RKB: Shifting the D to See Whether Analytics Drives the Motor City’s Baseball Team

The Detroit Tigers have the reputation of being a team late to baseball’s new analytical revolution, but they quietly have been making front-office hires (no, Brad Ausmus did not count) purportedly to try to catch up in that area, and there’s evidence that it’s happening. For example, two weeks ago, something occurredfor what I believe to be the first time in Tigers history, when manager Ron Gardenhire cited input from the analyitics department– excuse me, “analytic department”– as the reason for a decision he’d made:

If you’re excited — or angry — about seeing Jeimer Candelario in the lead-off spot Wednesday night, then feel to credit — or blame — the Detroit Tigers analytics department.

Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said the recent spate of roster changes prompted a consultation with the club’s analytics and research department in an effort to find an ideal batting order.

“We did some research and the analytic department put all the data in there to try to see what gives up our best opportunities,” Gardenhire said. “(Candelario’s) name came up first as lead-off.”

Just the one analytic so far, but it’s a start. Now that we know the Tigers have sabermetric analysts and those analysts convey strategic input to the coaching staff, it’s fair to inquire into the quality of that input. As it turned out with respect to the above example, Candelario only hit leadoff for two games, and while he performed well (four hits, including a double and home run, and two strikeouts in eight plate appearances), it did not seem to be a part of Gardenhire’s long-term plan. Very likely coincidentally, the team lost both of those games, and Gardenhire moved Candelario back to fifth, where he’s hit for most of the season, for the next game, a win. As Lindbergh and Miller’s The Only Rule Is It Has To Work reminds, it’s one thing to develop sabermetrically informed strategies and another to implement them with coaches and players. (And, as beat writer Evan Woodbery pointed out in the article quoting Gardenhire, Detroit didn’t have many good options for the leadoff position anyway.)

More recently, Tigers observers and fans have cited with excitement a data point on defensive shifts an FSD producer pointed out over the weekend as more good evidence in this area, even suggesting that the team was becoming a leader (first place!) in the realm of new analytics-based strategy:

The irony of the timing of this was that it came as lead Baseball Prospectus writer Russell Carleton was in the process of dismantling the notion of the shift as a useful defensive strategy. 

Defensive shifts really reemerged in 2016 and exploded in popularity beginning in the 2017 season, and the strategy became perceived as a visible indicator of a team’s modern savviness. It also became the new flashpoint between “traditional” and “sabermetric” or “analytical” baseball commentators, even generating a proposal by Commissioner Rob Manfred to ban the shift (so you know it had to be good).

As they had with the original sabermetric flashpoint, WAR, however, proponents of the new strategy eventually would come around to seeing its shortcomings. The battleground for the WAR debate was the American League MVP race in 2012-13, the first two full seasons of Mike Trout’s career. Evaluations based on WAR liked Trout’s all-around skillset, while more traditional evaluations favored Miguel Cabrera, and his triple crown accolades. When Cabrera claimed the MVP over Trout in both seasons, many viewed it as an anachronistic rejection of new, objective, and enlightened truths. Five years later, though, following some tweaks to the WAR model, Baseball Prospectus conceded an error. Cabrera, they realized, had been an even better hitter than they believed at the time, so much so that it overcame whatever advantages Trout held in other phases of the game. The veteran deserved those MVP awards after all.

Now, four years after Manfred considered an attempt to banish the shift, and just as the stuck-in-time Tigers had shifted their way to the ostensible front of the strategic pack, the strategy’s original advocates were poised to ban the shift themselves. What happened?

Carleton has been studying and writing about the shift for a long time. He even wrote a book called The Shift!

In a recent series of articles published at BP, Carleton explained his realization that the shift wasn’t working. To be more precise, it was working as intended, in that it was eating up ground balls to the shifted side of the infield, but it wasn’t working as an overall successful strategy, because pitcher behavior in front of the shift– chiefly, throwing more balls– had adverse effects for the defense that overwhelmed whatever positive effects the strategy contributed. Was BP really proclaiming “the Death of the Shift“?

Parsing the data more carefully, Carleton explained in subsequent articles that the shift is salvageable as a useful strategy if employed only under certain conditions. And, surprisingly, it seems the reason the shift works when it does work is not because of its effect on balls in play but because of its effect on strikeouts:

The shift does seem to “work” for reducing BABIP for everyone the way that it’s supposed to, a little better for lefties than righties, but profit is profit. The walk penalty is still a real thing. We see that walk rates do go up in front of the shift, on both sides of the plate. What differs is that the shift also seems to increase the number of strikeouts among left-handed batters as well, while having the completely opposite effect for righties. Righties also see an increase in their extra-base hits and their home run output, while for lefties, it’s mostly flat. Handedness is clearly the key variable. . . .

