clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Into the Shift: Pull Hitters and the Defensive Shift

New, comments

Mariners batters face a lot of defensive shifts. Let's try to figure out if its been detrimental to their offensive output.

Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Last week, I took a look at how the Mariners are employing the defensive shift much more often in the field. They’re now using a shift on almost a quarter of the balls put in play against them. While the Mariners have been slow to adopt this defensive strategy in the field, their batters are very familiar with it since they face a shift so often. Players like Kyle Seager and Seth Smith almost exclusively face a defensive shift when batting. Are they following Wee Willie Keeler’s old adage, "hit it where they ain’t?"

First, a few reminders about the shift data we’re working with:

  • It only includes plate appearances where a ball is put in play. This means strikeouts, walks, and home runs are not accounted for in the data.
  • It is broken into four different splits: all shifts, no shifts, traditional shifts (generally three infielders on one side of the diamond), and non-traditional shifts (situational shifts not covered by the definition of the traditional shift). For the purposes of this article, I’ll be using the data covering all shifts.
  • As it’s presented to us now, there’s no way to further split the shift data to determine how often a batter grounds into the shift or hits a fly ball over the shift. That means the data is a little bit muddy and doesn’t give us a full picture of how effective defensive shifts have been.

As the defensive shift grew in popularity, the amount teams utilized it against the Mariners grew exponentially. Looking at shift trends on the team level forces you to think about roster construction and a balanced lineup. Under Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners accumulated a number of power hitters in an attempt to overcome the run suppressing environment in Safeco Field. Just looking at the shift data since 2010 we can see when Zduriencik started making these acquisitions:

Year

# Shifted

% Shifted

Rank

2010

69

1.2%

15th

2011

135

2.3%

9th

2012

142

2.3%

19th

2013

485

7.9%

2nd

2014

662

11.1%

6th

2015

1134

18.5%

4th

2016

260

28.6%

2nd

Starting in 2013, opposing teams started deploying a shift against the Mariners at a much higher rate than league average. The rate that teams are shifting against them has increased year over year since then, and it hasn’t slowed down either. It has been so pervasive that their batters have faced the second most shifts in all of baseball since 2013. Some of that increase is simply the rising popularity of the shift, but a lot of it is because of how the Mariners’ roster is constructed. Players like Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak, and Logan Morrison have struggled to overcome the defensive shift.

Can you guess which team has been shifted against the most since 2010? Think about a team that has a stacked lineup full of pull hitters. The New York Yankees. A few days ago, Joel Sherman of the New York Post had some interesting comments about defensive shifts from Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman. Cashman said, "It definitely has lent to us realizing that a stadium design that used to move us to gravitate to stack lefty hitters and take advantage of our stadium for 81 [home games] has been negated to a significant degree by the shift. You have to be aware of it when you acquire talent." It’s gotten so bad that Joe Girardi called for a ban on defensive shifts even though his own team has employed them the sixth most since 2010.

There is a positive relationship between hitting for power and pulling the ball. So by stacking their lineup with players who can take advantage of the short porch in right field, the Yankees have also played directly into the defense’s hand as well. Since 2010, the Yankees have the lowest batting average on balls in play in baseball, and much of that is due to the shift.

The Mariners face a similar problem with Safeco Field. Because of the dimensions of the park and the heavy marine layer, right-handed batters are severely disadvantaged. They’ve tried to solve this problem in the same way the Yankees tried to take advantage of their stadium: stacking their lineup with lefty pull hitters. Among the top 50 players who have seen a defensive shift deployed against them, there are seven Mariners or former Mariners. Kyle Seager has seen the most defensive shifts as a Mariner, ranking 20th on that leaderboard.

Have the Mariners performed as poorly as the Yankees have when facing a shift? Let’s take a look at the data from this year and last year:

batter shifts

Surprisingly, when facing a shift, Mariner batters have not performed catastrophically. In fact, they’ve performed rather admirably considering how often they have to beat the shift. During this sample, the Mariners have the second highest Oppo% in baseball and have a robust .301 BABIP when hitting to the opposite field. It’s still early, but the difference in wOBA this year tells me Mariner batters are hitting more singles when facing a shift.

Here’s a look at a few individual splits from last year:

indiv shifts

Both Seth Smith and Robinson Cano have shown an ability to hit to the opposite field when facing a shift and have been very successful when doing so. Kyle Seager didn’t exactly beat the shift by hitting away from the defense, rather he simply hit the ball hard enough to find holes in the defense anyway. Last year, his 26% line drive rate when facing a shift was fourth highest in baseball and his hard hit rate was ninth highest.

But there is a dilemma here. Do you ask batters to adjust their approach at the plate at the expense of their greatest strength? For someone like Robinson Cano, who has the bat speed and control to spray line drives and groundballs to all fields, beating the shift shouldn’t be a problem. But that might not be the right approach for every batter, especially at the expense of their pull power when the situation requires it. It’s a delicate balance that requires situational awareness and good coaching.

The data for this year is still in very small sample size territory so it’s hard to tell whether or not Jerry Dipoto has asked his batters to adjust their strategy. It’s a bit concerning to see the Mariners BABIP so low this season but I don’t think it’s necessarily a product of the defensive shift, rather a low BABIP across the board. Players like Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano, and Leonys Martin should see some healthy regression as the season progresses bringing the team BABIP up towards league average.