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TB and Defensive Positioning: "We Catch Line Drives"


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#1 jon abbey


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Posted 10 April 2012 - 12:11 AM

If we've had this thread elsewhere before, let me know...

We all know that TB have always been very into defensive shifts for extreme pull hitters, but in the opening series against NY, they seemed to take it to a new level. Maybe 8-10 times over the three games, I thought a ball off the bat had a good chance at being a hit, only to see a defender standing right there. Ben Jedlovec of The Fielding Bible talks about it a bit in an ESPN Insider piece from a few days ago:

"The Rays have established themselves as baseball's best defensive team, and it's not even close. According to our updated defensive runs saved numbers in "The Fielding Bible: Volume III," Rays fielders were a combined 85 runs better than average, and more than 30 runs better than the second-best defense (the Diamondbacks).

Additionally, the Rays have a sophisticated positioning scheme, indicated by their motto "we catch line drives." More than any other team, the Rays have made a habit of employing a dramatic shift against heavy pull hitters, who are especially common in the AL East. In a division with the perennially contending Red Sox and Yankees and the rapidly improving Blue Jays, every little tactical edge can make a difference."

http://insider.espn....mod_mlb_xxx_xxx

And here's a Nick Swisher quote from over the weekend:

"“That’s a defense I’ve never seen before,” Nick Swisher said. “I don’t think anybody has ever seen that, especially to everybody. You’re talking about everybody from Curt to Al, Cano, Tex, myself. I can even think of a hard-hit ball Tex had last night, man, takes that run away. Curt hit two lasers up the middle yesterday and (Sean) Rodriguez was standing right behind second base."

So why is TB seemingly so far ahead of everyone else when it comes to this? It seems like a serious advantage, at least right now.

#2 Saby

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 12:15 AM

In this series alone, the Rays were credited with 4 Defensive Runs Saved. The Yankees defense was charged with -6 Runs Saved.

You could even go far as to say suggest that Hellickson's incredibly low BABIP last year isn't vulnerable to that much regression because of these very defensive positionings.

Edited by Saby, 10 April 2012 - 12:16 AM.


#3 jon abbey


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Posted 10 April 2012 - 12:24 AM

An interesting piece here:

http://www.tampabay....icle1222941.ece

Which includes this table:

The Rays used a defensive shift more than any other team — by far — over the last two seasons, according to data from The Fielding Bible, Volume III:


Team 2010 2011 Total
Rays 221 216 437
Indians 130 148 278
Mets 133 75 208
Jays 79 117 196
Brewers 22 170 192

#4 crow216


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Posted 10 April 2012 - 12:32 AM

For awhile, I kept telling myself that hitters like Teix would just bunt the other way every now and then to keep the defense honest but it just doesn't happen.

The odd thing is that you really never see TB get burned by it either. The Yankees put a shift on tonight where the ball still got past Jeter and Cano. I never see that with TB.

#5 Sampo Gida

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 12:42 AM

If it works, everyone will be doing it, so they lose the advantage.

Smart good hitters will go against the shift at the appropriate times. In the case of a smart good power hitter like Papi, that's like TB conceding a base hit 50% of the time, as opposed to 30% of the time in order to reduce an XBH rate from 10% to less than 5%. For stubborn hitters like Teixeira, his XBH rate stays the same but his BA drops from 300 to 250, although I think Teixeira says he is going to go against the shift more often this year.

More than anything though, I think it unsettles hitters who are exposed to the shift for the first time, and that may be more effective than the shift itself, temporarily anyways.

#6 SumnerH


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Posted 10 April 2012 - 02:50 AM

If it works, everyone will be doing it, so they lose the advantage.

Smart good hitters will go against the shift at the appropriate times. In the case of a smart good power hitter like Papi, that's like TB conceding a base hit 50% of the time, as opposed to 30% of the time in order to reduce an XBH rate from 10% to less than 5%.


