Those Shifty Blue Jays

Playing an exaggerated defensive shift against notorious pull-hitting left handed hitters is nothing new. The Rays famously shift more than nearly every other team in baseball, to great success. The Boston Red Sox have a lineup rife with pull-heavy lefties; as a result facing a shifted defenses at a high rate.

Traditionally, the shift consists of the shortstop trotting into short right field to take away an avenue for LHB to rip hits through the hole between first and second base. The Toronto Blue Jays take matters into their own hands, employing different shifts based on the tendencies of specific batters.

The above screencap shows the shift the Blue Jays employed against David Ortiz. Pretty traditional setup with the exception of the third baseman (Brett Lawrie) in short right field. I like this move as it allows the (presumably) rangier player — the shortstop — tasked with covering a larger chunk of real estate. This might not be the case with Escobar and Lawrie but more often than not the SS gets around better than the third sacker.

Below we see the shift as the Jays lined up against Adrian Gonzalez. Here Lawrie is actually closer to second base, with second baseman Kelly Johnson cheating over towards the right-field line. Much less exaggerated than the previous example but, as we can, effective as Lawrie calmly field a weak flare off the prodigious bat of Gonzalez.

Why would the Blue Jays set up their defenses so differently for two similar players? History of batted ball information informed their decision.

Below are the spray charts of all ground balls and popups hit by both Ortiz and Gonzalez since 2010. Notice how, shockingly enough, Adrian Gonzalez shows a greater tendency to hit balls up the middle.

A.Gonzalez Spary Chart - Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

D.Ortiz Spray Chart - Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

Very interesting to watch the team adapt to the situation and deploy their defense in more and more specific ways. Does it help? Sure looks like it.

These are situational plays that might only make the difference of a few outs a season. The benefits might be two-old if a shifting defense saves a few runs a year AND manages to change the approach of these known sluggers. If you have middle-of-the-order bats like Ortiz and Gonzalez thinking “I’m going to knock this the other way for a cheap single” rather than “I’m going to hit this ball into the stratosphere”, you are doing something right, aren’t you?

Sort of. For his career, David Ortiz has more home runs with nobody on base in his career and a slightly higher slugging percentage in a very comparable number of plate appearances. The BABIP number is very interesting though hardly surprising.

Innovation comes slowly to baseball. For teams to use the copious information available to them in such an obvious way suggests the “baseball establishment” is at least willing to try. Encouraging at the very least, isn’t it?

Update! Here is a twitpic I snapped from the right field bleachers with my phone during a David Ortiz at bat today. Brett Lawrie is a long, long way from home.

Comments (18)

  1. Have you seen how much the Rays have adopted the shift this year, Joe Maddon is all in, it would seem.

  2. It’s been cool to watch so far – they seem to be making smart, well-informed decisions about where to put their guys, which is awesome. Not just, “This guy’s a pull hitter, everybody move over” — it’s cool to see.

    Kinda fun to see Brett Lawrie playing literally all over the diamond, too. Remember when he was in the Brewers system and everybody said he didn’t have a position and would never stick at 3B? Now he’s playing out of position a wacky amount of the time, and doing pretty well wherever they stick him.

  3. how do you score a play (i.e. 6-4-3 double play) if the shift is on? is it the position the player plays or the position he’s playing at?

  4. Brett Lawrie as libero.

  5. Cool, kinda of like softball when you get the rover to cover holes you expect certain hitters would hit to.

  6. Go jays go beat those redsoxs

  7. The shift has been very good thus far this season. It was employed against Haffner in the Cleveland Series.

    One thing I did notice on Opening Night. Excuse my shoddy memory:

    The Jays employed the shift (and I THINK it was against Ortiz). Alvarez pitched into a 2-2 or 3-2 count – which for him almost always means a 2 – seam fastball down and away from a batter.

    Unfortunately for the Jays – their pitch selection mandated that just about the only way Papi could hit the ball was to hit a ball to the third base side. There is almost no way for Ortiz to pull a ball tailing down and away from his body. The result was very predictable – a single to the spot Lawrie would have been standing.

    I love the shift. I love that the Jays are willing to implement the kind of statistical analysis that will lead to better decisions.. but if they’re going to employ the shift – they need to pitch to it too.

    • I think in that instance they were hopeing he would miss. Perhaps his other pitches would have been playing right into Ortiz’ hand. I don’t mind holding Ortiz to a dribbler.

  8. Of course, the Jays have been doing this shift against Ortiz for a couple of years now. Though Lawrie is playing deeper in RF than they’ve had the 5 guy do before.

    The shift on Gonzalez, however, is an interesting new approach, from what I remember.

  9. Playing the shift is great when it works out for you. The OriLoLs played the shift against Texeira last night and he blooped it down the 3rd base line and got a double. That’s the other end of the spectrum.

  10. Question and it may be a stupid one:

    I agree that the shift is great because it should change hitting behaviour but if they are going to give you the 3rd base side with the shift, why not bunt it down the 3rd base line and take the single they are giving you? You probably have a better chance of not making an out. If Gonsalez has 3 singles on 3 bunts, would it force the jays to readjust their defensive strategy.

    • It would absolutely give the Jays pause…BUT as I said, if he is trying to bloop/bunt balls down the third base line, he is NOT trying to drive the ball with power. Which is his greatest strength and what makes him elite. Obviously aligning your defense as to effectively intentionally walk him every time up isn’t a good idea but if the situation allows it.

    • Have you seen guys who almost never bunt try to bunt? He’d be lucky to position 1 bunt out of every 3 down the 3rd base line. He’d be fouling off attempts, popping some up, bunting to the pitcher, and working himself in bad counts. And worst case scenario? Ask A. J. Burnett.

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