It's a great time to be a baseball nerd now that FanGraphs has now made shift data available. The baseball website that has been a paradise for us stat geeks announced earlier this week that, with help from Baseball Info Solutions, they now have shift data dating back to 2010. Fans can finally see exactly how successful teams are employing shifts and what hitters/teams have been victimized the most.
They have four different splits available and the data only includes balls in play. The splits are shift-all, no shift, shift-traditional, and shift-non traditional. To see exactly how they define each shift, check out their article.
For years, Yankee fans have felt that the Yankees' offense has been hurt by the shift a lot. Well, to say the data supports that sentiment would be putting it mildly. Since 2010, the Yankees have been shifted against in 3909 plate appearances (entering Friday). The Red Sox are second with 3541, but after that, the drop off to third is nearly 1000 plate appearances. In fact, the Yankees have been shifted against almost twice as much as the fifteenth ranked team, the Braves with 1913 plate appearances.
So, clearly, teams like to shift against the Yankees. When you see how unsuccessful the Yankees have been against the shift since 2010, it becomes obvious why. Their average against the shift is just .259. Remember, this is only for balls in played. The average BABIP is often around .300. That .259 average wouldn't be very good for a normal batting average, and for an average on balls already in play it's really bad.
Their more advanced statistics are also inept. Their OPS is .578, last in the league, 50 points worse than the next worst team (Indians). Their ISO is .064, 29th in baseball. The team's wOBA is .249, the worst in baseball by 20 points, and their wRC+ is 52, by far the worst in baseball. Basically, Yankee hitters against the shift are only a little better than I was overall in junior high, and if that's not a condemnation of the Yankee offense, I don't know what is.
Comparing their success against traditional and non-traditional shifts is not significant because of sample size difference. Of the 3909 times hey've been shifted against, 3539 of them are considered traditional, or 90.5%. Their numbers in these traditional shifts are a lot of worse, though, .249 AVG and 47 wRC+. In the limited plate appearances they've had against non-traditional shifts, they hit .378 with a 101 wRC+. That is a huge difference, but interestingly enough it seems all teams fare much better against these types of shifts; the Yankees still rank just 19th and 16th, respectively, in those categories.
The Yankees being shifted against so much begs a few questions. Why are they shifted against so much? Why are they so bad against the shift? What can they do to improve?
Well, the reason they are shifted against so much is that they mostly have had pull hitters. New York usually stacks the lineup with power hitters who pull the ball more often. Think of some of the players the Yankees have had at some point over these past six-plus seasons: Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher are several names that come to mind.
The numbers back up the logic here too. Since 2010, the Yankees Pull% is 41.8, the fourth highest in baseball. They hit the ball to the opposite field just 23.7% of the time, the second lowest mark in the majors. Those numbers are for all Yankees, but it's not like opponents have to shift against everyone. Guys like Derek Jeter were mostly never shifted against. Someone like Teixeira, though, who pulls the ball a lot (52% of the time for his career) gets shifted against a ton, and it's clearly effective.
The answer to the first two posed questions is basically the same concept: they get shifted against so much because they rarely go to the opposite field. They still never go to the opposite field when they're being shifted against, just 21.5% of the time, ranking the lowest in baseball since 2010.
The aforementioned Mark Teixeira is the perfect case study. The shift started to gain increased prominence back when Joe Maddon (the then Rays manager) employed a shift against him when hitting lefty, bringing three infielders to the right side of second base. Teixeira's numbers have really taken a hit because of the shift.
Since 2010, in 958 plate appearances without a shift on, he's hitting .270 with a 58 wRC+, brought down mainly because home runs don't count as balls in play, excluding them from shift data. In 929 plate appearances with a shift on, he's hitting .233 with a 35 wRC+.
It's not as if Teixeira changes his approach against the shift. He goes to the opposite field 19% of the time with no shift on and just 14.9% of the time with a shift on. His .233 average against the shift is the second-worst in baseball among players with at least 300 plate appearances in the split (shoutout to Logan Morrison). People who wonder why Tex isn't the high-average hitter he once was need look no further for an answer.
The question for years now has been how can Teixeira, or other Yankees, beat the shift? Some fans say they just should lay down a bunt or push the ball the other way. It's easier said than done, though. These guys are mostly power hitters who haven't bunted or gone the other way much in their career. They're also getting paid the big bucks to hit homers, not dribble the ball down the third base line. However, there are situations when being able to lay down a bunt and getting on should be considered, particularly in close, late games.
Even so, there's no guarantee that bunting will stop the shift in the future, or that they'll even be able to get it down, or that it's more productive to lay down the bunt than swing normally, or frankly, that, the sometimes egotistical, millionaire power hitters will agree to bunt.
So, are there any other options? In a fascinating article on Grantland, Ben Lindbergh breaks down Teixeira's resurgence last season. Part of his success was due to a new approach against the shift. Instead of giving in to it, he pulled the ball even more often, focusing on being more selective at the plate so he could walk more and hit more doubles and homers. Basically, he wasn't going to change his approach, he was just going to be better at it, and it clearly paid off. We all know how good he was before getting hurt last season, and interestingly enough, his average, wRC+, and wOBA were all better when facing the shift.
It's hyperbole to say that Teixeira has beaten the shift, but he's definitely gotten better at handling it. The Yankees have some other hitters who need to be better against it (McCann and A-Rod come to mind), so perhaps his approach is the way to go. Or, hey, maybe laying down the occasional bunt is the way to go. You can make the argument either way, but if we have learned anything from this new data, it's that the Yankees need to improve against the shift.