Don’t Worry, MLB — Hitters Are Killing The Shift On Their Own

When asked about Major League Baseball’s interest in restricting defensive shifts, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle recalled that when he was growing up in Merritt Island, Florida, they were often short on players for neighborhood games. Hurdle said they would arbitrarily cut the field in half to solve the problem. “Sometimes we’d shut down the pull field. … We just would do it to change the game and realized we learned how to hit the ball the other way,” said Hurdle. “What the shifts are telling hitters is, ‘Here’s what you do. Where is your counterpunch? Where is your answer?’”

Many coaches, commentators and baseball observers have asked the same question, bemoaning batters’ seeming inability to adjust to opponents’ shifts — the tactic of moving defensive players out of their usual position to overload one side of the infield, a strategy that has proliferated across the sport in the past decade. The shifts have also become one of the most conspicuous on-field byproducts of baseball’s data age as more and more teams decide how to align their defenses using actual batted-ball data. In December, The Athletic’s Jayson Stark reported that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred had “strong” backing from baseball’s competition committee to limit defensive shifts. Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo’s Christmas wish was to see shifts banned.

But in all the hand-wringing over the shift, one detail has been overlooked: Batters have adjusted, and they’ve done it without league intervention or legislation. What’s more, there’s reason to believe shifts are actually encouraging increasingly efficient offensive behavior.

Shifts have grown at a staggering rate. In 2011, defenses deployed the shift — counting both the traditional (three infielders to one side of second base) and non-traditional varieties — during 3,065 major league plate appearances that ended with a ball being put into play,1 according to Baseball Info Solutions data housed at FanGraphs. That’s only 2.6 percent of all at-bats where balls were put in play. The number of plate appearance where hitters faced the shift has increased every year since, save for 2017. Last season, batters faced the shift in a record 40,730 total plate appearances ending on balls in play — that’s about 34 percent of such plate appearances.

The era of the shift has coincided with a league-wide decline in batting average, though that is more a product of the record strikeouts rates in recent years as fewer and fewer balls are put in play, as batting averages on balls that are put into play has remained steady despite all the shifting, as you can see on the chart below.

While shift usage has grown dramatically, there’s evidence that batters have adjusted by going over the shift, which reduced the overall effectiveness of the shift across baseball.

In 2011, batters hit ground balls 53.2 percent of the time when they put a ball in play against the shift. Last season that number was 43.9 percent, which is the lowest such rate since at least 2010, the first year for which data is available on FanGraphs. When batters are not facing shifts, ground-ball rates have remained steady. Batters had a 45.9 percent ground-ball rate in 2011 when not facing a shift and a 45.9 percent ground-ball mark last season. You can see the divergence in strategies in the following chart. The drop in ground-ball rates against the shift suggest that more players are trying to bypass the infielders altogether by knocking one over their heads.

Not all hitters try to adapt — Bryce Harper, for example, has a career 1.4 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio both when facing a shift and when not facing a shift. But those who do, Joey Votto, tend to go high. Votto’s career ratio when not facing a shift is 1.57 ground balls to fly balls, but that drops to 1.44 against the shift.

“I’ve tried to avoid the right side of the infield shift,” Votto said in 2017. “I’m not excited about hitting balls to that side because I could hammer a one-hopper to the second baseman or shortstop, or whoever they have stationed over there. … Personally, I embrace the fly-ball thing just because of that reason.”

The average launch angle of a batted ball has increased in every year of Statcast era,2 rising gradually from 10.1 degrees in 2015 to 11.7 in 2018. But with the shift on, batters are even more likely to hit the ball in the air. The average launch angle against the shift last season was 14.7 degrees, a notable jump up from 13.1 in 2015.

In addition to MLB-wide trends, I looked at the behavior of the regularly shifted-upon batters in 2018 to see how their approaches changed.3 This group combined for a 42.5 percent ground-ball rate when facing shifts and a 44.1 percent rate when not facing shifts.

“Is [banning the shift] that going to produce more batting average? Maybe,” said Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch at the winter meetings. “More runs? Debatable. A more energized and entertaining game? I doubt it.”

Left-handed hitters are an interesting study since they now put more balls in play with the shift on (26,076 last season vs. shift) than off (23,214 against no form of shift).