Ortiz has hit .271 over the last 2 years against Tampa Bay (slugging .542), compared to .290/.542 against the MLB in general. (For his career he's hit .285 and slugged .572 vs. the Rays compared to .283 and .544 overall.)

You'd have to do a fair amount of work controlling for pitchers, defense, and ballparks to try to clarify whether the shift has had an effect, and even then the samples may be too small to tell you anything. But it certainly hasn't done anything close to concede a base hit 50% of the time.

#7 VORP Speed

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 01:17 PM

If it works, everyone will be doing it, so they lose the advantage.



Well, yes and no. You don't lose the defensive advantage produced by the shifts just because others begin to employ the same tactics. You may not be relatively advantaged by those tactics against other teams that employ them (see the spread of advanced metric player analysis), but you still maintain the advantage over the previous sub-optimal way of doing things. Regardless of the absolute level of defensive efficiency produced, there clearly is a lag period in which the Rays' tactics will give them a leg up as their competition comes up the curve.

A larger point, though, is it seems to me that the Rays' success over the last several years has emboldened them (specifically the FO and Maddon) to be ever more aggressive in seeking out methods of implementing statistical analysis, in more and more aggressively non-traditional ways. In addition to the ubiquity of defensive shifting, there were also at least 2 instances this past weekend when Maddon put bunt plays on with 2 strikes, one a suicide squeeze with Molina at the plate and the other Pena bunting into the shift with 2 strikes against him. Following how the Rays do things, I'm pretty sure this is not random. I don't have the the numbers to crunch, but does bunting into a shift with 2 strikes offer a higher on base probability than swinging away for a very high K rate batter like Pena? Should the use of shifts not only adjust how a team approaches defense, but also how they approach offense? Is the disadvantage of 2 strike counts to certain poor contact producing hitters enough to justify drastic changes in offensive approach? I'm expecting to see the five man infield for the first time in a non-walk off situation this year, maybe against a pitcher in an inter league game, and the shifting to continue to expand to the point where it really becomes more of a batter to batter (or maybe at some point, pitch to pitch) defensive set. Hopefully, if nothing else, this will challenge some traditional notions and start to provide real data as to the effectiveness of these new tactics.

#8 Orel Miraculous

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 01:28 PM

A larger point, though, is it seems to me that the Rays' success over the last several years has emboldened them (specifically the FO and Maddon) to be ever more aggressive in seeking out methods of implementing statistical analysis, in more and more aggressively non-traditional ways.


I think you're right and I think that the Rays are the best bet for a team to finally employ a true Jamesian relief ace. The first team that does it correctly will pick up 4 or 5 wins that the rest of the league is leaving on the table.

#9 VORP Speed

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Posted 12 April 2012 - 11:02 AM

I think you're right and I think that the Rays are the best bet for a team to finally employ a true Jamesian relief ace.


They seem to have already demonstrated a propensity for this in how they use their up and coming pitching prospects (Price, Moore) as September call-ups in pennant races. The future #1 starter stud as low-cost September Jamesian ace assassin approach.

Actually, maybe this thread should just be re-titled "Smart shit that the Rays do".....

In that vein, and in preparation for the flood of "The Rays are so damn LUCKY!!" comments after they trot their new, off-the-scrap-heap closer Fernando Rodney out a few times this weekend...check this out... https://twitter.com/#!/r_j_anderson/status/190243954866917378/photo/1
link to tweet
link to tweet

Apparently they did the same thing with Niemann midway thru 2011, so presumably must have had some idea that Rodney was fixable when they signed him this offseason.

#10 TheYaz67

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Posted 12 April 2012 - 11:53 AM

Smart good hitters will go against the shift at the appropriate times. In the case of a smart good power hitter like Papi, that's like TB conceding a base hit 50% of the time, as opposed to 30% of the time in order to reduce an XBH rate from 10% to less than 5%. For stubborn hitters like Teixeira, his XBH rate stays the same but his BA drops from 300 to 250, although I think Teixeira says he is going to go against the shift more often this year.


