By: Cory Vest
It has become a game of analytics. Computer programs crunching numbers gathered by brilliant minds. Charts and graphs are being produced showing probabilities, tendencies, and trends. Every aspect and every detail is being examined, monitored, and recorded. Strategies are being composed based on the data gathered and each decision is based on finding the highest percentage of success.
The purists of baseball may not be in favor of the heavy reliance on analytics, but it is here to stay. Billy Beane brought attention to the use of analytics in baseball in the late 1990’s when he used sabermetrics; a way of looking at all the stats accumulated for a player, in order to acquire effective players at a low cost. Beane’s approach to building a successful team paid off as the A’s won four American League West titles and had a record of 976-804.
From there, the league slowly started adopting the idea of analytic baseball. Fast forward to 2012. Joe Madden and the Tampa Bay Rays, set a record, at the time, for most defensive shifts in a season with 517. A defensive shift can be broken down into two categories, traditional and non-traditional. Traditional shifts occur when three infielders are on one side of the infield, two players are significantly out of position, or one infielder is in the outfield. Non-traditional shifts are ones that do not fit any of those definitions.
Defensive shifts date back well into the history of baseball, but Joe Madden brought them back to life in 2012. Since then, shifting has increased dramatically. Last year, shifts were at an all-time high, as teams realigned their infield a total of 28,074 times. What was once a rare sight, can now be seen occurring with each and every batter that steps to the plate. About 30% of balls hit in play, occurred with the shift on. That is quite the rise considering in 2011, just under 5% of the balls in play came against a shift.
The usual use of the shift occurs with a left-handed batter in the box. Those that are considered sluggers, or power hitters, and hit from the left side, have a high likelihood of hitting a ground ball to the right side of the infield. A shortstop shading behind second base, a third baseman lining up at short, and the second baseman sliding closer to first, or creeping deeper into the outfield, cuts down the holes for that groundball to find.
With the ever-increasing use of the defensive shift, one has to believe that it is overwhelmingly productive. Well, not quite. Although it is hard to prove the shift’s full impact, overall batting average of balls in play, or BABIP, for the MLB has not varied a substantial amount. BABIP does not include home runs or strikeouts, strictly hit balls that remain in the field of play. In 2000, before infield shifts were a fad, the BABIP was .300. Last year in 2016, the average was the same; .300. in between that span, the average dipped and rose, with 2007 seeing a high of .303 and 2002 seeing a low of .293.
Base-runners are down, and runs are being saved thanks to the shift. Last year, the Brewers led the league with 22 runs saved via the shift. Overall, the league saved 359 runs total thanks to the 28,074 total shifts used. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the league average when hitting a ground ball or short line drive against a regularly set infield was .266 last year. Against a slight shift, that average rose to .272. When facing a fully shifted infield, or a traditional shift, the average dropped considerably to .229. Obviously, the shift is successful enough to deploy. Over half of all ground balls are pulled every year, this and other stats are at the forefront of the increase use of shifting infields.
We are talking about hitters that are facing this shift though. Players that have been perfecting their art form for years, allowing them to adjust and adapt. Averages against the shift have risen over the years. In 2013, the BABIP of all balls in play against the shift was .280. Last year in 2016, the BABIP for any ball hit in play was .292. Batters are finding ways to break the shift, including laying down bunts or slapping balls through the left side of the infield.
How successful the shift truly is, is hard to measure. The amount of times infield shifts are used varies by team and how effective each team is at using those shifts varies as well. Last year, the Astros led the league in shifting and missed the playoffs, while the Cubs were among the bottom of the league in using the shift, and they became the champions of baseball. Obviously more goes into winning a World Series than how many times your infield utilized the shift, but you get the point. The general rule of thumb for teams and shifting is 10 shifts per game or about 1,602 shifts over the span of the season.
It is not just the shifting of infields that has baseball changing, other changes are occurring as well. Baseball is becoming less about the small ball, and more about relying on the philosophy of go big or go home. Although, if you go big in baseball you ultimately end up at home, right? Anyways, I digress. Sacrifice bunts have been on the decline for a couple of years now. The idea of giving up an out to move the runner over is a thing of the past. Teams are keeping the bat in their players’ hands and letting them swing away. Not only are the sacrifices by way of the bunt down, but sacrifice flies have seen a general dip as well. According to ESPN, between 2013 and 2015, sac fly opportunities per game hovered around 1.94. In 2010 and 2011 it was over 2 per game. Last year saw a rebound with 2 opportunities per game. It is a small sample size, but this year opportunities are at 1.90 per game.
Even though sacrifice fly opportunities were higher in 2016 than some years previous, the conversion rate fell from 13.1% in 2015 to 12.5% in 2016. This year, the conversion rate for sacrifice flies is 11.6%. This most likely has to do with the increase or ground balls. Ground balls may be occurring at a higher frequency due to pitchers’ tendency to keep balls lower rather than higher in the zone. Smart strategy would suggest pitching in a way that increases the likelihood of batters hitting into the shift. Wild pitches have been on the rise, perhaps due to lower pitches. Pitchers are also throwing harder than ever before. Low, hard pitches, can prove difficult for the catcher to stop when inaccurate. When balls are thrown harder, contact will send the ball further in distance. Harder thrown pitches are may be a contributor to the high amount of home runs per game. Home runs occurred 1.16 times per game last year. Compare that to 1.01 in 2015 and 0.86 in 2014. Home runs accounted for 40% of runs scored in 2016. With the increase in home runs, comes an overall increase in runs per team, per game. In 2016, there were 4.48 runs scored per game. 2015 saw 4.25 runs per game while 2014 tallied an average of 4.07 runs per game. Of course, when batters are swinging harder, there is a tendency to pull the head, or lose sound mechanics. Combine this with pitchers becoming better and better, and you get a rise in strikeouts. In 2016, there were an average of 8.1 strikeouts per game, the highest in MLB history. (All stats are courtesy of ESPN)
As you can see, the game of baseball is an ever-changing sport. Teams, coaches, and players are constantly adjusting, adapting, and striving to become better. Wits, brawn, talent, and athleticism all coming together to create a perfect blend. Purist or not, one must appreciate the battles that are occurring throughout the game. Coaches are constantly trying to outmatch and outmaneuver their opponents by utilizing all they have available to them. Do managers overthink things? Can the stats and data prove to be nothing more than a headache? Of course this can be the case. Things do not always work out how they are supposed to. Chew on this though, in seven seasons, Bruce Bochy, manager of the Giants, has used a relief pitcher for 2 batters or less 954 times. He has three World Series titles under his belt and plenty of success.
Baseball is officially a game of thought and analytics.