Friday, May 11, 2012

John Farrell continues radical defensive shifts

Scorecard, Jays at Athletics May 08, 2012 
Bottom of 9th 
(Inning starts at 9th batter)
Toronto Blue Jays' Manager John Farrell continues to use radical shifts to defence specific batters. 

In April, Farrell played 3rd baseman Bret Lawrie in shallow right and straight up the middle behind 2nd base against specific batters in the Boston Red Sox order; and then again vs the Baltimore Orioles in the next series. For a week there it seemed to me that the game had suddenly changed. The euphoria was short lived though as the incidence of radical shifts by the Blue Jays and the teams they were facing seemed to disappear after that.

This week the Jays hit the road for their first west coast trip of the year. By my memory, Farrell used the shift twice against the Los Angeles Angels.

Late Tuesday night, May 8th in Oakland California in the 9th, the wheels were turning once again.

I scored the game[1] so I have a good record of the shifts and the pitches thrown in those AB's. In the bottom of the 9th Farrell decided to first set up a force out, and then on the next batter to load 'em up (both times, batters had a 3-0 advantage in the count) this was just after the Athletics had tied the game on a base hit. After a passed ball moved runners to second and third (the winng run at third), the manager decided to load the bases. Francisco Cordero, former Jays' Closer (today Casey Janssen), was not able to throw strikes.

Now with the second IBB on first and the bases loaded, and one out - Farrell brings in Jose Bautista from right field to be a fifth infielder. Bautista is to play behind 2nd base, the rest of the infield in. The play is to either cut the run down at the plate, or a double play to get out of the inning. A team meeting on the mound continues while Bautista runs in from right field, into the dugout to get his infielders' glove.

Alas, despite all the best laid plans, the Athletics Brandon Inge smackes the first pitch over the left field wall for a walk-off, grand slam home run.

That's the thing about defensive shifts - the pitcher has to execute the pitch that the hitter is supposed to then hit into the juggernaut.

So why so much defensive shifting this year? It's not just Toronto, Baltimore is doing it too, and the Rays... . The Rays, with their manager, Joe the-smartest-person-in-the-room Maddon[2], with their sabr-metric inspired shift defence, national league inspired double switches which optimize the tandems that the Rays' use.

Has Joe Maddon changed the game? Have SABR-metrics finally found a metric to a championship season?

MLB's Clubhouse Confidential - "On the evolution of the shift"

A few years ago it became obvious to many in the game at the Major League level that the ball was juiced[3]. As well by 2005, many were also aware that batters and pitchers were also 'juiced'. On August 10, 2006 I wrote here[4], about something I'd heard on the Bob McCown radio show, "Prime Time Sports"... ..that a Major League Base Coach said that he was sure the ball was faster off the bat, he called it a 'nuclear baseball' (I was not able to find an attribution).

With this idea - that the ball was coming off the bat faster than the old ball had - I came up with a theory on how teams might better defense such a universe. The tactics seemed counter intuitive at the time - but now, the narration seems simple, truthful and perhaps obvious - with-in the context of a ball faster off the bat:

Due to the speed of the ball off the bat in the 'nuclear baseball' era, the number of total bases per game is up - due to the increase the number of line drives that split the outfield (and the infield). Therefore, teams that deploy a speedy outfield should reduce their team's total-bases-against appreciably.

I conjectured that speedy outfielders would have a better chance to get to these 'nuclear' line-drives - and thus - focusing on the defensive attributes when signing free agents and drafting, could be an important, and cheap way to cut down total runs-against.

Unbeknownst to me, at the same time I was writing that in 2006, Joe Maddon and the Ray's were drafting "athletes" to build what we are now beginning to understand as a new type of baseball team - a team built around an idea that great team defense nullifies the standard American League team template:

power at the corners (3,5,7,9), defence secondary. In a nutshell the idea is: with the weight of the DH in the line-up, a 'piling on' of 20 HR/yr hitters can beat good pitching.

The Rays are a new type of baseball team because they are employing all the information they can get - like the new defensive metrics being produced by Baseball Info Solutions - a company started by SABR-metric practitioner, John Dewan. The company is using (amoung other tools), TV production feeds to measure exact vectors for all hit ball - and applying that data over a 3-dimensional map of the field, allowing for complex vector analysis. The metrics mirror Retrosheet data gathering and processing concepts.

As in Money Ball metrics, the concept works in favour of those who employ it - because it leverages against accepted understandings though out Baseball that are proven incorrect with better data.


[1] Blogger Baseball Scorecard - "05/08/12 Jays at Athletics Game 1 Scorecard" -

[2] ESPN - October 13, 2010 "The Smartest Person in the Room" by Jason Collette -

MLB's Clubhouse Confidential April 26, 2012 "On the evolution of the shift" -

[3] Wikipedia, "Juiced Ball Theory" -

[4] Michael Holloway's Baseball Blogs, August 10, 2006 "Baseball will survive MLB" -

More on this Radical Defensive Shifting

SBNation April 10, 2012, "Are Rays' Shifts Redefining Infield Defense?" by Rob Neyer (

MLB April 26, 2012, "Rays redefining defense with the shift"
Tampa Bay repositioning more frequently, frustrating opponents
by Adam Berry

New York Times May 7, 2012 - "Rays’ Joe Maddon: The King of Shifts" by Hunter Atkins

Baseball Info Solutions: The Fielding Bible - "Frequently Asked Questions about Plus/Minus and Runs Saved"

Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) an innovator
in the collection, interpretation, commercialization and
dissemination of in-depth baseball statistics

SABR Analytics Conference - Day 3 
Saturday, March 17, 2012
“The Fielding Bible III—An Evaluation of the Ted Williams Shift”
 with John Dewan and Ben Jedlovec, 

10:15-11 a.m.: RP10—John Dewan/Ben Jedlovec, “The Fielding Bible III—An Evaluation of the Ted Williams Shift”

Baseball Info Solutions owner John Dewan and analyst Ben Jedlovec will present research from their latest book, The Fielding Bible--Volume III. Their presentation will cover the implementation and effect of the increasingly popular Ted Williams shift. Their research uncovers the most frequently shifted hitters and their performance with and without the shift. In addition, they will discuss the effect of the count, pitch type, and pitch location on the hitter's pull rate and recommend adjustments the defense can make to anticipate the direction of the ball in play thus improving overall team defense.

John Dewan left his highly successful career as an actuary to become one of the founders, majority owner, and CEO of STATS, Inc. because, as he says, “Sports numbers are much more fun than insurance numbers.” Dewan sold STATS to Rupert Murdoch in 1999. He is now the owner of Baseball Info Solutions, which has developed the most in-depth database of detailed baseball information in the industry. The third volume of his highly acclaimed Fielding Bible series, focusing on defensive analytics, is hot off the presses, available in bookstores and websites now.

Ben Jedlovec is a Research Analyst for Baseball Info Solutions, where he plays a large role in the development of new data and analysis for BIS clients. He serves as a defensive analytics consultant for ESPN, contributes regularly to ESPN during the baseball season, and has published research in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.

Listen to John Dewan's and Ben Jedlovec's presentation here (MP3)

View John Dewan's and Ben Jedlovec's PowerPoint slides here (PPT)
(MS PowerPoint download) -

For complete coverage of the SABR Analytics Conference, visit