I think the Rays have (correctly) determined by studying opposing hitters spray charts, that certain hitters who are already predisposed to pull the ball (lefties especially), if you simply pitch them inside, they are practically never going to be able to actually (intentionally) hit the ball the other way to "beat" the shift, and are taking advantage of those batters pull tendancies by dramatically betting on those odds. I mean, Ted Williams was about as good as a "smart good hitter" as there ever was, and until later in his career, he refused to change his approach and hit the ball to left even when they employed the shift on him way back when - some won't change, others simply can't change, and again, TB is taking advantage of that dynamic.

It certainly frustrates me that for all the SABR chops the Sox supposedly have, the Sox seem stuck in a long past era when it comes to innovating on defense, in that they never employ a real dramatic infield shift as Tampa and more and more teams now are (they will move the SS over to close to behind second base but still on the SS side of the bag for some of the major lefty pull hitters, but that is about it), even on players that TB and their own data must show to them that they are dead pull hitters and that a more dramatic shift would be beneficial....

#11 O Captain! My Captain!

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Posted 12 April 2012 - 12:57 PM

How difficult is it to separate positioning before the pitch from fielding after the ball is hit? Because Tampa clearly puts an emphasis on defense, and looking through their defense, it's easy to see why they'd rank incredibly well regardless of positioning.

It also seems obvious to me that the pitcher has a huge role in determining where the ball is likely to be hit. If the pitcher is going to pound a LHH in, a shift to pull is likely to be much more successful. Does the improved efficacy of a shift outweigh the fact that doing so takes away the outer half of the plate? Does it require a specific pitcher skill set so that the defense can be confident the pitcher will successfully execute the pitch? Does shifting help or hurt certain pitch types?

Basically how much of defensive positioning is something any team could employ and how much does it require a specific sort of team-building? I assume there'd definitely be actions certain teams could take against it.

#12 Orel Miraculous

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Posted 12 April 2012 - 12:59 PM

Elliot Johnson consulting some kind of chart on defense (HT Sweet Spot):

Posted Image


Tampa Bay Rays baseball i.imgur.com/O34IJ.gif

-- Sam Miller (@SamMillerBP) April 11, 2012


@cistulli RJ tells me that's just a thing they're always doing

-- Sam Miller (@SamMillerBP) April 11, 2012

@cistulli Some sort of defense chart, yeah

-- Sam Miller (@SamMillerBP) April 11, 2012



#13 jon abbey


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Posted 12 April 2012 - 02:24 PM

Wow, good find.

#14 rembrat


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Posted 12 April 2012 - 02:29 PM

That's really fucking cool. I watched the 1st inning of Matt Moore's starter vs the Tigers a few days ago and they employed a shifted against Miguel Cabrera where 3 men played on the leftside (3B - SS - behind the bag @ 2B).

#15 DaubachmanTurnerOD

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Posted 12 April 2012 - 02:47 PM

It certainly frustrates me that for all the SABR chops the Sox supposedly have, the Sox seem stuck in a long past era when it comes to innovating on defense...


I agree. I'd love to see the Sox incorporate more shifts. They have the spray chart data, why don't they use it?

It was interesting to see the Jays' subtle differences in their shifts against Gonzalez and Ortiz, both with the positioning of the player in shorter or deeper right field, and changing the personnel - having Lawrie play that shallow right field spot against Ortiz, but manning the spot behind second to rob Gonzalez of a hit.

#16 jon abbey


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Posted 12 April 2012 - 02:59 PM

I watched the 1st inning of Matt Moore's starter vs the Tigers a few days ago and they employed a shift against Miguel Cabrera where 3 men played on the leftside (3B - SS - behind the bag @ 2B).


I'm only watching out of the corner of my eye, but I'm pretty sure they just did the same thing against Peralta (!).

