Last Thursday, FanGraphs released data on infield shifts going back to 2010. While the shift itself originated in the early 20th century, it’s gained more prominence in recent years than it ever had before. These numbers cover the era of the shift, the period in which the strategy has taken the major leagues by storm (and prompted Rob Manfred to consider restrictions on it). They’re preliminary, and they have their shortcomings — chiefly, they cover only balls in play, excluding home runs, strikeouts, and walks — but we can still break them down and analyze them.
What do these data show about the Brewers? Well, because of their preliminary nature, we probably shouldn’t reach any sweeping conclusions. So I’ve brought up a few broad takeaways, each with some caveats and some value. For the most part, we’ll focus on the first six seasons that the numbers cover, occasionally touching on the nascent seventh campaign.
The Brewers adopted the shift early, then fell behind.
Because I am (a) lazy and (b) relentlessly self-promoting, I’ll begin this section with a direct quote from my essay in the 2016 BP Annual, regarding innovation in baseball:
Innovation in baseball is a complicated thing. There are only three ways to get ahead: Luck, which can’t be replicated; doing the same thing as everybody else better, which calls to mind the old wisdom that if it were easy everybody would do it; or finding a new way. The disadvantage to the last is that others will undoubtedly notice and copy…
The essay goes on to discuss a number of things — if you want to read it, buy the damn book — but for our purposes, this snippet applies. Markets have a way of correcting for inefficiencies, and when it comes to shifts and the Brewers, that seems to have happened.
At first glance, the story of infield shifts in Milwaukee is a uniformly happy one. In each year from 2010 to 2015, the Brewers increased their shifting:
|Year||Brewers Shifts||Brewers Shift%|
And for a number of years, they were clearly ahead of the curve. After finishing with the second-fewest shifts in baseball in 2010, they became more aggressive about moving their fielders the next season. In 2011, 2012, and 2013, they came in at second, fifth, and second, respectively, in balls hit into the shift.
The problem arose in 2014, when other MLB teams got wise to the shift’s benefits. By 2015, the Brewers found themselves trailing the major-league average shift rate:
|Year||Brewers Shift%||MLB Shift%|
As a small-market club, the Brewers rely on these market inefficiencies to survive. Falling to 18th in shifts last year hurt them — it meant that, as I wrote in the annual, their adversaries had ripped them off. So far this season, Milwaukee ranks third in shifts; maybe this means they’ll push the envelope a little more and try to get their edge back.
The shift hasn’t really helped the Brewers.
Of course, it would also be nice if Milwaukee’s shifts paid off. A team usually moves its fielders because it feels that an unorthodox alignment will lead to more outs. Yet somehow, the Brewers had a higher BABIP in the shift (.314) than with a traditional defense (.296) from 2010 to 2015. The former mark ranked second in the majors behind the Rockies, while the latter came in at a more respectable 12th.
Why did the shift fail the Brew Crew? Their pitching staff certainly adjusted to it — they posted a 36.9 percent pull rate without the shift and a 40.8 percent with it. But even the heaviest concentration of defenders can’t stop solid contact. No team in baseball had a higher hard-hit rate under the shift than the Brewers, at 30.7 percent. They also ranked second in that regard without the shift on, with a 27.2 percent clip.
Quality of infielders matters here as well. Rickie Weeks, Aramis Ramirez, and Scooter Gennett (among others) have been varying degrees of awful with the glove. Good positioning won’t make a terrible defender great, nor will it bail out a pitching staff that can’t hold its own. If Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, and their colleagues can prevent hitters from squaring them up, maybe the team’s quirky alignments will reward them. For now, it hasn’t.
The Brewers haven’t faced the shift that often.
Now we’ll turn to the other side of the ball. On offense, Milwaukee hasn’t really gotten a taste of its own medicine. The club’s hitters knocked a mere 1,561 balls into the shift from 2010 to 2015, which put them at 23rd in baseball. With that said, they struggled a bit in response to that, posting a .295 shift BABIP that ranked 19th in the majors. That’s not too much lower than their .298 non-shift BABIP, but the latter mark placed 11th; the context clarifies the extent of their troubles.
The biggest culprits for this are two southpaws that currently make their living elsewhere. While Prince Fielder played for the Brewers in just two of the years in this sample — 2010 and 2011 — he managed to hit 400 balls into the shift, notching a mediocre .286 BABIP on those. During the six-year span overall, four hitters faced the shift more often than Fielder did. Similarly, Adam Lind smacked 208 balls toward an unconventional defense in the 2015 campaign alone. (For what it’s worth, he did put up a .308 BABIP on those.) Before that season, he’d done that only 199 times, so this doubled his career numbers and left him no worse for wear.
Through their first six games of 2016, the Brewers have continued to dance around the shift: they currently rank 26th in that regard. Domingo Santana, Jonathan Lucroy, and Ryan Braun — three right-handed hitters — lead the team thus far; we’ll have to see if opponents keep this up against them. Overall, the Brewers’ handedness skew helps them out here, since teams can more easily shift against lefties. A core of position players that pushes the ball to left field can overcome even the worst of shift BABIPs.
As other, more intelligent people scrutinize the shift data and offer their takeaways, I’ll be able to apply their findings to the Brewers. For now, we have three nuggets to keep in mind: The Brewers led the pack in shifts before lagging; they allowed too much hard contact, which undid their shifting; and they have a lot of righties on offense, so they don’t encounter the shift that much. Such a narrow, esoteric facet of the game can still reveal some pretty interesting things about the teams we follow.
All data as of Monday, April 11th.