With lefties, the shift does steal back more outs than it gives away in walks, though surprisingly, in the form of strikeouts. It seems that pitchers go for a style of pitching which favors a lack of contact, which does produce more walks, but also more K’s. Considering everything, the shift is a net positive against lefty swingers. Not so much for righties, where the ball tends to go into play more with destructive results.

(Emphasis added.)

Thus, the problem with the shift isn’t so much the shift itself as it is the implementation of the shift and, more specifically, the over-implementation of the shift. In light of that, Detroit’s leader-of-the-pack position on shifting really doesn’t sound so good.

Since that tweet above, Detroit’s status as shifters-in-chief has shifted, but only very slightly and not in any meaningful way. They now are merely the second shiftiest team in the majors, shifting on about fifty-two percent of all plate appearances so far in 2020. They very clearly remain in full-tilt shift mode. How did they get to this point?

In 2016, the leaguewide shift rate (i.e., the percentage of plate appearances in which team defenses utilized a shift) was 13.7%, and only five teams were shifting more than twenty-percent of the time. This season, the overall shift rate is 35.4%, and only two teams are shifting less than twenty-percent of the time.* Three teams, the Dodgers, Tigers, and Brewers, are shifting on more than half of all plate appearances.

In light of what we’ve just learned, there’s very good reason to believe that the Tigers, like an overeager puppy tearing up a new toy, suddenly are behaving in a destructive manner.

The graph below (click to expand) tracks Detroit’s shifting tendencies both overall and based on batter handedness, since that’s the rough demarcation between good shifts (against left-handed batters) and bad ones (against right-handed batters), over time.

Unfortunately, the visual suggestion here is that new shifts against right-handed hitters is what’s driving the 2020 spike in the Tigers’ overall shift rate. Have the increases in overall and RHH shift rates– the things Carleton’s research says teams generally should not do– hurt the Tigers?

On one hand, the team’s overall walk rates remained pretty stable during this period, and walk rates against right-handed hitters actually were lower than they were against left-handed hitters, though that doesn’t necessary tell us much as there are a variety of other factors that should be controlled, and I’m just a fan, not a miracle worker. On the other hand, the Tigers have stunk pretty bad, and especially so in the 2018 and 2019 seasons in which they were ramping up their shifting. 

But what about specific results? That’s what led Carleton– and the rest of us along with him– down this trail in the first place. He saw that defensive results when the shift was on were worse than when it wasn’t and went about investigating. His current conclusion, that shifting against left-handed hitters works (for an unexpected reason) but shifting against right-handed hitters doesn’t, is a general one. It does not foreclose, for example, the possibility that an individual team might have figured out a productive way to shift against righty batters. The table below shows how right-handed batters performed against Detroit pitching over the same period explored above in shift and non-shift situations.  

In 2016 and 2017, consistent with Carleton’s conclusion, shifting against right-handed hitters proved to be a bad strategy for the Tigers. The relationship reversed in 2018, however, coinciding with the beginning of the team’s shifting increase, and that reversed relationship held as that shifting increase continued, including with an apparent emphasis on shifting against righties.

How the Tigers bucked the trend and found success where the generally applicable information says they should have failed is a subject for another post and, very likely, another author. It may be that the Gardenhire regime, which came to Detroit in 2018, was better able to help pitchers avoid the tendencies that caused the sorts of problems Carleton identified with the shift. It may be that, following the actual and effective departures of veterans Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Francisco Rodriguez, and Jordan Zimmermann during and after the 2017 season, the team suddenly found itself with a much younger pitching staff that wasn’t as fazed by the shift. It may be that I’ve misunderstood the data and the smart, experienced professionals at BP are the ones who have it right. It probably is that last one, but at least I can convince myself for a moment that maybe the Tigers, organizationally, really are driving in the right direction. After all, they currently are just one position out of a playoff berth, whatever that means this year.

* Statistics and information contained herein current through yesterday evening.


RKB: A Second Look at MLB Pitcher Casey Mize – 8/30
RKB: 2020 is the Season: Turn, Turn, Turnbull – 8/18
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – UPDATED PECOTA Ed.
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – Spring Training Ed.
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – Payroll Ed.

Shift the shift: Victor Martinez and counter-strategies
A strategic switch to beat the shift?


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