Recently, Royals manager Ned Yost said his team will be more defensive shifts in 2018. The Royals' analytics department believes using more defensive shifts — putting three defenders on one side of the infield — over the long run will result in fewer hits by the opposition.
Here’s the rationale.
If a left-handed batter hits 70 percent of his ground balls to the right side of the infield, why not put three defenders between first and second base? Sure, 30 percent of the time the batter might hit ground balls to the left side of the infield, but over the course of a season, isn’t playing the odds and putting more defenders where the batter tends to hit the ball a smart move?
In theory, yes. But things can get complicated.
The hitter’s approach can change the odds
Some batters tend to pull everything: inside pitches, outside pitches, off-speed stuff and fastballs. If that’s the case, the pitcher can throw any pitch to any location and still have a good chance of getting a ball hit to the pull-side of the field ... right into the defensive shift.
Other batters tend to pull the ball when they’re ahead in the count, but once they have two strikes they shorten their swing and look to hit the ball to the opposite field. As Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas pointed out, you better know which batters take that approach and adjust accordingly.
And a batter’s approach might change. Royals pitcher Ian Kennedy said a hitter as talented as Miguel Cabrera might come into a series looking to hit the ball to the opposite field for singles; but if Cabrera comes into a series swinging the bat well, he might be looking to pull the ball and do extra-base damage.
Over the course of a season, a hitter might pull 70 percent of his grounders. But depending on the hitter, those odds can change from game to game, at-bat to at-bat, or even pitch to pitch.
The count matters
Occasionally, a left-handed hitter will look at three guys on the right side of the infield and one guy on the left side and decide to use all that open territory to bunt for a base hit.
If the Royals believe a hitter might attempt a bunt, you’ll probably see Moustakas playing in on the edge of the grass at the start of the at-bat. But if the hitter gets a strike on him, Moustakas will probably back up.
That’s because a lot of hitters who face shifts aren’t great bunters, and the Royals don’t believe those hitters will attempt a bunt with one strike and risk fouling it off or missing the pitch entirely. Most hitters dread a two-strike count.
So sometimes Moustakas will back up because the hitter is behind in the count, but other times Moustakas will back up because the hitter is ahead in the count: 2-0, 2-1 and 3-1 are good hitting counts, because the pitcher is likely to throw a hittable fastball. In that situation, the hitter probably wants to swing away.
Some hitters take different approaches in different counts, and that’s why you might see the Royals' defenders repositioning themselves between pitches.
Who covers what base?
In the second game of the White Sox series, Chicago's Adam Engel put down what would have normally been a sacrifice bunt on the right side of the infield. Kennedy and Royals first baseman Lucas Duda both went for the ball.
Duda picked it up and turned to make a throw, but nobody was covering first base.
Second baseman Whit Merrifield would normally be the guy to cover first base on that play, but with the right-handed Engel at the plate, Merrifield was positioned up the middle and couldn’t get to first base in time to make a play.
Against the Tigers, however, having Merrifield play up the middle worked well; he caught a flare off the bat of Mikie Mahtook that would have normally dropped in for a single and caught a James McCann line drive that resulted in a double play.
Unorthodox positioning can result in unorthodox plays.
The Royals have already this season missed a couple of double-play opportunities when both the second baseman and shortstop were on the left-field side of second base and there was confusion about who was fielding the ball and who was covering the bag.
And Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor stole third base without a throw when Kennedy was on the mound holding the baseball and Moustakas was the only defender on the left side of the infield. (Afterward, Moustakas said he was glad Kennedy didn’t attempt a throw; Moustakas was racing Lindor to the bag and Kennedy would have had to hit Moustakas on the move — a difficult and risky play.)
When the Royals have three infielders on the right side of the infield, Moustakas might be standing in the shortstop’s position. But he must remember to cover third base any time a play doesn’t involve him; otherwise, a runner coming into second base can make the turn and just keep going to third. And sometimes the pitcher has to cover third base; nobody else can get there in time.
Royals pitcher Jason Hammel said he needs to be aware of his infield’s positioning — it might change what bag he has to cover. And if he has an infielder playing directly behind second base, Hammel doesn’t want to reach out and deflect a ball hit up the middle — let the infielder make the play.
Out of their comfort zone
Tension between a team’s analytics experts and the guys who play and coach the game is not uncommon. The analytics guys might see the players and coaches as stubborn and old-fashioned; the players and coaches might see the analytics guys as unfamiliar with the realities of playing baseball.
But refusing to try something new is a good way to get a bad reputation: No coach or manager wants to be seen as a dinosaur who has let the game pass him by.
Yost has said he doesn’t want to call this an experiment, but he’s willing to get out of his comfort zone and give an increase in infield shifts a “wholehearted try.”
It’s still very early in the season, and so far the Royals' shifts appear to have helped them at times and hurt them at others. But the club's analytics department believes if the team sticks with the program, shifts will pay off in the long run.
The Royals and their fans are about to find out if that’s true.