• The Twins Considering a Shift in Strategy

    After three straight 90-loss seasons, the Minnesota Twins need a reinvention. While other teams have harnessed analytics to advance their in-game strategies, the Twins remained analog in a digital world.

    No longer.

    Not long ago, the notion of “infield shifting” in the Twins dugout may have been a reference to adjusting one’s protective cup. Now, according to MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger, the Twins and new bench coach Paul Molitor are to join the rest of baseball when it comes to defensive positioning.

    “The game has changed so much; we’re seeing more overshifts and people not afraid to give up space based on tendencies, so it’s something I’m excited about learning about and applying to the way we play defense,” Molitor told Bollinger this week.

    The Twins, who finished in the middle of the pack when it came to using shifts in 2013, may increase the usage this season. With the help of Jack Goin, the manager of Major League Administration and Baseball Research, and Sean Harlin, the team’s video director, Molitor is looking for an edge. And that edge may include the use of infield shifts.

    New use of an old trick

    To be sure, this is certainly not groundbreaking stuff by any means.

    The idea is to play to a hitter’s tendency by overloading defenders into a zone that a hitter frequents. This methodology, initially known as the Williams Shift, was implemented shortly after World War II by Indians manager Lou Boudreau, who stacked his infielders on the right side when facing Boston’s left-handed hitting Ted Williams. With the advent and dissemination of batted ball data broken down to minutia, forward-thinking teams have been implementing this strategy lately.

    Last July, Baseball Info Solution’s John Dewan reported that, much like Facebook, everybody and their mothers are doing it. In 2010 the shift was used just 2,465 times. In 2012 it was up to 4,577. Midway through last season, the baseball world was on pace to shift over 7,000 times.

    At the top of the list for teams who used the shift were teams like Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, generally considered as being the most likely to use statistical analysis. Joining them was the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose defensive efforts were lauded in 2013 and their generous use of the infield shift was at the forefront of items receiving praise. In 2011, Dan Fox -- the team’s Director of Baseball Systems Development and a former Baseball Prospectus contributor -- convinced the organization to sway from baseball convention and embrace playing the odds. The result was a significant swing in defensive efficiency – transforming from Swiss cheese infield to, I don’t know, let’s say a cheese with the ability to make plays up the middle.

    Issues with the shift?

    Not all teams see shifting as a net positive.

    The St. Louis Cardinals, a very well-respected organization, had been a proponent of the shift in 2012. That year manager Mike Matheny said he and front office members reviewed data that showed the advantage of having fielders set up against certain players who have a tendency to hit ground balls or shallow liners in distinct zones 80% of the time or more. However, Matheny’s pitching staff found it was difficult to pitch to that type of alignment in order to make it work.

    “Last year there were times when we were shifting and I knew [the pitchers] weren’t real comfortable with it,” Matheny told the media last August. “No matter what I believe, we can talk to guys about the importance and show them the statistics, but if they don’t feel comfortable with how the defense is aligned behind them, we’re wasting our time.”

    Meanwhile, the Oakland A’s newest closer and ground ball aficionado, Jim Johnson, who was a member of the shift-happy Orioles last year, found that the overuse made little sense.

    “It’s fine on certain guys, but I think sometimes it gets a little carried away,” Johnson remarked last season. “Trying to do things just to do things, you know. If you’re shifting on a number 8 hitter, just because [the numbers] say he grounds out to the right side, and you’ve got a guy throwing 99mph that he’s probably not going to turn around, then why are you shifting?”

    Pitchers are not the only ones who believe that the shift has shortcomings that may outweigh the positives. In 2012 Bill James penned a piece that suggested there are too many unstudied, undocumented occurrences that happen because of the shift that make it problematic and possibly detrimental. Those include:


    • Lost opportunities during foul pops on the right side of the infield because a third baseman is moved,
    • Missed double play opportunities because fielders are out of position,
    • And missed relays because fielders are out of position, among others.


    Teams like Tampa and Pittsburgh, who have taken measures to implement the shift strategy system-wide so that fielders are used to playing in a shift, may be equipped to handle those scenarios but a team like the Twins (who may or may not begin to incorporate more shifts in 2014) could find those moments causing more headaches than relieving them.

