While the war between analytics and traditional practices in baseball will continue to rage on, it is safe to say that defensive shifts are here to stay. First used on Ted Williams in the 1940s and popularized in modern times by Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays, the use of the infield shift has gone up year after year in MLB, and is even being used in collegiate and high school ball now.
The goal of the infield shift is to better position the fielding team’s defense for a specific batter, based on the batter’s spray chart and batted ball tendencies. Most commonly used on powerful pull hitters, the New York Yankees were one of the teams most impacted by the shift, leading the league in shifts against in 2014 and 2015.
But starting in 2016 and continuing on through today, the Yankees have wised up against the shift. Today, the Yankees are the 21st-most shifted against team in baseball, just three years removed from leading the league in shifts against. This dramatic turnaround has changed the offensive dynamic of the team, and has helped turn the offense into one of the league’s most fearsome.
So why aren’t teams shifting on the Yankees anymore? Quite simply, the Yankees don’t pull the ball as often as they used to, and they are hitting to the opposite field more. The book on stopping the 2015 Yankees quickly became to deploy the shift. Those Yankees made their living with pull hitters like Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, and their batting averages suffered and rallies were killed at the hands of the shift.
The big problem for those teams was not even the amount of Yankees who pulled the ball, but more so the lack of Yankees who could hit the ball well to the opposite field. Facing a shift, going oppo is often the most likely way to reach base. While the Yankees of yesteryear continued to stubbornly pull the ball into the shifted infield, the current day Yankees excel at hitting to all fields.
The Yankees have the fourth-highest opposite-field hit percentage of any team in the big leagues, just three years removed from having the league’s worst figure. Only Aaron Hicks, Neil Waker and Gary Sanchez really struggle hitting to the opposite field, while Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Brett Gardner can truly hit the ball anywhere.
While opponents are shifting less on the Yankees, the team has also improved its approach when facing a defensive shift. The most shifted-against batters on the Yankees this year are Walker, Gregorius, Sanchez, Judge, Hicks and Stanton, respectively. All but Sanchez and Hicks have hit over .285 against the shift, while Stanton is raking at a .447 clip against the shift. Compared to 2014-2015, when the Yankees were dead last in batting average versus the shift, this is a marked improvement.
The Yankees realized they had a problem against the shift, and have corrected it. We’ve seen homegrown Yankees like Judge, Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres blast extra-base hits down the right field line and into the short porch. We’ve also seen Stanton deliberately try and beat the shift to get on base, and he’s hitting to right field at the highest percentage of his career.
Not only is the Yankees’ current offense more powerful than ever before, it’s smarter, too. The 2015 Yankees had a lot of powerful bats, but refused to change with the times, and the players from that team have rather quickly faded away. This time around though, the Yankees have made a concerted effort to be a more complete offensive team, one that can win by hitting the ball over the fence or against the shift – whatever it takes to help score runs.