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How Defensive Shifts Are Changing Baseball


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Defensive shifts have been around a long time. But in recent years they’ve become more and more common. Nowadays there is so much data on every hitter, where they are likely to hit the ball, how hard they will hit it, even their performance against specific pitchers or teams. With all this information available, it’s not surprising that teams are getting smarter and positioning players more intentionally.

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A basic defensive shift may include having the outfielders back up for a batter who often hits the ball deep. But shifts nowadays are more complicated. Often many players are involved. Sometimes the entire infield moves their positions for a shift.

Effects On The Game

Defensive shifts are slowly changing the game of baseball. Of course, every team wants their players in the best positions to make plays in the field. But what is the consequence? A lot less offense. Teams are getting so good at predicting where the ball might be hit that we are now seeing let production from hitters. Let’s take an example from Albert Pujols.

Pujols has been known for years as one of the best, and hardest hitting batters in the game. But recently he’s been having some difficulty.

Back in May, in the first inning of a game against the Mariners, Pujols hit a hard line drive to shallow left center field. It wasn’t just a hard line drive; it left Pujols’s bat at 105 miles per hour. This should have been a hit. But shortstop Jean Segura was in the exact spot to catch the ball. What’s a shortstop doing in left center field? He was positioned strategically based on data about where Pujols is likely to hit the ball.

This kind of thing is happening more and more to Albert Pujols. It’s been a big adjustment for him. His entire career he’s been used to turning these line drives into hits. Now, as often as not, the defensive has shifted in order to take these hits away. Pujols has relied on his power as a hitter his whole career. And now as he’s getting older and has lost some of his speed, he’s having more and more trouble getting on base. It’s no wonder guys like him are getting frustrated with the direction the game is heading.

Albert Pujols’s Declining Stats

In the last three seasons, from 2015 to 2018, Albert Pujols has made 403 outs of off hard hit balls. These are balls he’s put in play that travel over 95 miles per hour. Typically a ball hit this hard might earn a player a hit. But thanks to the ever-present shift, Pujols is seeing more of these balls turn into outs.

Pujols is aging but he’s still hitting the ball well. On average he hits the ball 90 miles per hour. But his batter average for balls he’s hit into play is only .245. That’s pretty low for a guy who is consistently crushing the ball.

Pujols’s stat line has continued to decrease over the years. When he joined the Angels in 2011 he was batting .328. But each season since he’s gone down about four points. Now he’s only hitting .303.

Perhaps you can blame this decline on age. But defensive shifts likely have something to do with it. Wince 2016, teams across the league having been using a shift against Pujols 38% of the time. When facing a shift, Pujols hits only .219. This is well below his average of .303. So the shift is definitely making a difference.

Should It Be Banned?

Player like Pujols, who sees more shifts than almost any batter, would like to see shifts banned from the MLB. From his point of view they make baseball less exciting because there is less offense. In order to combat the shift, players have to change their swings and learn to hit the ball away from where they naturally would. This means more strikeouts. All in all, baseball is becoming more of a pitcher’s sport, and hitters are losing out.

But some say that hitters just need to adapt. After all, using a defensive shift is just good strategy. Why would a team not employ a defensive tactic that’s been proved effective?

But Pujols certainly has a point about one thing. Second basemen and shortstops should not be allowed to position themselves directly behind the pitcher. Doing so has the potential to obscure the pitcher’s release point and confuse a batter. Playing behind the pitcher and guarding against hits up the middle may be good strategy, but tricking batters is this way should not be part of the game.

It’s hard to know how the MLB might handle this issue in the future. As baseball becomes more of a pitcher’s game and there is less and less offense, the game may need to make some changes.

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