    This year, James also prophesized that the days of the shift are numbered and that once ego-driven sluggers begin to recognize that they could bat .700 by simply laying down a bunt (or a bunt double like Robinson Cano did), teams will no longer find giving up hits carte blache to be a worthwhile strategy.

    Is there a tangible advantage?

    Then there is the question of exactly how much does the shift improve a team’s ability to convert grounders in outs.

    As it stands, Baseball Info Solutions believes that teams like the 2013 Pirates were given a 2-win advantage because of their use of the shift. Of course, what James argues is that BIS’s system does not account for those mishaps and missed opportunities. At the end of the day, the top shift addicts were marginally better than teams like the Twins and Cardinals who it used more recreationally when it came to turning ground balls into outs.


    The 2013 data from ESPN/trumedia shows that the average major league team recorded outs on 77.3% of ground balls. While teams like the Pirates and Orioles scored very high by the Out-of-Zone metric (plays made by fielders out of the typical zone of that position which - surprise - is what happens when you shift a lot) and made their Ultimate Zone Ratings look good, the benefits were negligible compared to the Twins and Cardinals who did not use the shift.

    The Twins were very strong on the second base/first base side (represented by the Right/Far Right from the batter’s perspective) and based on Mauer’s athletic abilities, there stands a chance that first base should be improved defensively in 2014. Where the Twins lagged greatly last year was the defense up-the-middle: For example, while the shifty Pirates recorded outs on an MLB-best 64.9% of grounders hit in the middle of the diamond, the Twins struggled to defend that turf (which has been a long-standing problem).

    Could infield shifting improve the out conversion rate for the Twins?

    Playing the tendency and shifting does not always translate into a complete overload of the right or left side of the diamond either.

    The Twins recently hired Sam Perlozzo to handle the minor league infielders, the role vacated by Paul Molitor when he was promoted, and Perlozzo’s former job in Philadelphia was positioning the infielders. Although the Phillies did not use the overload shift, Perlozzo told reporters in 2012 that he will use the data to position his fielders, but it may not mean the shortstop is swinging all the way around the horn. While Molitor begins to play the odds at the major league level, Perlozzo will likely try to establish similar techniques at the lower levels.

    Will it work? If Baseball Info Solutions’ assessment of the effects of the infield shifts proves accurate, the Twins may be able to claim wins at the margins. With three 90-loss seasons, trying anything different is a good thing.
    This article was originally published in blog: The Twins Considering a Shift in Strategy started by Parker Hageman
    Comments 30 Comments
    1. Linus's Avatar
      Linus -
      OK, color me skeptical. I'm sure it works in certain circumstances but not in others. Another factor not discussed is that pitchers have to be able to pitch to the proper spot in relation to the shift - the old pitch them away, play them away, etc. If you don't hit your spots, the shift just puts people out of position. Baseball has been played for a very long time and while we have greater raw data now, its really the professional sport that has changed the least over time.

      The current obsession with strikeouts is another example. I think we all agree that it is very handy to have a pitcher with the ability to strike someone out with a man on third and one out. I'm pretty sure Connie Mack, et al were smart enough to figure this out as well. There are many parts to the success equation, whether it is pitching or defense.
    1. Old Twins Cap's Avatar
      Old Twins Cap -
      I clicked on this article to see if the Twins indeed had embarked on a new "strategy", which they haven't. Sounds like they are considering a new tactic, on defense, against certain hitters.

      A strategy would involve something more substantive, like paying significant money to FA pitchers, or rebuilding using the draft and not trading any of their blue-chip minor leaguers, or relying more on power hitters vs speed and being willing to lead the majors in SOs.

      My problem with their "strategy" is that they don't seem to have settled on one. Not speed, not power, not pitching and defense, and certainly not trying to score more runs.

