Touching BasesJune 24, 2010
Shift Morneau Shift?
By Jeremy Greenhouse

Inspired by my possible doppelganger Ben Lindbergh, I decided to revisit the topic that brought me to this here very site: the shift. Ben wrote an in-depth piece at Baseball Prospectus about J.D. Drew and the shift on Monday, concluding that, "We don’t know precisely how Drew would respond to an escalation of the shift, and if the current state of affairs persists, we never will, but it’s probably worth it for teams to find out; it seems fairly certain that Drew is winning this battle of offense-against-defense game theory thus far." So my question is, who else might benefit from an altered defensive alignment?

Max Marchi and Ricky Zanker have explored aspects of graphing batted ball distributions. Building on their work, I came up with my own model. Using MLBAM-provided batted ball location data from 2008-present and Peter Jensen's gameday translations, I found the batted ball angle of all non-bunt grounders from left-handed hitters with no one on base, as well as whether or not the batter reached safely. I sorted the data into two groups, the first of which contained 2,500 grounders from 15 "shifted" batters, your Howards and Giambis. The rest of the 32,000 grounders formed the second group. I then fitted a binomial LOESS smoothing curve to the data. Here is the resulting model:


Allow me to explain. The top portion of the graph shows BABIP on grounders. There are three big differences between the red line (shift) are the blue line (no shift). First, at -15 degrees, shifted players have the benefit of a vacated shortstop position, and are therefore better than twice as likely to pick up a hit on a batted ball to that vector. Next, at 0 degrees, straight up the middle, shifted players have under a 50% chance at reaching base, while non-shifted players are up above 60%. And finally, balls directed toward the 3-4 hole are much more likely to go for hits when there is no shift. So, to sum up the obvious, implementing a shift allows hits on batted balls toward left field, but in exchange, balls up the middle and in the hole are converted into outs at a higher rate. On the bottom of the graph is a histogram. On average, shifted players hit a higher percentage of balls toward the second baseman, and many fewer balls toward the shortstop. The other notable difference is that shifted players have hit fewer balls up the middle than their counterparts, even though the defense is aligned to prevent hits on balls up the middle.

While it would be nice to have reliable measures pf batted ball speed and batter speed (the two other considerations that help determine groundball average), I had to make do without. So I predicted both of the above fits against my dataset to come up with expected averages for shift and no shift. Here's how the shifted players stack up:

"Angle" is the average batted ball angle. "BABIP" is the rate at which the batter reaches base safely. "No Shift" is the predicted BABIP using the no shift model, and "Shift" is the predicted BABIP using the shift model.

Name Angle BABIP No Shift Shift
Ryan Howard 19.7 .167 .238 .199
Carlos Pena 23.7 .212 .213 .174
Adam Dunn 19.6 .203 .232 .193
Jim Thome 16.6 .141 .239 .201
Jason Giambi 20.1 .147 .226 .190
Jack Cust 18.5 .205 .223 .189
Chase Utley 17.9 .273 .242 .208
David Ortiz 19.2 .168 .221 .189
Travis Hafner 10.9 .203 .257 .227
Ken Griffey 17.4 .180 .225 .196
Mark Teixeira 18.6 .259 .227 .198
Carlos Delgado 18.1 .128 .234 .207
Prince Fielder 11.0 .271 .261 .235
Mike Jacobs 16.4 .199 .227 .202
League Average 11.9 .243 .246 .225
Justin Morneau 9.8 .239 .248 .231

You might notice that the league-average BABIP on non-shifted players is 20 points higher than it is for shifted players. This doesn't mean that the shift uniformly lowers BABIP by 20 points. This means that the type of player who gets shifted is bad at reaching base via groundballs. So when comparing the two models, keep the averages in mind, and for players who are speedy, such as Jimmy Rollins, understand that the shift may not be a viable option.

I might be wrong about Justin Morneau, and maybe he isn't shifted regularly, but if he is, it's a mistake. So when it comes to Shift Morneau Shift,* I say "No Shift!"

*Credit to my friend Pat for starting the baseball T.V. shows Twitter topic and my buddy Steve for coming up with Deal Morneau Deal.

Carlos Pena has far and away the most skewed groundball angle toward his pull side. Most of these guys are obvious shift candidates. Fielder and Morneau maybe not so much. But these aren't the only players for whom the shift matters. So how about the non-shifted guys?

I found the difference between the "Shift" column and the "No Shift" column for those batters with at least 25 groundballs hit. Three rookies and J.D. Drew himself top the list. Brennan Boesch, Jason Heyward, and Ike Davis have all been hugely successful, exceeding even the most optimistic of expectations. But maybe their pace will slow once defenses learn how to play them. The exaggerated infield shift is certainly an option. It's also likely that their luck will soon run out, as their grounders have simply found holes. Luck has nothing to do with J.D. Drew's success on grounders. If people would just take a look at his spray chart data, they'd know to shift him, but unfortunately, too many are of the line of thought that it doesn't matter how you play him, since he's hit 30 homers in a season only once and is paid $70 million. J.D. Drew does something funny to people's minds.

Here are five players I would strongly consider shifting against, followed by the rest of my dataset.

Name Angle BABIP No Shift Shift
J.D. Drew 18.6 .253 .256 .203
Garrett Jones 17.4 .304 .248 .203
Chase Headley 20.0 .236 .241 .196
Adam LaRoche 20.4 .178 .225 .187
Alex Gordon 19.4 .309 .234 .197


This is awesome, Jeremy. Great work.

Seems to me that to measure the effect of the Shift, you would want to see total performance against the shift as opposed to just ground ball BABIP. Presumably, some players change their approach based on the shift by consciously going the other way. For others, it may get in their head and affect their approach. I would think that looking at BA and Slg. with and without the shift (presumably walks are uninfluenced) would determine if it is effective overall, not just on groundballs.

I don't think you two are doppelgangers, interest in infield shifts notwithstanding.

Thanks, Sully. Much appreciated.

Doug, I don't follow. There are a lot of players who have never faced a shift, so I tried to predict how they might do if they kept the same approach. There's no way of knowing how they might react/change their approach, though.

Tommy, I'm not sure on what evidence you base your assertion,but I'm just saying I'm skeptical.

Tommy, the evidence is pretty overwhelming. The affinity for infield shifts is just the tip of the iceberg.

Great article, Jeremy. I set you up, and you converted (doing most of the work in the process). Kind of like a sabermetric alley-oop.

Nice article, Jeremy. Morneau is shifted more than he probably should be.

Ike Davis has been shifted several times this year, actually. Also, Adrian Gonzalez has been shifted frequently this year.

I guess the next step is to factor in reliable batted ball velocities and batter speed.

Ben L, I actually have a wingspan that would best be described as tremendously unfreakish, so unfortunately I cannot dunk. Maybe I gave it a nice backboard slap.

Ben J, having a flag for what plays are shifted as well as a measure for batted ball speed would certainly be helpful. I don't know how widely batter speed is tracked, but I'd at least hope BIS is taking full advantage of the power of a stopwatch.

I don't know why I didn't include Gonzalez. Impressive that teams already know to shift Davis.

Very nice article Jeremy... I have a question thou, do you think pitch location, velocity or type of pitches maybe relates to the position balls are hitted?... What I mean is since you already have the shift for certain players, I imagine catchers would call for certain pitches to induce grounders to that zone, or do you think that managers have diferent kind of pitches considering the type of Howard gets breaking pitches outside, not because he would hit them for a grounder, but because he is less prone to hit it all.

Jeremy, admit you got the title of this article from a fellow Jumbo's tweet (based on another Jumbo's hashtag) right now.