Of the remaining “proprietary” areas of analysis, perhaps none is more intriguing than data on fielding shifts. Fielding shifts are largely a team event, which flies in the face of the typical presentation of individual-based baseball analysis and statistics; there are many different ways to present individual splits and all sorts of traditional, advanced, hybrid stats. But, a fielding shift is something else entirely; the categories move beyond the basic statistical judgments of the game. There are shifts against traditionally-shifted players (such as David Ortiz or a variation of the “Ted Williams Shift”), and there are non-traditional shifts (one might recall Rich Dauer‘s “Alien Defenses” from several years ago). While each individual fielder’s position in a shift could potentially be logged, shifts are thus far counted as aggregate team events (and hidden among data kept by baseball’s most advanced analysts).
While one might not always have access to the specific data on fielding shifts during a specific season, if one follows Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) publications, published reports from a couple of years ago, and interviews, one can get the sense that the Milwaukee Brewers are an aggressive club in terms of shifting. In one of his most interesting discussions during a SABR panel, Doug Melvin presented proprietary data on the Brewers’ fielding shift success after the 2011 season. In some of their initial reports, BIS also noted that the Brewers became a particularly aggressive shifting team under Ron Roenicke:
So what did Ron Roenicke, the new manager of Milwaukee, do? He took the Brewers from being the least aggressive team regarding shifting in 2010 (only 22 shifts all year) to the second-most aggressive in 2011 with 170. And he did it in a little different way than the Rays.
Baseball Info Solutions categorizes shifts into two types. The Ted Williams Shift, with three infielders on one side of the bag, and Other Shifts, where players are clearly shifted well out of the normal infield alignment but short of three fielders on one side of the bag. There are a handful of hitters that almost always get shifted by most teams, and then most other players almost never get shifted. The way the Rays were more aggressive was by shifting against these other players. They shifted 110 times against the top ten shifted hitters, and equally as much against the rest (106 times). Ron Roenicke and the Brewers were even more extreme. They shifted 45 times against the top-ten, and almost three times as often against other players (125 times). (Dewan, 3/30/12)
In a personal communication in January 2013 with the Brewers’ Analysis Department on precisely this issue, one Brewers analyst said that even though a team can get burned on some batted balls in play, “if you stay aggressive, you’re still right more often than not.” The general idea, it seems, is that if the Brewers front office knows where a batter tends to hit the ball, they will attempt to get a fielder in that position.
In a moment of pure speculation, sheer theoretical thinking, I wondered how the Brewers’ aggressive front office in particular — and the shift-happy MLB front offices in general — would address the issue of Billy Hamilton‘s bunt hits. If one simply Googles “Billy Hamilton Bunting,” one can find an array of virtual ink spilled on the topic of Hamilton working on his bunting for the 2014 season. Doug Gray at Reds Minor Leagues puts this work into the perspective by noting Hamilton’s general attitude, “On the surface, that is great to see that Hamilton is working on his game. I have said it before and I will say it again, Billy Hamilton works his butt off at improving his game. He has been that way since I first began hearing reports on him back in 2009 and I have continued hearing them all the way up through the system.” Gray goes on to argue that Hamilton’s approach to bunting may be counterproductive, given some other areas of his swing that need work; I agree with Gray’s take, especially given Hamilton’s general strengths in terms of plate discipline. If Hamilton does not focus on the bunt, and instead works on his swing and walking, he can use his discipline to reach base.
Nevertheless, even if Hamilton shouldn’t primarily be focused on bunting, the bunt is a big threat from the switch hitter. In 2013, Hamilton attempted a bunt hit in 47 of 547 plate appearances (Gray). To place this in perspective, Gray notes that Leonys Martin lead the MLB with 30 bunt hit attempts in 2013. Of course, Hamilton collected 24 hits on those bunt attempts, accounting for nearly 19% of his total hits at the AAA level; he also went 1-for-1 in bunt hits at the MLB level in 2013, and already has at least four bunt hits in Spring Training (as of last Saturday).
