Baseball’s infield shift: The game inside the game
The infield shift is a defensive tactic being used more than ever throughout baseball, and some managers relish “the psychological ploy” it creates with hitters.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Mariners @ Minnesota, 5:10 p.m.
By the numbers
102 Times Justin Smoak hit into an infield shift in 2013, the most of any Mariners hitter.
8,134 Times MLB teams shifted on balls in play last year. This season, teams are on pace to shift nearly 14,000 times.
261 Shifts the Mariners used on balls in play last season, 14th most in the majors. They’ve used 106 this year so far, 16th most.
Source: Hardball Times, Baseball Info Solutions
It might cause his wife to hit her keyboard from time to time, but Justin Smoak insisted the extreme defensive shift he faces almost every at-bat doesn’t bother him much.
“You really can’t let it get in your head,” the Mariners’ switching-hitting first baseman said.
Still, Smoak has been pondering ways to beat the shift, a defensive tactic being used more than ever throughout baseball. Smoak hit into an infield shift more than any other Mariner last year, and he has one seemingly simple solution to shock the shift.
“It’s going to happen one time this year where I lay a bunt down,” said Smoak, who hit into the shift 102 times in 2013, according to data collected by Hardball Times. “It’s just a matter of me doing it. But it’s going to happen, and hopefully it will change things up.”
That would seem to make Kristin Smoak happy. Earlier this month, she took to Twitter to share her displeasure with the infield shift, presumably after another of her husband’s would-be hits turned into another routine ground out.
“I despise the shift ... Not to sound like a whiny baby but I don’t think it’s right,” she tweeted.
Sorry, the shift has become the new normal, and Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon seems to relish “the psychological ploy” it creates with hitters.
“All this movement is infiltrating the rest of baseball right now,” said Maddon, who is credited with popularizing the shift, which the Rays have used for years. “Regarding quote-unquote ‘beating the shift,’ there’s different ways of looking at that, too. Just because you hit the other way doesn’t mean you necessarily beat the shift.”
Maddon can live with the occasional opposite-field hit, as the Mariners’ Kyle Seager did Monday, beating the Rays’ shift with a ground-ball single to left field. In the long term, data support the strategically-shifted defense. Surely, Maddon would be more than happy to see Smoak attempt a bunt, too.
“Sometimes you prefer that from this dugout, that a guy would try that,” Maddon said.
And while Smoak and other Mariners hitters say they don’t want to overthink the shift, Maddon did credit hitters for their improving approach against the shift.
The head games can go both ways.
“What it’s causing people to do is play the game a little bit more — understanding scores, outs, game situations in general, where (hitters) maybe have not been so much in tune with (those) more recently,” Maddon said. “I think that’s becoming more prominent.”
Hitters are making more adjustments as they see more shifts, but it’s not enough.
“Pitching and defense right now have such an advantage, and the advantage is going to remain theirs,” Maddon said. “I’m not sure exactly how long, but it’s going to remain theirs.”
It would, Maddon said, take “a significant amount of well-struck balls hit the other way” for him to think twice about using the shift.
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon has challenged his hitters to try force opposing managers to do just that.
“If you really think about it, when a team puts a shift on you, what the other manager is telling you is you aren’t good enough to hit the ball the other way,” McClendon said he told his players. “You put it on them. And tell them how it is.”
Smoak knows better than to try a bunt late in a tight game. He enters the series this weekend at Minnesota tied for the team lead (with Seager and Mike Zunino) with six home runs, so the Mariners no doubt want him to try to pull the ball with power in such a situation. But if the Mariners are down, say, two runs in the fifth inning and Smoak is leading off, sure, he might try a bunt for the first time.
“It all depends on the certain situation,” Smoak said.
Seager said similar adjustments are made within each at-bat. With two strikes against him, he’s more likely to try to sneak a grounder the other way.
“It’s not quite as easy as it seems; it would be nice if it was,” Seager said. “At the same time, if you get a pitch up and over, especially with two strikes, by all means take it (the other way).”
Defensively, Seager has been the key figure in the Mariners’ increasing use of the shift. Against dead-pull lefties — such as Oakland’s Brandon Moss — Seager will move from third over to the right side of second base, with second baseman Robinson Cano sliding over to shallow right field.
It’s a familiar feeling for Seager, who played second base in college and some in the minor leagues. He’s helped turn two 6-5-3 double plays at second this year.
“It’s been a smooth transition,” Seager said.
Before each series, infield coach Chris Woodward uses spray charts, advanced scouting data and video to determine when the Mariners will use a shift.
Woodward noted that the shift isn’t anything new — Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado, a teammate of Woodward’s in the early 2000s, saw them frequently — but teams are orchestrating them more often, and more effectively. According to Sports Illustrated, in 2008 left-handed hitters hit .410 when pulling the ball; this year, that average is .337.
Across baseball, teams shifted 8,134 times last year, according to Baseball Info Solutions. This year, teams are on pace to shift nearly 14,000 times.
The Mariners used 261 shifts last year. That ranked 14th in the majors. This season, they’ve used 106 shifts, which ranks 16th in baseball, said Joe Rosales, a research and development associate for Baseball Info Solutions.
Those 106 shifts have saved the Mariners an estimated one run in 40 games, according to BIS measurements. That’s not a lot.
By comparison, the Houston Astros already have employed 368 shifts on balls in play, which has saved them an estimated 11 runs.
Further, the Mariners’ opponents’ batting average on grounders and short line drives — those most affected by infield shifts — is actually higher (.281) than when the Mariners don’t shift (.240).
“So whether it has been bad luck or whether they are shifting against the wrong hitters, their opponents are finding ways to beat the shift,” Rosales said. “Over the long haul, though, we would expect those numbers to reverse themselves as long as the Mariners are deploying their shifts appropriately.”
Woodward said he believes they are.
“There’s plenty of times this year when our shift has worked great,” he said.
Woodward employs the shift differently based on who’s pitching. The way he sets up the infield is different behind Felix Hernandez than it is for Hisashi Iwakuma. In general, McClendon said he’s “not a real big proponent” of using shifts, especially with a young pitcher, but he acknowledges that it “makes sense” with a veteran who hits his spots consistently, thus making the infielders’ positioning more precise.
Woodward doesn’t like to shift against most right-handed hitters — as the Astros have done, notably against the Mariners’ Corey Hart — or with runners in scoring position. But he said it has “been fun to manipulate the guys out there and take hits away.”
Meanwhile, Smoak will continue to consider a bunt.
“He talks about it all the time,” Seager said. “But he’s swinging the bat pretty well, so he should stay with what he’s doing.”
In baseball’s shifting culture, you can be sure defenses will do the same.
Adam Jude: 206-464-2364