#17 rembrat


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Posted 12 April 2012 - 03:48 PM

I'm only watching out of the corner of my eye, but I'm pretty sure they just did the same thing against Peralta (!).


More and more teams will start incorporating shifts that aren't standard because you can't argue with the results. It works. Even Girardi used 5 INF and 2 OF a week ago. I can't help but wonder what Bard's start would have looked like with better defensive positioning.

#18 Orel Miraculous

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 02:58 PM

Well the Rays got burned by the shift twice in the third against the Sox today with Adrian and Papi both picking up RBIs on ground balls that would normally be converted into outs. Papi's was a freak hit (he wasn't even trying to swing at it), but the one Gonzalez hit probably shouldn't have happened. The catcher was set up outside, Price hit the spot outside, and Gonzo reached out and poked it to left. If you're gonna put a shift on, you gotta pitch to it.

#19 PrestonBroadus Lives

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 04:10 PM

Article here by Dewan about the Fielding Bible study, which includes some criticism from Bill James:

http://www.billjames...r_not_to_shift/

I'm interested to see the expanded study that includes all plate appearences, not just ones that result in grounders, short line drives and bunts. Generally, the shift forces the pitcher to come inside, forcing the batter to hit where the fielders are. My gut tells me that pitching inside with greater frequency would increase the odds of HBPs and XBHs, possibly negating the positive outcomes on grounders, short line drives and bunts.

#20 uncannymanny

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 09:48 PM

Elliot Johnson consulting some kind of chart on defense (HT Sweet Spot):


Didn't the late model Mike Cameron come with this feature (and was supposedly going to teach our young OFs)?

#21 geoduck no quahog


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Posted 14 April 2012 - 05:17 AM

Why don't more hitters use defensive positioning as a tell? The opponent is essentially subtly revealing what type/location of pitches are coming.

Are hitters so set in their ways that they feel any in-bat adjustment is going to screw up their swing?

Edited by geoduck no quahog, 14 April 2012 - 05:18 AM.


#22 timlinin8th

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 08:28 AM

Are hitters so set in their ways that they feel any in-bat adjustment is going to screw up their swing?


For some, I'm sure that the negative impact of having to change ones approach is more than any potential gain - hitting a baseball in the mid-90s is really hard, never mind now trying to do it in a way you aren't comfortable. Some hitters I'm sure can make those adjustments, and I'm sure the opposing team knows who they are and won't pitch them that way.

#23 Infield Infidel


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Posted 16 April 2012 - 11:37 AM

Ortiz GIDP, directly to the SS right of second, Longoria perfectly positioned to turn the DP at second. These guys are pretty damn good.

#24 BoredViewer

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 11:01 PM

Which stats are we going to use to evalute this strategy compared with traditional positioning schemes employing shifts much less often?


For some, I'm sure that the negative impact of having to change ones approach is more than any potential gain - hitting a baseball in the mid-90s is really hard, never mind now trying to do it in a way you aren't comfortable. Some hitters I'm sure can make those adjustments, and I'm sure the opposing team knows who they are and won't pitch them that way.


And yet... I could imagine another hitter - maybe one drifting into bad habits - that seeing a shift might make them focus more on 'just hitting the ball where it is pitched' and consequently making more intelligent swings (not trying to pull) pitches on the outside half of the plate.

The Rays had very good pitching stats last year... but I think most would agree they have very good pitchers! This year? SSS (obviously) - but prior to today's game... they were last in MLB in ERA and WHIP.

#25 crystalline

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Posted 17 April 2012 - 12:16 PM

http://www.billjames...r_not_to_shift/
Generally, the shift forces the pitcher to come inside, forcing the batter to hit where the fielders are. My gut tells me that pitching inside with greater frequency would increase the odds of HBPs and XBHs, possibly negating the positive outcomes on grounders, short line drives and bunts.