      So, moving their infield around on guys like Prince Fielder, if that is indeed their new strategy, well Heaven help us. It will be another long season. I'd love to have a photo of their infield shift for Prince and when he jacks it, capturing all three heads turning to watch the moon shot at the same time. Great example of how that strategy can fail by dint of not being substantive enough.
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      “The game has changed so much; we’re seeing more overshifts and people not afraid to give up space based on tendencies, so it’s something I’m excited about learning about and applying to the way we play defense,” Molitor told Bollinger this week.

      And this is why I want to see Paul Molitor become the next Twins manager. He is one of the few players who got better well into his 30s, indicating that he's open to new ideas and adapting to the environment. He just exudes baseball smarts and this comment just reinforces that opinion.
    1. ashburyjohn's Avatar
      ashburyjohn -
      Getting better, or at least tackling a new challenge, at age 57 is what he would have to do as a manager, since he's pretty old for getting a first job in the big chair.
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      Quote Originally Posted by Linus View Post
      OK, color me skeptical. I'm sure it works in certain circumstances but not in others. Another factor not discussed is that pitchers have to be able to pitch to the proper spot in relation to the shift - the old pitch them away, play them away, etc. If you don't hit your spots, the shift just puts people out of position. Baseball has been played for a very long time and while we have greater raw data now, its really the professional sport that has changed the least over time.
      Left-right pitch location isn't a huge a factor. The physics involved are a little counterintuitive, but in general balls on the ground will go to the middle-pull direction, and balls in the air will go middle-away, regardless of the left-right location of the pitch. Every shift I've seen an exaggeration of this tendency, and not the reverse.

      The positioning penalty might come when a fielder has to turn a double play or field a c utoff throw (the things James brought up). I have no idea how often that is a factor but I suspect they are overwhelmed by the added putouts and plays made.
    1. nicksaviking's Avatar
      nicksaviking -
      I really didn't think Ryan and company had it in them to adapt to a new age of baseball and I over-emphasized that point many times. I'm glad to see I'm wrong. Even if defensive shifts don't work, there certainly isn't any evidence that they hurt, so why not give it a shot.

      I like the part about the pitchers not being sure about the shift. No kidding, they don't like seeing holes behind them. This quote by Jim Johnson tells me either the Orioles don't know what they're doing or Johnson just doesn't understand:

      "If you’re shifting on a number 8 hitter, just because [the numbers] say he grounds out to the right side, and you’ve got a guy throwing 99mph that he’s probably not going to turn around, then why are you shifting?”

      A truely analytical teams don't just shift players to the left or right simply by which side of the plate the batter stands. I doubt a manager would shift much in this kind of situation.
    1. Hosken Bombo Disco's Avatar
      Hosken Bombo Disco -
      Big difference between shading and shifting. Here's a shift from last years playoffs:

      http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/58922774/v31072427/al-wc-loney-gets-swisher-cuts-off-runner-at-home/?query=2013%2Bwild%2Bcard%2Btampa


      On a shift play like this, the pitcher would break to cover third on a ground ball and not to first. And this is just one situation of any number of them. Much of it is baseball sense and I have my doubts that Plouffe or any given pitcher in a given situation could be trained to consistently pull off good shift plays.
    1. TheLeviathan's Avatar
      TheLeviathan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Brock Beauchamp View Post

      And this is why I want to see Paul Molitor become the next Twins manager. He is one of the few players who got better well into his 30s, indicating that he's open to new ideas and adapting to the environment. He just exudes baseball smarts and this comment just reinforces that opinion.
      I'm glad I read the comments first because I was about to post the same thing. I'm heavily in the camp for Molly as our future manager.
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by TheLeviathan View Post
      I'm glad I read the comments first because I was about to post the same thing. I'm heavily in the camp for Molly as our future manager.
      There is a lot to be said for a guy who is in his late 50s who has been in professional baseball for 40 years and is still open to learning new things and trying new ideas.

      Not all new ideas are good ones but they must be explored to test their legitimacy. I have no patience for people who believe in doing things "because that's the way they've always been done". It shows a lack of critical thinking and complacency and frankly, a lack of intelligence.
    1. old nurse's Avatar
      old nurse -
      Parker;'s article has the table listing the major league average percentage of outs on ground balls is 77.3%. The Orioles and Pirates, two teams listed as frequent over shifters had less than average outs on ground balls. Would the data indicate they are poor fielders and the shifting compensates for that? Just asking.

