since Chris Davis’ break out 2012 season, his batted ball distribution looks like this: 

Chris Davis Spray Chart 2012-2014 via www.texasleaguers.com
Chris Davis Spray Chart 2012-2014 via www.texasleaguers.com

While he is predominantly a pull hitter on the ground, he still clearly uses the middle of the field.

Reason #2 – If the bases are being loaded to create the force play at the plate, the shift doesn’t help. Every player was playing far deeper than they normally would, making it tougher to get a runner at the plate.  While Jose Reyes has a cannon at short stop, it would still take a rocket for him to have a chance at throwing out the speedy Lough. Ryan Goins would have very little chance on any ball and Lawrie would need the ball hit right at him or to his right to be able to throw home accurately and on time.

Reason #3 – By being shifted almost into shallow right – and with Reyes also on the 1B side of the bag –  Goins was going to be virtually useless in any type of ground ball double play scenario. Also, with Lawrie playing between the 3B and SS positions, a hit to his right would have been nearly impossible to turn, but he could at least cut down the runner at the plate. A play to his left and he’d have been waiting on Reyes to come in from an awkward angle to be the pivot on the double play. Reyes being a right handed thrower helps in this scenario, but it would still have made for a very difficult double play. Any ball hit to Reyes that doesn’t take him toward the second base bag would also be impossible to turn into a double play since nobody would be able to cover 2B.

Reason #4 – Chris Davis is not the swiftest runner. With Chris Davis potentially lumbering towards 1st base, and no need to hold Cruz on, there was no reason that Edwin Encarnacion couldn’t play a little deeper and closer to second base. In the spray map above, its apparent that Chris Davis doesn’t pull balls down the line all that often and is in fact more likely to find the hole between the first and second basemen. Cecil isn’t a poor athlete and would easily have enough time to cover the bag on any play that would take Encarnacion to his right.

Reason #5 – With the count at 0-2, Chris Davis had no thoughts of pulling the ball. He was in a situation where he was looking to stay alive or put the ball in play. With Davis having to shorten up his swing and defend the plate the odds greatly increased that he would go the other way. Even if the shift had made sense before this pitch, there is absolutely no excuse for keeping it on once it got to 2 strikes.

Chris Davis' 0-2 Hit
Chris Davis’ 0-2 Hit

Even without the shift, there’s still a decent chance that ball goes for a hit. But maybe Reyes picks that ball up throws the runner out at the plate or turns two. We won’t know because the Jays didn’t use proper logic. It was just a shift used at the wrong time. Unfortunately, the end result was an inning in which the Orioles batted around and put a close game out of reach. While this wasn’t the only bad play in an inning full of missteps and missed pitches, it was the most critical one. Playing not to give up 2 runs works in the early innings of the game, but this was the top of the 7th. With a one run lead with only 3 innings left, the only option is to play to not give up a run. Coincidentally the odds of allowing 1 run while playing straight up were less than allowing 2 with this terrible strategy.

I’m still quite happy that we have seen a return to the heavy shifting ways we saw with John Farrell and Brian Butterfield. The absence of shifting is 2013 was something with which I grew quite concerned. Proficiency will come in time. All it takes is a little familiarity and applied context to see the Blue Jays saving runs with their positioning.  Just not yet.

Gibbons picture via Keith Allison, courtesy of Flickr.

  • NP_TO

    Intuitively, it didn’t make sense at the time to play the shift with the bases loaded. Your analysis confirms it. The ball would have been hit right at shortstop for a chance at one out and possibly two.

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  • Mean Mr. Mustard

    Nice article. Your points about the difficulty of turning a double play with this set-up are particularly good. Teams are going to have to think through how to apply these shifts in the future, and we’ll see how things change over time. An additional consideration is where to locate the pitches when the shift is on. The 0-2 pitch to Chris Davis was outside, which made it particularly easy for him to slap the ball the other way. With a conventional defence, that might make sense — you’re hoping he either hits it to the shortstop or tries to pull it and grounds out to the right side. With the shift on, though, you have to wonder whether pitching outside still makes sense.

  • http://blog.thecodewhisperer.com J. B. Rainsberger

    I enjoy the analysis, but my reading of Chris Davis’ spray chart differs from yours: it looks like there are twice as many ground-ball outs to the right side of the infield compared to the left side (I’d prefer a count of the dots to confirm that), whereas at least 1/3 of the outs on the left side of the infield appear to be flares/line drives/pop outs, in which case runners almost certainly won’t advance. This tells me to shift. If you could get a spray chart showing only line drives, ground balls and popups, that might illuminate further. (I don’t know how to do that, otherwise I would.)

    I agree that the infielders played too deep to take advantage of the force at home.

    I wouldn’t have walked Cruz, either. Strangely, in his career, he has hit 5%-points fewer fly balls against LHP compared to against RHP. Adding that to his strikeout and walk tendency, I could see letting Cecil face Cruz and hoping for the best.

    Unfortunately, seeing the first handful of pitches Cecil threw in the game, how the curveball hung in the strike zone, how he got nothing below the thighs, none of this likely mattered. :)

    • Steve McEwen

      Davis definitely is the kind of pull hitter you shift on with the bases empty. While he definitely isn’t an up the middle guy, compared to other LHH who warrant heavy shifts, his spray chart is somewhat more densely populated up the middle than the David Ortiz and Ryan Howard’s of the baseball world. Any other situation I still shift Davis, but given the 0-2 count with runners on I think there is a far better chance a defensive swing hits something up the middle.

      • http://blog.thecodewhisperer.com J. B. Rainsberger

        I suppose this becomes a Game Theory situation: you shift until Davis starts going the other way, then you don’t shirt until he starts intentionally pulling more, ….

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