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The Yankees should scale back on the shift

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The shift has become an accepted part of baseball, and the Yankees have fully embraced the strategy. Maybe they shouldn’t.

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The shift has become as ingrained in the fabric of modern baseball as apple pie and the juiced ball. Nearly every inning, you’ll see an infielder shade away from their natural position at some point. Run prevention isn’t just having the pitcher pitch and hope that the ball gets hit to where the seven fielders are standing. Teams are doing everything they can to put fielders where the ball is expected to go.

As the shift has proliferated, the Yankees have been one of its biggest adopters. This should come as no surprise; the Yankees as an organization have consistently acted progressively when it comes to new and interesting strategies. They pioneered the research behind pitch framing, have one of the most robust and effective scouting network and player development systems, and now are at the forefront of the shift revolution.

At this point, it may seem almost superfluous to ask if the shift works. The proof appears to be in the pudding: if the shift is bunk, why does every team use it? Why has its use increased nearly every year for the past decade? The fact that all 30 teams implement the shift to some extent suggests overwhelmingly that it is a sound strategic maneuver.

Still, over the past year, enterprising analysts have nonetheless questioned the actual effectiveness of the shift. Russell Carleton has written eloquently about it several times at Baseball Prospectus. ESPN’s Sam Miller recently put the shift to the test. Not everyone is satisfied with the idea that the shift must work

I encourage you to read Carleton’s and Miller’s research in full. The short of it is the shift absolutely does work, in a way. The shift does what it was intended to do, in that it sucks up groundballs and decreases BABIP when it is put on. Teams save runs on groundballs when they shift.

Yet the effect of vacuuming up those extra groundballs appears to be overwhelmed by some other, extenuating factors. While singles go down, doubles increase, as do walks. Pitchers throw out of the zone with greater frequency. More balls leads to increased hitter’s counts, extra free passes, and an uptick in hard contact.

It’s enough to make you question if teams are shifting too much. That brings us to the Yankees. The Bombers shift almost as much as anyone. Should they?

After digging through the numbers, I’m not convinced they should. Thanks to Baseball Savant, I was able to pull each teams’ numbers with the shift, and their numbers without it. Baseball Savant splits shifts into two different buckets, “strategic” shifts, and standard shifts. Strategic shifts represent the slightly less obvious variety where, for example, the second baseman shades to his right, away from his typical post, when a right-hander is batting. Standard shifts are the regular over-shifts with three men fully on one side of the infield.

For simplicity’s sake, I grouped strategic and full shifts together. Here are the teams that have shifted most heavily this year:

Most Shifts in MLB

Team Percent of Pitches
Team Percent of Pitches
HOU 47.3
NYY 40.4
CWS 40.2
MIL 38.1
MIN 37.8
KC 37.3
TB 36.3
PHI 35.9
BAL 30.6
LAD 29.0

The Astros set the pace, shifting nearly half the time. The Yankees are in second, shifting on over 40% of pitches. They’re not on Houston’s level, but they shift more than anyone other than the defending champs.

If the Yankees shift so much, they better be darn sure it’s working, right? The results do not paint a flattering pitcher. Baseball Savant also allows us to see how teams performed in different shift situations, or without the shift at all.

Without the shift, Yankees pitchers have allowed a .284 wOBA. That is the best wOBA in baseball without shift, edging out the Astros at .286 wOBA. With the shift? Yankees pitchers see their wOBA allowed shoot up to .321. In 2018, James Paxton has allowed a .285 wOBA, while Mike Minor has allowed a .322 wOBA. The shift has basically turned Yankees pitchers from Paxton into Minor.

That 35-point jump in wOBA is the second largest such increase in baseball from no shift to shift, trailing only the Seattle Mariners. If anything, that wOBA jump may sell things short. Baseball Savant calculates xwOBA, or “expected” wOBA, based on the quality of contact pitchers allow, combined with things like walks strikeouts.

Expected wOBA is a new metric, and its efficacy has certainly been questioned, so take these results with a grain of salt. Still, Yankees pitchers have allowed an xwOBA of .291 without the shift, and an xwOBA of .345 with it. Expected wOBA thinks the Yankees have been 50 points (50!) of wOBA worse with the shift on than without.

There’s plenty more to parse here, and I will return to these numbers to dig into the how and why in a later article. The upshot is clear, though. The Yankees shift as almost much as anyone, and see a drop in performance as almost large as anyone. The contrast is startling. Just based off these results, the Yankees likely should think hard about the extent to which they are shifting.