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.