Ever since sinkerballer Chien-Ming Wang became an ace for the Yankees, ground-ball pitchers have been coveted by Yankees fans, hoping that they would provide some kind of security against the hitter-friendly environment Yankee Stadium. Over the last few years, defensive shifts have also become extremely popular in Major League Baseball, with the Yankees fully embracing the defensive revolution. The only problem is that it hasn’t really worked.
In 2016, Yankee starters allowed 1.44 HR/9, the fourth-highest total in the league. For reference, and as a fun fact, Rockies starters allowed just 1.12 HR/9, despite being in Coors Field. That figure was the ninth-lowest in baseball. For the time being though, we will assume they cannot do much about the home runs, as Yankee Stadium is indeed a good place for hitters.
The issue is that even though Yankee starters had the fourth-highest groundball rate in baseball, it didn’t keep opposing hitters off the bases. Shifting didn’t seem to help either. While facing Yankee starters, hitters had a .310 wOBA against the shift, the eighth-highest in the game. Without the shift, hitters had a .282 wOBA against Yankee starters.
Keep in mind that shift data does not include home runs, so it’s not like giving up a lot of them is skewing the data. In particular, pitchers like Dellin Betances, Michael Pineda, and Luis Severino fared poorly when the Yankees shifted. A full list can be found here. What stands out is that all three rely almost entirely on a fastball/breaking ball combination. In Pineda’s case, his shift numbers are slightly worse against right-handed hitters.
The point of shifting is that even though it seems simple for hitters to just shoot the ball the other way, they don’t. When you combine a shift with a pitcher like Pineda though, who pretty much has to live on the outside part of the plate against righties, it might force a hitter’s hand. Against shifts, righties had an Oppo% of 33.3%. In 2016, the league average Oppo% for hitters who didn’t draw a shift was 26.7%.
In other words, righties with a proven track record of being dead pull hitters were willing to go the other way against Pineda. It makes sense, as they knew either a fastball or slider was coming, and that Pineda was probably aiming for the outside corner. This could have made it easier to commit to going the other way. Meanwhile, pitchers like CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka benefited from shifts. Both of them have tremendous off-speed offerings and can move the ball around the strike zone more, which keeps hitters off balance.
For fastball/slider guys like Pineda, Severino, and Chad Green, it might make sense to shift less in 2017. The Yankees are taking steps in the right direction, as they are finding pitchers who can keep the ball on the ground. However, they have yet to take advantage of it. Revisiting their strategy when it comes to shifting could help them reap the benefits of their newfound groundball-friendly ways.
Data is courtesy of FanGraphs.