I have watched with fascination the many different types of defensive shifts the San Francisco Giants have been employing this season, and I have often asked the obvious question: Do the shifts accomplish squat?
Now Steve Moyer, who works for a company called Inside Edge, which provides data for MLB, has written a report in which he has analyzed the data from the defensive shifts of all major league teams. In doing so, he reached some extraordinary conclusions, ones that deem the Giants highly successful in the business of rearranging their defense to address consistent offensive tendencies on the part of opponents.
In fact, when it comes to successful defensive shifts, the Giants have the highest percentage in major league baseball.
In fact, the Giants have the highest percentage of all MLB teams.
The questions Moyer’s company was specifically trying to answer involved whether or not the shift accomplished what it set out to. Does the shift actually prevent hits, does it create hits where hits would not have existed, or does it make any difference at all? Or more likely, is it some combination of all of the above?
The first thing you notice is that different teams use the shift in hugely varying numbers. The Astros shifted the most, with 1,562 instances resulting in 44 hits saved. The Rockies used the shift the least with 248 examples resulting in -1 hits. The Astros saved 44 hits, but the Rockies actually lost ground at -1. How can that be? How do you a actually lose ground?
This is the table that Steve Moyer presents that shows the San Francisco Giants leading all of baseball in the number of successful defensive shifts.
Moyer explained that after watching hundreds of plays on film, analysts concluded that rather than teams doing it “wrong,” what was happening was that the ball was simply defying the odds and bouncing where it was not expected to bounce.
He said it could result from a bat breaking, from a check swing, or I might add that attempts on the part of the batter to compensate for the shift might account for some of the lack of success. Besides, if you are talking about Coors Field, anything goes.
Switch back to the Giants, however, and see that even though they have used the shift fewer than one-third the number of times the Astros have used it, they have a considerably higher percentage of success. The Astros have succeeded 2.82% of the time, whereas the Giants have been successful 5.06% of the time.
I watched the Giants work the shift on Ryan Howard, one of the most pure pull hitters in the game, and the shift worked perfectly as Joe Panik fielded a solid base hit from shallow right field and easily threw Howard out. Why doesn’t Howard try to adjust his swing so as to take advantage of the gaping hole on the left side of the diamond?
Because, as I mentioned, Howard is one of the most pure pull hitters in the game and for him to start altering his swing is a sure recipe for disaster. If a hitter’s confidence gets loosened, it is devilishly hard to get it back on track and trying to finesse a 90-something miles-per-hour fastball into the opposite field with any kind of authority will not facilitate the process.
The bottom line is that shifts reduce the number of opponents’ hits, which reduces the number of opportunities that rival teams can score runs and that’s what it’s all about. Knowing that the Giants, who play in spacious AT&T Park are the most successful of all MLB franchises is extremely gratifying and it allows Brian Sabean to continue to furnish the caliber of defensive players that make playing at AT&T Park an advantage for the home team.
Considering the Giants have won ten consecutive games in their home park, I would say the shift is doing its part in the process. Every little bit helps when a team is in the hunt for the playoffs.