Last season, left-handed batters hit for a higher average (.300), greater slugging percentage (.388) and lower ground-ball rate (44.0 percent) when the shift was on compared to when there was no shift (.295 average, .380 slugging mark, 45.7 groundball rate). And because Baseball Info Solutions can only track shift data when a ball is put into play, those stats do not include home runs, since they are not in play.

In some ways, the shift has backfired. Batters have an incentive to hit more balls in the air, and balls hit in the air are more valuable. When batters faced a shift last season, 5.2 percent of balls they put in play went for a home run. When they didn’t face a shift, 4.1 percent of balls went for home runs, according to Statcast data.

While more batters try to go over shifts, they are not always going to the air in the most optimized manner. Every hitter who has faced a shift has probably been advised to try and go the other way. And as a result, the percentage of batters pulling line drives and fly balls against the shift has fallen off notably since 2010, from a 31.5 percent pull rate in 2010 to 26.2 percent in 2018. But by going the other way, batters might actually be hurting themselves. They are purposely avoiding the most valuable batted ball in baseball: a pulled ball in the air.

Consider that in 2018, 32.7 percent of fly balls to a batter’s pull side went for home runs, compared to 8.1 percent of fly balls to center field and 3.8 percent to the opposite field. Batters across the league had a .429 average and 1.514 slugging percentage on fly balls hit to the pull side and a .135 average and .324 slugging mark on balls hit to the opposite field. That’s not much more valuable than a ground ball. Last season, MLB batters hit .236 and had a .258 slugging percentage on ground balls.

Many have made the case for batters facing the shift to simply bunt more often. After all, batters have hit at least .357 when bunting against a shift every season since 2010. Would bunting be more effective than, say, trying to go over the shift? Not for most batters.

According to weighted runs created plus (wRC+) — a metric that adjusts for ballpark and scoring environments, with 100 representing league average — batters produced a 53 wRC+ mark on bunts against all shift types last season compared to a 127 wRC+ mark when putting the ball in the air against shifts.

Batters seem to unwilling to sacrifice potential power in pursuit of infield bunt singles. The percent of at-bats against the shift where the batter bunted has fallen four straight years, from 2.92 percent (2015) to 2.12 percent (2016), 1.88 percent (2017) and 1.73 percent (2018).

One other issue: Teams are pitching less effectively to the shift.

As more and more batters use an uppercut swing to better combat sinking fastballs, which are designed to produce ground balls, the percentage of sinkers thrown has decreased. Sinkers represented 22.4 percent of all pitches thrown in 2010. Last year? 16.9 percent.

The shift will always be effective against pull-side ground balls and low line drives. Batters who hit those batted ball types often, especially left-handed hitters, can see their batting average drop. But more and more batters might be learning to combat the shift. When factoring in all batted ball types — not just grounders and low liners — the MLB batting average on balls in play has remained stagnant. In 2010 — a relatively shift-free season — league-wide batting average on balls in play for all defensive configurations was .297. Last season? .296. The figure has held relatively steady even while scoring and slugging have increased, despite the growing use of shifts. Maybe shifts aren’t such a problem after all.

“The beauty of the game is all the strategies that we can employ,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said at the winter meetings. So “attacking strategies to win baseball games, man, I just don’t see that as improving the game.”

During Slow Offseasons, The Brewers Keep Finding Deals

The Milwaukee Brewers took advantage of an ice-cold hot-stove season last winter to become the rare team to win in the offseason and in the regular season. By agreeing Wednesday night with free-agent catcher Yasmani Grandal on a one-year, $18.25 million deal, the Brewers again took advantage of an opportunity to find tremendous value. As most teams zig in another slow offseason, the Brewers, again, zag.

While Grandal didn’t have a great postseason with the Dodgers last fall, he was one of the best players available on the free-agent market. According to the Baseball Prospectus version of wins above replacement, which includes a catcher’s pitch-framing ability, Grandal was the 14th most valuable position player in baseball last season (5.0 WAR) and the eighth most valuable player per plate appearance (5.8 WAR per 600 plate appearances) among qualified hitters.

That was not a fluke.

In terms of total value, Grandal was the No. 1 position player by WAR per plate appearance in 2016 (8.7 WAR per 600 plate appearances), and he ranked seventh in 2017. Over the past four seasons, he was worth 21.2 total WAR. That’s star-level production. He turned 30 in November, so he’s not ancient in baseball terms. But despite all this going for him, Grandal settled for a one-year deal.

