With defensive shifts on the rise in baseball, Orioles among leading proponents

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Chris Davis groans at the mere mention of it.

“I think it's becoming the new trend,” the Orioles first baseman says. “I'm not a big fan.”


He's talking about the shifts that have swept through baseball in recent years as teams have capitalized on ever-growing mounds of data to tailor their defensive alignments to each hitter's tendencies.

Davis would know. He has hit against more than twice as many shifts as any other Oriole this season, and he's one of the five most shifted-against players in the game. As a muscular left-handed slugger, Davis fits the prototype of players who have been targeted by shifts, going all the way back to Ted Williams.


But the tactic is no longer reserved for big boppers. Teams are apt to use it against any hitter who pounds the vast majority of his ground balls to one side of the field. The use of shifts doubled from 2011 to 2012, according to Baseball Info Solutions, an analytics company that tracks defensive performance in every major league game. And shifts have been even more prevalent this season.

The Orioles are among the leaders in this trend. Their use of shifts increased a staggering 467 percent from 2011 to 2012, and this season they have passed the American League East-rival Tampa Bay Rays as baseball's most shift-happy team.

Manager Buck Showalter downplays the notion that he suddenly found religion on the shift.

“People were doing it years ago,” he says. “It's not something new. Ask [1960s slugger] Willie McCovey. But a lot of it then was really tough, because you were basing it on just what your gut told you.”

There's no question the shift is an old tactic. The most common variation, in which a team moves its shortstop right of second base, is named after Williams, the great Boston Red Sox slugger who began seeing it in 1946.

But its use has ebbed and flowed. It's currently at high tide, with analysts such as Baseball Info Solutions using data to argue that teams are saving dozens of runs a year with the tactic.

“Just more information,” Showalter says when asked why shifts are spreading. “Guys feel more confident with it.”

The shift has its detractors. In the field, Davis hates the look of frustration on a pitcher's face when a weak ground ball scoots through a space where the shortstop would normally play. “I think the biggest thing as a defense is that your pitchers aren't real comfortable with it,” he says.


Orioles closer Jim Johnson, a ground-ball pitcher when he's throwing well, says the shift has become too popular. “It's fine on certain guys, but I think sometimes it gets a little carried away,” he says. “Trying to do things just to do things, you know. If you're shifting on a No. 8 hitter, just because [the numbers] say he grounds out to the right side, and you've got a guy throwing 99mph that he's probably not going to turn around, then why are you shifting?”

Red Sox consultant Bill James, an ally of the guys at Baseball Info Solutions on most issues, has argued that the shift is a loser in the long run.

In a 2012 piece for his website, James wrote: “My belief, based on nine years of watching teams shift to try to stop David Ortiz, is that it doesn't work, and that, while obviously the shift does lead to plays being made on balls that would otherwise get through the right side of the infield, this is offset or more than offset by plays that are lost at other places.”

When the shift doesn't work, it's a target for criticism. In the second game this season, the Orioles lost a 5-4 lead when Rays hitters bunted to an uncovered left side of the infield and then singled through a space vacated by shortstop J.J. Hardy. That set fans squawking that Showalter had overthought the situation.

But Hardy, one of the best and most cerebral infielders in the league, says such scenarios are misleading.

“The thing about it is that when you're in a shift and it gets beat, everyone notices a lot more than when you're in a shift and it works,” he says.


Hardy is generally pro-shift and credits Orioles infield coordinator Bobby Dickerson with providing smart data to help produce the best alignments.

“It makes sense with a lot of hitters when we have as much data as we do,” Hardy says. “If you look at the last 100 ground balls, and there's no ground balls to one side of the field, then what's the point of playing over there?”

It's ironic that the most glaring failure of the Orioles shift came against Tampa Bay, because no one has embraced defensive realignment more aggressively than Rays manager Joe Maddon.

If Cleveland Indians shortstop-manager Lou Boudreau was the schemer behind the late-1940s shifts that deviled Williams, Maddon is his current successor. The Rays shifted almost 100 times more than the next closest team in 2010, when the trend was in its infancy. And they have tried radical variations, such as the use of four outfielders against some fly-ball-happy sluggers.

Maddon says he began to embrace shifting more than a decade ago, when he worked as the infield coach for the Anaheim Angels. He spent hours poring over computer data before each series and concluded that the Angels should at least try shifting against Ken Griffey Jr. and Mark McGwire.

“The tougher sell was McGwire, and wouldn't you know, he hit a ground ball right between first and second with no second baseman standing there?” Maddon says with a wry grin. “But I still believed it was the right thing to do.”


When he finally got his own team to work with, he didn't hesitate to experiment with his defense. And the overall results were often excellent. Maddon — whose thick-rimmed glasses have become an emblem of his creativity — isn't bothered when a slugger bunts or tries to hit the other way against the Rays shift. He figures that if he's altering the mindset of another team's biggest offensive threat, he has probably already won.

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“For us, it's about saving runs and being in a position to save more runs on an annual basis,” he says. “At the conclusion, you look at the data and say, ‘Did we do good or bad by doing all this? Did it help us or hurt us?' I think most teams, if they're really diligent about it, would find out that it will help them a lot.”

The psychology of a hitter confronting the shift is as old a topic as the tactic itself. Williams acknowledged that shifts hurt him at first and caused him to tinker with his style in hopes of hitting more balls to left field. He continued to be the best hitter in the league but said in his autobiography that he would advocate using the tactic against other sluggers.

Davis doggedly practiced bunting in spring training this year and laid down a few successful ones against the shift in exhibition games.

“It was fun because I worked on it really hard, and it paid off,” he says. “But that's not my game.”

Tampa Bay first base coach George Hendrick flat-out told Davis the Rays would be thrilled if he tried to tap the ball to left field instead of hitting it over the fence. So he says he has put the shift out of his mind.


“A lot of fans have asked why I don't bunt, but that would be playing right into their hands,” says Davis, off to the hottest start in baseball. “I've hit a lot of balls over the shift or through it. And those are the ones I enjoy, where I just drill one through there.”