Shifts have become a prominent part of the game. But many people are often unsure about the actual effects of the shift and if it’s been good or bad for a team. Today, I will be taking a look at how the Dbacks have performed while being shifted (as hitters) or being the shifting team (as pitchers).
Please take this into consideration: the way that FanGraphs handles shifts is that it only registers a shift (or not) if a ball was put into play; that means that walks, strikeouts, hit by pitches, and home runs are NOT counted in this data. In theory, a shift should have no impact on any of these results if batters were immune to human elements (e.g. maintained an identical approach regardless of being shifted or not) but this is certainly not 100% accurate in real life. This shouldn’t change the overall outlook of the results, as they should be fairly evenly distributed, but it is something to keep in mind when looking at the results below.
The overall purpose of the shift is either one of two things, depending on whom you ask. Some people think that shifts are meant to lower BABIP, as you are positioning players in key spots that a batter frequently hits the ball to increase the rate of outs. On the other hand, some people think that shifts are meant to lower ISO, as the defending team is positioning players where the batter is looking to drive the ball and will gladly give up attempts for a single to “beat the shift” instead of trying to drive the ball.
In this exercise, I will be comparing the shifted and unshifted results for ISO, BABIP, and wOBA to see if we can determine how we are performing relative to the rest of the MLB.
First, let’s take a look at how often we shift or are being shifted:
To no one’s surprise, we’re one of the top teams that shifts on batters, ranking 9th in the MLB. I am a bit surprised that we are not closer to the top, as it seems to me anecdotally that we do it a lot.
On the hitter side, we’re somewhat surprisingly on the low side. Peralta and Lamb get shifted every AB but our lineup is fairly RH-heavy, so it makes sense why we’re on the lower side. And there might be other reasons why... (read on).
Let’s start with BABIP.
Before we analyze, I need to clear up the graphs. Since we are doing SHIFTED minus UNSHIFTED, that means a positive number is better for hitters and a negative number is better for pitchers. So if a team has a positive value for hitting in these charts, it means they perform better while shifted than they do unshifted whereas if a team is negative for their pitching, it also means they perform better while shifted than they do unshifted.
As you can see in the above charts, the Diamondbacks are in the top portions of the league in terms of shifted BABIP. When we shift, we get more outs with our pitching and when our hitters are shifted, they hit into less outs. So far so good.
One thing to note: batters are winning on the shift here. Leaguewide, BABIP is about .005 higher when shifted than not shifted.
What about ISO? Are we sacrificing power to avoid the outs? Or allowing more power to get more outs?
Wow. Top five for both our hitting and our pitching. But the even bigger wow here is just how badly this favors the hitter.
Now, these graphs exaggerate the magnitude of this effect as the league-wide shifted ISO is only about .006 than unshifted. This is due to the rate at which teams actual employ shifts (see first chart). The Padres have the worst shift ISO disparity in the league but they also have the second-lowest rate of shifting opposing batters, thus reducing the overall impact.
But this does lead an interesting picture - both BABIP and ISO are higher league-wide when shifted than unshifted. This gives a bit of a mixed singal as to if shifts are working or not.
If you recall from one of my Stats 101 courses, when it comes to purely batted ball data, BABIP and ISO are the two main drivers for wOBA. So the following graph should be no surprise:
Seeing as the team was better for both ISO and BABIP, it’s no surprise to see that the team is better for shifted wOBA for both our hitters and our pitchers.
And this graph tells a similar story as above: batters are winning the battle here. League-wide wOBA is .005 higher when shifted than unshifted (.294 vs .289). A .005 difference may not seem like much - this is about a 1.7% difference - but this matters over the huge sample size involved here. There have been 28348 batted balls hit into while shifted this year that weren’t homers. This .005 difference has led to roughly 142 extra runs in favor of the batters, league-wide. Obviously some teams are excelling on both sides of the ball but overall the shift appears to actually be helping the batter.
This is rather surprising to me, honestly.
I decided an exercise to combine the hitting and pitching wOBAs to see which teams have, overall, benefited or been hurt by the shift. Keep in mind that wOBA is a rate stat so this shows which teams have been most effective when shifted or shifting, not the sum of the runs they’ve gained/lost:
The Diamondbacks have a pretty clear lead on the rest of baseball. I’m not sure how predictive or repeatable this is - I suspect it could be prone to a fair amount of year-to-year variation. But I also think it is partly impacted by the team’s philosophical change in the Hazen era - we have coaches dedicated to position on batted balls, for example. I know we put a lot of work into our baserunning. Maybe we’re doing something on shifts, too?
Either way, this was a very interesting study for me to look into. And it was pretty amazing to me that Diamondbacks have been the best in baseball with respect to shifts.