The switch-hitter offers rare power and patience at the catcher position. Over the past four seasons, his walk rate of 12.8 percent ranks 19th among all MLB batters. His .453 slugging mark ranks third among all qualified catchers, and his 116 weighted runs created plus, a measure of offensive ability that adjusts for park and run-scoring environments,1 trails only Gary Sanchez and Buster Posey.

Not only is Grandal’s offense rare at his position, but his ability to frame pitches — to get more borderline pitches called favorably — gives him tremendous value at the plate and behind it.

Grandal led all catchers in framing runs last season (15.7 runs saved above average). He ranked fourth in 2017 and second in 2016. Even as catchers as a group have improved their ability to receive or frame pitches, raising the floor of the skill, Grandal has maintained his edge. By runs saved, framing is more valuable than blocking balls in the dirt, an area in which Grandal is not as adept.

Consider the following visual evidence of Grandal’s magic behind the plate last season. As a Clayton Kershaw slider darted slightly outside the strike zone, Grandal’s glove moved it back to within the confines of the zone. A pitch that should have been called a ball then appeared to be a strike.

Grandal managed to softly absorb this high-and-away Kershaw fastball and make it appear to finish as a strike. It’s a subtle but valuable skill.

Grandal was attached to a qualifying offer, meaning that the team signing him would have to surrender draft-pick compensation. As a revenue-sharing recipient, the Brewers will surrender their third-highest pick in the draft. The qualifying offer slightly diminished Grandal’s value, but qualifying offers are far from the only — and far from the greatest — issue conspiring against free agents. Even after last winter’s lack of free-agent activity, Grandal likely expected that he would be able to do much better than the deal he got. He not only turned down the Los Angeles Dodgers’ qualifying offer earlier in the offseason, but he also reportedly rejected a four-year, $60 million offer from the New York Mets.

Instead, Grandal becomes the latest free agent to receive far fewer dollars and years than he had initially sought.

The average salary in baseball declined last year for just the fourth time in the past 50 years and the first time since 2004, according to the Associated Press.

Through Wednesday, the 73rd day of this offseason, 10.2 percent of available free agents2 had signed for a total of $856.2 million, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of data from The Baseball Cube. While that’s an improvement over the same point of last offseason, when only 6.5 percent of free agents had signed for $550.5 million, the total dollars spent to date are still down from 2016-17 ($1.017 billion through Day 73), 2015-16 ($1.697 billion), 2014-15 ($1.308 billion) and 2013-14 ($1.452 billion).

And the share of free agents signed is trending above the past two offseasons, but it’s still trailing the previous three:

As the free agency landscape changes, some teams seem to be looking for openings to give them an edge. Grandal has been the Brewers’ only guaranteed free-agent signing so far,3 but it’s a significant addition in their quest to repeat as National League Central champs.

Sara Ziegler contributed research.

Baseball’s Hot Stove Has Gone From Cold To Basically Turned Off

LAS VEGAS — The Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino was, in some ways, the most appropriate host for baseball’s winter meetings: After all, this offseason was once expected to be punctuated by announcements of record-setting, high-dollar free-agency deals. Bryce Harper, a premier free agent, is a Las Vegas native. But away from the din of the casino floor, a podium set up for press conferences in a vast ballroom was largely quiet last week. After last winter marked the slowest signing period in at least the previous 18 years, this offseason is starting even more slowly, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of free-agent data.

Teams already seemed less interested in giving time on the field to players over the age of 30 — the time frame in which many players first become eligible for free agency. But now, early in the offseason, teams also seem increasingly less willing to spend on any free agent.

Consider that through Monday, 50 days after the World Series concluded, only 5.2 percent of available free-agent players23 had signed major league deals for guaranteed money, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of data from The Baseball Cube. Fifty days after the end of the 2017 World Series, 5.5 percent of available free agents had signed. Two years ago that number was 9.2 percent. In the three offseasons prior to that winter — 2015-16, 2014-15 and 2013-14 — it was 9.2, 7.8 and 10.9 percent respectively.

Through Monday, $442.5 million had been spent on free agents. That’s down from $469.8 million at the same point last year, which was down from $976.5 million in the winter of 2016-17, $1.401 billion in 2015-16, $1.173 billion in 2014-15 and $1.229 billion through the middle of December 2013.