Given the Brewers’ aggressive approach to shifting, one might wonder how Hamilton’s bunt potential can be handled by team defenses. It is also worth noting that, in general, Hamilton may be more likely to hit the ball on the ground, instead of hitting fly balls. In this regard, a comprehensive infield shift could be designed to protect against the bunt and address potential ground balls. Cincinnati.com noted that opposing catchers are warning pitchers when Hamilton comes to the plate, and First- and Third-Basemen are sneaking in to defend against potential bunts. Yet, I think it is worth asking, “Does a prolific speedster like Hamilton require more than a 1B and 3B sneaking in?”
This issue becomes more pressing given that the Brewers’ 1B and 3B gang of Aramis Ramirez, Mark Reynolds, and Juan Francisco are not necessarily speedy or known for their fielding prowess. In pure theory, here’s the first step of the Hamilton defense:
(1) Use Jean Segura and Scooter Gennett / Rickie Weeks to come in on the corners.
Instead of the typical bunt defense that draws in 1B and 3B, one potential tool to defend against a Hamilton bunt could be to use the SS and 2B to cheat “in” at the corners. Even if one questions whether the Brewers’ SS and 2B are better than average fielders, they provide the Brewers better fielding options than Francisco, Reynolds, and Ramirez. In this case, given the speed of Hamilton, having a quick reaction to grab a bunt could be the difference between an out and a bunt hit.
This type of defense would obviously be limited to specific scenarios without baserunners, since Scooter Gennett, Jean Segura, and Weeks would obviously be needed in the middle of the infield when Hamilton bats with runners on. However, if Hamilton leads off a game or inning, this type of aggressive defense could be used at least a dozen times during the season.
(2) Shift Ramirez between 2B and 3B, and place Francisco / Reynolds on the bag.
Basically, when Hamilton bats as a lefty, Ramirez would be in position to grab any opposite field groundballs. In fact, even in his limited 2013 plate appearances, Hamilton showed no tendency to pull as a left-handed batter. Ramirez would have the ability to grab any groundballs that snuck by the cheating-in Segura.
Meanwhile, since every moment will be needed on a Hamilton bunt attempt, Reynolds and Francisco will play near the bag to field the throw from Ramirez, Segura, or Gennett.
(3) Shift Ryan Braun to the middle infield, and use Davis and Gomez to play the outfield gaps
One of the most difficult areas of a specific bunt shift is that the area between SS and 1B will largely remain open on the infield. However, if Hamilton shows any tendency to match his 10-for-16 batted-balls-on-the-infield performance in 2013, it could be worth the Brewers’ effort to cram an extra body on the infield. Ryan Braun was a notorious third baseman, but in this case, he would play the middle of the infield to basically keep on groundballs from roaming into the outfield and beyond the bunt shift.
With two outfielders remaining, Khris Davis and Carlos Gomez would have two specific roles. First, given that Gomez is the better fielder, he could potentially play Hamilton to pull, and lean toward RF from the RF-CF gap. Gomez could also play slightly more shallow than Davis, taking any chance to snare a line drive. On the other side of the outfield, Davis could play a “triples protection” style of defense, basically conceding an opposite-field hit without having it turn into multiple bases. (There is a sense that if Hamilton goes opposite field while lifting the ball off the ground, he’ll probably beat you for a hit anyway. In this case, Davis is a stopgap to prevent extra bases).
This type of defense is obviously extreme, mimicking the types of five-infielder arrangements that managers usually save for tense extra-innings situations where an out at home plate is absolutely necessary. However, in an era of expanding shifts, it is worth asking whether MLB teams in general will consider such extreme defenses to address a specific weapon (such as Billy Hamilton’s speed and bunt hit potential). Specifically, one might hope that an aggressive shifting club such as the Brewers would employ this defense against one of their division rivals. Even if the Brewers can only use this defense 12-to-16 times in a year, they could thwart a couple of bunt attempts and cheat against any tendency Hamilton has to hit the ball on the ground. This is obviously simply a pure theory and speculative exercise, but it is fun to think about the future of baseball’s shifting tendencies when clubs will be faced with specific batting threats or tendencies. As clubs become more aggressive when they know a batter’s tendencies, that aggression could lead to new arrangements for very specific defensive scenarios.
Articles Cited and Linked in Text.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
Personal Correspondence regarding “Home / Road Fielding Shifts” proposal for 2013 Milwaukee Brewers.