How the defensive shift and big data are changing baseball
The old rules of baseball no longer apply, and for many fans that's ruining the game
If you’ve been to a Major League game in the last couple of seasons, you’ll know the old rules of baseball no longer apply. And for many fans, it’s ruining the game.
The big change is known as the big shift. Or more precisely, the defensive shift.
Since baseball began, the rules have been largely the same. The first-baseman stands at first base, the left-fielder — you've got it — positions himself in left field. But now teams are building profiles on opposing players and placing their infielders and outfielders in spots where they are most likely to catch that player’s hits, based on data about past performance.
It means the field never looks the same, and even the players can’t always keep up with the constant changes to their positions.
The Blue Jays have embraced the strategy. Infield coach Luis Rivera uses hand signals to direct his players.
"I sit in the dug-out and they look at me during the game," Rivera says. "They know that. Before every hitter they look at me."
Rivera initially thought it was crazy to move players all over the field, but now says "it's very accurate. It's very good. It took us a little while, for everybody, for me, for the players, because we're used to playing in a position."
Crunching the numbers
The defensive shift away from locked positions is the result of modern data analysis, but where that data is coming from is surprising. Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) is housed in a former movie theatre on a residential street in small town America, specifically Coplay, Pennsylvania.
"Shifts make a ton of difference," says BIS vice-president Ben Jedlovic. "Absolutely. In fact, last year the leading shifting teams — teams like the Rays and the Brewers — saved between 10 and 15 runs just by shifting."
Jedlovic’s data team is housed on two floors. They are all hard-core baseball fans, and this must be their dream job. They watch hours of live and taped baseball, recording detailed information about individual players and selling the aggregated results to Major League teams.
The results can be astounding.
Many players hit to nearly the same spot every time. Some vary depending on where they are in the strike count, but their hits remain predictable. Power-hitter David Ortiz of the Red Sox is one example – when he doesn't knock the ball right over the wall, he reliably smashes it to the same place on the field.
Teams armed with data can defend against these hitters by placing potential catchers in those precise spots. It’s why there are now far fewer frantic dashes to catch fly balls.
Unfortunately, that removes some of the drama and unpredictability from the game — and that, in turn, ruins baseball for some fans.
"I don’t like the way the game looks anymore," one fan lamented outside Yankee Stadium. "I played ball in college, and you got up to the plate and you hit the ball. And it really bothers me that these major leaguers can’t hit the ball in the opposite direction."
Many of them can’t. The defensive shift is taking advantage of the apparent inability of many players to alter their batting patterns.
The defensive shift strategy really took off in 2010, with 2,400 shifts in Major League games. By 2012, the number of shifts had nearly doubled to 4,500. Last year, the total jumped to 8,100. Teams have already surpassed that this season, with predictions they’ll hit 13,000 shifts by the end of the World Series.
Still, while big data may be taking over the game, economics could ultimately undo the big shift.
Nobel-winning economist Robert Lucas created a simple but powerful insight with the Lucas critique. While predicated on macroeconomics, it basically says be very cautious about relying on historical data as a rationale for changing your tactics. The reason is straightforward: Whatever new strategy you adopt wasn’t around when the data was gathered — so the situation could very well change when you change the way the game is played.
In other words, teams will compensate for the big defensive shift by doing things such as scouting players who are unpredictable.
In the meantime, the players are still coming to terms with the effects of the shift. Jays second baseman Steve Tolleson articulated the confusion many feel.
"You know, you've trained your whole life [that] when you're at second base, the ball's to your left, you can advance to third. Well, not only now do you have to know exactly where every infielder is playing, but it has to be in the back of your mind that just because you've learned something one way your whole career, these defensive metrics and shifts change it."