Right - it would be interesting to know how strongly the Rays ask their *pitchers* to change their strategy as well as their defenders. Wouldn't be that hard from PitchFX data to figure out whether the pitch distribution is different for the Rays vs. other teams for hitters the Rays shift on.

#26 wade boggs chicken dinner


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Posted 17 April 2012 - 12:45 PM

For some, I'm sure that the negative impact of having to change ones approach is more than any potential gain - hitting a baseball in the mid-90s is really hard, never mind now trying to do it in a way you aren't comfortable. Some hitters I'm sure can make those adjustments, and I'm sure the opposing team knows who they are and won't pitch them that way.

Why would they have to change? From what I have heard, hitters go up with a specific plan anyways - they look for particular pitches in particular areas of the plate. With the shift on, all they have to do is concentrate inside in. Also, wouldn't the shift mean that pitches that break away from the LH hitter should (theoretically) be less effective since the hitter (if he wanted) could simply poke those into LF?

I also will be interested in seeing how the statistics pan out.

#27 Saby

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Posted 21 April 2012 - 10:04 PM

Bases loaded with 2 outs in the bottom of the sixth, Doumit lines out exactly where Longoria had shifted.

#28 VORP Speed

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Posted 10 May 2012 - 01:28 PM

"According to Dewan, the 2011 Rays were exceptional in defensive efficiency, a measure of how well teams turn batted balls into outs. He said they saved themselves 85 runs, earning them eight to nine wins, just enough to be in contention on the thrilling final day of the season, when they made the playoffs on a game-ending home run.
This year, he said, the Rays have already saved themselves 28 runs."

http://www.nytimes.c...&pagewanted=all

Rays are saving ~ 1 run per game with their extensive shifting.

Edited by VORP Speed, 10 May 2012 - 01:29 PM.


#29 Toe Nash

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Posted 10 May 2012 - 02:03 PM

Well, it's not just shifting -- they also have good overall fielders. Shifting is just part of that 85 run number, but BJ Upton and Evan Longoria are probably worth 20 runs above average between them even if they played straight-away each at-bat.

That article has a really misleading or perhaps just plain wrong paragraph:

Dewan said that heading into 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers “may have had the absolute worst infield you could have put together,” but by increasing from 22 defensive shifts in 2010 to 170 shifts in 2011, they saved themselves 56 runs.


That makes it sound like the 148 more shifts themselves saved 56 runs, which is impossible -- it's probably more like 5 or 6 runs (roughly 1/3rd of ABs end in ground balls, plus at least 70% of those are caught by average, non-shifting fielders).


The team may have improved by 56 runs defensively, but again, only a portion of that was due to shifting more.

Edited by Toe Nash, 10 May 2012 - 02:06 PM.


#30 VORP Speed

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Posted 10 May 2012 - 03:17 PM

Well, it's not just shifting -- they also have good overall fielders. Shifting is just part of that 85 run number, but BJ Upton and Evan Longoria are probably worth 20 runs above average between them even if they played straight-away each at-bat.

That article has a really misleading or perhaps just plain wrong paragraph:

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That makes it sound like the 148 more shifts themselves saved 56 runs, which is impossible -- it's probably more like 5 or 6 runs (roughly 1/3rd of ABs end in ground balls, plus at least 70% of those are caught by average, non-shifting fielders).


The team may have improved by 56 runs defensively, but again, only a portion of that was due to shifting more.



Very good point, it's 1 run per game with the combo of their baseline defense plus their shifting game plan. Some would say their baseline defense is weakened this year compared to last...Rodriguez hasn't looked great at short, Longoria was having a pretty bad year defensively (for him) before he got hurt, Upton missed a few weeks to start the season, and Pena has looked a step slower than a few years ago...so still a pretty significant uptick from last year if they maintain current pace, with the increased shifting strategy being at least a significant contributor to the difference. Anyway, will be interesting to see how metrics on this play out as more data is generated by more teams inevitably adopting this strategy to some degree.