Bad news for Brett Lawrie’s agent came fast and furious this week. First he hears his boss come out against buying up the arbitration years of young players. He then sees his client’s Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement number take a tumble when Baseball Info Solutions announced a new way to handle shifts in their Defensive Runs Saved metric.

The new calculations drop Lawrie’s season dWAR (defensive Wins Above Replacement) from 3.5 to 1.9, a stinging blow to whatever contract conversations revolved around WAR. (aka not a stinging blow at all.)

Brett Lawrie might have fallen off his historical defensive pace but the Jays defense is still winning games. Taking advantage of a fortunate vantage point for Friday night’s game, I took note of the Jays shifts in action.

Hafner Gets the Papi Treatment

This is the most extreme shift we see the Blue Jays employ. Pull-hitting power bat Travis Hafner gets the full Papi shift, with Brett Lawrie scampering halfway to the visiting bullpen to plug a hole and/or get into the head of Pronk.

Except it didn’t work, Travis Harner hit a moonshot home run that Brett Lawrie had a shot at fielding were he suspended from one of the dome’s catwalks via Batman’s grappling hook.

More Pronk: Batting With a Runner on First

With a runner on first base in the eighth inning, the Jays modify the shift for Hafner. Brett Lawrie remains deployed on the right side but he is playing at double play depth. Which works out quite swimmingly as Hafner obliges the Jays by bouncing a ball directly to the shifted defender.

Lawrie does a decent job getting this ball quickly to Yunel Escobar, who makes the turn to record two huge outs. This well-timed DP kept the Jays within shouting distance of Justin Masterson and the Tribe. This play increased the Blue Jays probability of winning by 7.9%, not bad for a medium leverage situation.

Shin-Soo Choo Can Spray It

Shin Soo Choo is once again a model offensive contributor, posting his standard issue .300/.400/.500 season with good doubles power. He is a player capable of using all fields and the Jays defend him as such, sending Escobar to patrol the center of the diamond while keeping Brett Lawrie deep enough to patrol the gap.

Like Hafner’s grounder discussed above, the Jays positioning helped them create an out and directly save a run on Friday night. Choo faced Jason Frasor with Johnny Damon on second base. Wary of Damon’s heads-up base running, SS Escobar held Damon on a second base, retreating to a position similar to that featured above as Frasor delivered the pitch. Again, the Jays homework was rewarded.

Damon advances to third base but the crucial second out, coming in the dangerous form of Choo, allows Frasor to attack Asdrubal Cabrera. The Choo groundout only increased the Blue Jays WPA by 3.4% but it certainly saved a run from scoring on would have been a not-particularly-hard-hit single to center field.

Guarding Against the Bunt

Michael Brantley is a speedy outfielder who pretty much killed the Jays all weekend long, reaching base 10 times in 13 plate appearances this past weekend. In other words, none of the triangle defenses the Brian Butterfield and his team threw at Brantley worked in the slightest. The right-side infielders line up just as they did against Choo (and other LHH like Jack Hannahan and Lou Marson) but the Jays moved Brett Lawrie even with the third base bag. Brantley has two bunt singles this year and the Jays seem intent on deterring an attempt at his third.

The Jays shifting tendencies spilled a lot of ink early in the season. What once was an oddity is now standard operating procedure for numerous teams around the league. While the novelty may have worn off, the impact of a more sophisticated approach to defense continues to pay off, saving the Blue Jays runs and keeping miles off their young pitchers’ odometers. How long until hitters make their adjustments to this type of defensive trickery?

Comments (12)

  1. I’m not sure how hitters adjust though. Unless they move away from trying to drive the ball hard each time up and try a more directional / Ichiro type of approach?

    • Hitting in certain directions might be possible but directing the ball overly is likely only the purview of bat-wizards like Ichiro!. What they (Hafner, Ortiz, Pena…) should be doing in the face of an almost-Ted-Williams-shift is bunting EVERY SINGLE TIME until they stop shifting. Sure the slugging might fall but batting .500 has its perks.

  2. And BTW, great analysis Drew. Really well done.

  3. Nice work.

    It’s Escobar level with 3B bag in the last frame though. And I believe it was Santana who bunted against it. Not totally sure on the Santana part.

  4. Awesome Drew. The shift has been ridiculously successful this season. It was interesting to hear Dirk Hayhurst on the radio-call this weekend talk about Brian Butterfield and how hard he works to collect data that the Jays employ. He said that Butterfield and Halladay were the two hardest working blue jays which is pretty impressive to hear the coach mentioned in that way.

    I wonder how much the fear of the shift has also led to strike-outs and easy outs by hitters who try to change their approach at the plate. Hafner doesn’t look like he’s trying to go the other way in that GIF, but I wonder how often the shift has led to K’s for example. Maybe looking at the rate of strikeouts when the shift is employed VS not? Certainly not something to draw conclusions from, but I wonder if the shift might not be an effective psychological tool as well as a defensive approach.

  5. Great piece. It’s scary to think how bad our pitching staff would look without the wizardry of Brian Butterfield pulling the infield strings.

  6. Love the double play. I could watch that over and over again. And shouldn’t that be Kilometers off their odometer instead of miles?

  7. Can’t wait to see a shift with a defender in foul territory.

  8. Great article. It does seem like they’re always bouncing around in the outfield this year.

    I’m very strongly getting the impression that the Jays are taking a heavily statistics-based approach to their game. I mean, we’re dealing with probabilities here, so nothing will ever work all the time, but I love that they’re making judgements based on evaluating evidence, from scouting and prospect acquisition right up to batting mechanics and defensive alignment.

    I just wish they would rank their health budget a little higher…

  9. The shift has been good for us, but I’ve noticed people never talk about the shift when the ball goes through the infield at a position where the 2B or SS normally are placed. Obviously the good outweighs the bad, but still.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *