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Should the Yankees alter their use of the shift?

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A new approach with the shift might be in order.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Shifts have become an integral part of baseball over the last decade. Other than the standard alignment, we now see two other alignments for infielders, the first recognized on Statcast simply as a shift, which represents a full over-shift with three infielders on one side, and the second as the “strategic” shift, a shift that doesn’t pull three infielders onto one side. Let’s dial in on standard shifts and see how they have affected the Yankees this season compared to the rest of the league.

When the ball has been put into play, the major league batting average with the shift on is currently .256, which is the exact same average for standard alignment, meaning teams have been equally able to produce a hit with or without the shift. However, there’s a much larger spread of BABIP’s produced by each team when employing the shift.

For the standard alignment in the infield, the highest batting average against is .275 allowed by the Rockies pitching staff, and the lowest produced is .228, by the Miami Marlins. With a league average of .256, these figures for standard alignment do not deviate much.

When considering the shift, the variance is a much greater. The Cardinals own a .331 batting average against with the shift on, versus a league-best .215 batting average against produced by the Cleveland Indians. That’s a difference of 116 points between the teams on both sides of the spectrum, with the Cardinals 75 points away from the league average. Overall, the shift statistics show larger discrepancies throughout the league compared to the standard alignment. Some teams have been fortunate enough to find lots of success with the shift on, and others like the Cardinals might want to avoid it.

The Yankees are another team seeing better results with standard alignment rather than utilizing the shift. Currently, they hold a batting average against of .246 with the standard alignment and a .274 mark with the shift on. Considering these numbers aren’t too far apart from the league average, you can’t expect the Yankees to just call it quits and abandon the strategy all together. Furthermore, the Yankees are one of the organizations using the shift more often than the rest, currently placing tenth in shift usage by amount of pitches thrown with the shift on.

However, what they might want to consider is whether their approach while using the shift when hitters have two strikes is actually working against them. The Yankees have a .274 batting average against with the shift on, but with the same alignment the Yankees are producing a .282 batting average against when the count has two strikes. In other words, hitters are actually improving against the Yankees in a moment where pitchers are at an advantage, one pitch away from ending the hitters at-bat..

This isn’t happening to every team, as so far the Yankees are currently fifth with the highest batting average against with two strikes and the shift on, with a total of 365 results according to Statcast. Additionally, the four teams in front of them have rarely used the shift as often as the Yankees have in a two-strike situation. The closest team are the Seattle Mariners who rank fourth, as the Yankees have produced more than 130 results over the Mariners in this situation, and 200 more results over each team in the top three.

The pitchers on the Yankees staff who make up most of the 365 results are Masahiro Tanaka, Domingo German, and James Paxton in that order. With a total of 167 results between them with a ball put into play with the shift on and two strikes, that accounts for about 46% of the results this season. The league average in this situation is .245. Not only are all three of these pitchers over the league, but arguably the best pitcher for the Yankees this season — Domingo German — has produced a .328 average in this situation.

On the other hand, when the Yankees keep the standard alignment on with two strikes, each of these starting pitchers produce numbers under the league average of .256. For German the numbers look like night and day, going from a .328 batting average against in the former situation to a .188 bating average against with the standard alignment.

Tanaka, German, and Paxton are three of the best pitchers in the Yankees organization and each have the ability to get a batter out, especially if they have the advantage of two strikes on them. A shift does give a batter half the field to save their plate appearance and so far it has worked more than average for the Yankees opposing hitters. With the rotation arms finding more success with a standard alignment behind them when they have already worked two strikes on the hitter, maybe switching the infield alignment mid at-bat could work out.

Maybe the Yankees should switch to the standard alignment when certain pitchers get to two strikes. Maybe they should implement a strategic. Or maybe it’s all just noise. Overall, though, the numbers show these arms do better with a standard alignment behind them with two strikes, and they could call for a different approach.