      The Bill James article from last season stated that there were about 100 players that the shift was likely to be effective for. Shifting can be an important tool, but 100 players makes it a limited option.
    1. Dantes929's Avatar
      Dantes929 -
      I understand it is intuitive that if you shift your infielders you would want to pitch them according to that shift but really, since the shift is based on the batters tendencies of how you normally pitch him, pitching him differently will create a whole new history of tendencies. For example, you don't want to pitch a left handed pull power hitter inside just cuz your fielders are there. Likely, his tendency to hit ground balls to the right side were a result of pitching him outside off speed pitches. I know its easier said than done but the pitcher should not be adjusting his approach just because the fielders change their approach.
    1. oldguy10's Avatar
      oldguy10 -
      I've been skeptical on "Molly" as the manager in 2015 and going forward but reading all of the positives about him willing to adapt I now think that is the way for the franchise to go. And boot Gardy up to V.P. also.
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      I clicked on this article to see if the Twins indeed had embarked on a new "strategy", which they haven't. Sounds like they are considering a new tactic, on defense, against certain hitters.

      A strategy would involve something more substantive, like paying significant money to FA pitchers, or rebuilding using the draft and not trading any of their blue-chip minor leaguers, or relying more on power hitters vs speed and being willing to lead the majors in SOs.
      First: Stop it.

      Second: Point taken.

      Last: Seriously, though, stop it.
    1. Paul's Avatar
      Paul -
      "...batted ball data broken down to minutia..." Nice phrase Parker, loaded with meaning. I agree with James that this is a passing fad for all but a few batters. James says 100 or so but I think there's only about 25 guys in each league who can't adapt and take advantage of unusual fielder positioning. All in all I really enjoyed your article until I looked at "(which has been a long-standing problem)" and was reminded of how frustrating it was too watch Harris and Cabrera stumble around, and how excited I was when they hired Hardy, and how pissed I got when they fired him. And how much more pissed I got when they hired Nishioka and I saw him reinstate the stumbling around. And lately I've heard the Twins won't give up the 45th draft pick for Drew. I thought I had recovered, but you just RIPPED OFF MY HARDY SCAB!! I have to go kick the dog and take a nap now. I'm very tired.
    1. jokin's Avatar
      jokin -
      Quote Originally Posted by Parker Hageman View Post
      First: Stop it.

      Second: Point taken.

      Last: Seriously, though, stop it.
      Hey, it could be worse. I mistakenly conflated this headline with your heads-up companion post on the Twins checking out Chone Figgins, seemingly as part of an escalation on their new strategy to sign a whole stable of washed-up players.
    1. crarko's Avatar
      crarko -
      "Let the Wookie win."
    1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
      Seth Stohs -
      Quote Originally Posted by Brock Beauchamp View Post

      And this is why I want to see Paul Molitor become the next Twins manager. He is one of the few players who got better well into his 30s, indicating that he's open to new ideas and adapting to the environment. He just exudes baseball smarts and this comment just reinforces that opinion.
      getting better as one gets well into his 30s meant something in the late 1990s too, right? Not sure it means he did well at adapting as much as kept himself in good shape and was a great singles hitter for a long time.
    1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
      Seth Stohs -
      My thoughts on shifting are kind of boring. I don't believe in shifting (or shading) for every single batter, all game long. I'd look at the stats and the charts and have a sense. But, I don't think I'd open up crazy holes except for the extremes.
    1. mike wants wins's Avatar
      mike wants wins -
      Stupid math and science.....sports is filled with old school, it has always worked this way, thinking. I hope they are more open to change, and finding any advantage you can.
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by Seth Stohs View Post
      getting better as one gets well into his 30s meant something in the late 1990s too, right? Not sure it means he did well at adapting as much as kept himself in good shape and was a great singles hitter for a long time.
      It's possible it was just health and fitness related but it seems to me like there'd be a fair amount of adjustment in there as well once bat speed and strength starts to fade.
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