“We’ll closely monitor developments,” an MLB Players Association spokesperson said to FiveThirtyEight last month. “If 30 clubs are competing for a pennant, the free-agent market for players will be robust.”

But fewer teams seem interested in competing.

The Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks, 2018 contenders, are retooling. The American League Central champion Cleveland Indians have shed payroll in a weak division they can likely win without spending on free agents.

And teams seem to have learned, collectively, to wait out free agents. Thirty-five free agents signed guaranteed major league deals last year between Feb. 1 and opening day,24 compared with 18 in 2017, 13 in 2016, 10 in 2015 and 13 in 2014. The longer free agents wait, the fewer dollars they’re typically awarded.

Even the star free agents are having to wait.

Consider that in the not-so-distant past, top players had usually signed by now. Just look at the contracts inked before Christmases past: On Dec. 1, 2015, David Price signed the richest deal ever for a starting pitcher (seven years and $217 million) with the Boston Red Sox, and he was followed three days later by Zack Greinke, who signed a six-year, $206.5 million deal with Arizona. On Dec. 10 of the previous year, Jon Lester signed a $155 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. And in 2013, Robinson Cano signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Seattle Mariners on Dec. 6, just three days after Jacoby Ellsbury signed a seven-year, $153 million deal with the Yankees.

But the five richest contracts of last offseason were awarded after Jan. 24. And only one contract so far this offseason has topped $100 million

There are other factors behind the slow down, said Chaim Bloom, vice president of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays. His club reportedly signed pitcher Charlie Morton on Dec.12.

“I’m hesitant to call something a trend before having [enough] information to really say this is a new normal — it might just be a slight shift in the timetable,” Bloom said to FiveThirtyEight last week. “There is a lot more information available. Teams increasingly like to have more and more information before making decisions. That may push some things later in the calendar. I also think — and this offseason is a good example of it — staff movement and staff [hirings] are taking up a larger chunk of offseason. … The more coaching staffs and front offices grow, the more time that is going to take [in early offseason].”

Have teams learned to wait out the market?

“I don’t know if it’s ideal for clubs, necessarily,” Bloom said of the slower markes. “You want to go into spring training knowing who you have.”

Free agency has become more and more a battleground between teams and players. Clubs are accused of suppressing the service time of potential stars so as to control their prime years at cheaper salaries. Teams also seem to be wary of allocating a large share of their payroll to one player. Alex Rodriguez’s $275 million deal with the Yankees — signed Dec. 13, 2007 — remains the record for a free-agent contract even as MLB revenues have increased from $6 billion in 2007 to exceeding $10 billion in 2017.

Regardless of whether free-agent superstars Harper and Manny Machado set contract records, they are expected to receive guaranteed dollars well into nine figures. The greater concern for the union is what another slow-to-develop market means for the middle class of free agents — which represents the vast majority of players.

A slow-to-develop market forced unsigned players to create their own spring training camp last year in Bradenton, Florida. David Freese knows this trend well. After the former World Series MVP finished the 2015 season with 2.2 wins above replacement, he sought a lucrative, multiple-year contract. But he had to settle in March for a one-year, $3 million deal with the Pirates.

“It was a tough situation to handle,” Freese said in 2016. “The waiting, it challenges your heart. Sitting around while guys are out playing [in spring training] … seeing games, seeing guys in the field.”

Rather than test free agency this winter after the Dodgers were likely to turn down his $6 million club option, he re-signed with the club on a one-year, $4.5 million deal.

Freese isn’t the only player to take that approach. Josh Donaldson — the 2015 A.L. MVP — agreed to a one-year, $23 million deal with Atlanta on Nov. 26. He was joined by 18 other free agents signing contracts for just one year, making up 67.9 percent of the 28 signings so far through Monday. That’s the greatest share of one-year contracts signed through the first 50 days of the offseason over the past six winters. (The next closest was 52 percent in 2016-17.)

Some of these players may have decided to bet on themselves on shorter-term deals in the hopes of maximizing their future earning potential. Or perhaps they are responding to seeing players with hopes of signing lucrative multi-year deals last offseason, like Mike Moustakas and Neil Walker, languish on the market until spring training had started.

Free agents across the game appear to be in store for another longer wait. Perhaps this is the new normal.

Sara Ziegler contributed research.