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What can Fangraphs' new shift data teach us about the Red Sox?

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Fangraphs recently unveiled new shift data. Let's dive in to see what it says about the Sox.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

If you didn’t see this last week, Fangraphs unveiled a new batch of splits delving into shift data. It shows raw numbers of shifts — both traditional and non-traditional — as well as performances against them. This is especially exciting for me, as I’ve toyed with writing about shifts for what seems like forever, but have been unable to find any reliable data. As baseball fans, we all know that complex defenses are changing the game, and it’s cool to have some numbers and leaderboards to play around with. If you’re too lazy to click on the link and read their write-up, I just want to point out that the data only dates back to 2010, and they only count balls in play. With that being said, let’s look at a couple Red Sox-related trends that I found in my first dive into the numbers.

We’ll start with the obvious, which is that opponents shift David Ortiz. A lot. We can’t talk about shifts and the Red Sox without mentioning Ortiz. Unsurprisingly, he has been shifted more than any player in baseball since 2010, and it’s not close. In that time, he has put balls in play against the shift 1902 times. The next closest player is Ryan Howard with 1527. He’s led the league in balls in play against shifts in every season besides 2010 and 2012, when he finished second and third, respectively. Of course, 2012 was a special case as he only played in 90 games that year. To put that 1902 number into context, Ortiz has only put balls in play against a non-shifted defense 335 times. For what it’s worth, he’s put up a .316 batting average on those plays.

That was obvious, though. Let’s widen the lens a little bit and look at some team-wide trends. Over the course of this data, the Red Sox haven’t been shifted very often outside of Ortiz. Now, they rank second since 2010 among all 30 MLB teams in shifts faced, behind the Yankees, but Ortiz makes up 53 percent of that total. Last season, they only ranked 11th on this leaderboard, and that was with Ortiz leading the league. Part of this is the fact that their best hitters — Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez (for the first part of the year, at least) — are all right handed. The same rings true for this year, and they find themselves facing fewer shifts than all but eight teams in baseball in the early part of the 2016 season.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Besides Ortiz, there are only two other players who are even a mild threat to see a shift in any given at bat: Travis Shaw and Jackie Bradley. We’ll start with Shaw, because he’s the most interesting. Last season, he saw just short of a 50/50 split, with 74 shifts against 84 non-shifts. This year, the split has flipped in the other direction in a small sample, with ten shifts against six non-shifts. Obviously, it’s super early in the year, but there’s at least a chance that Shaw is making a conscience effort to counteract this trend. After displaying something of a pull-heavy approach in 2015, he’s done a much better job of using the whole field this season. To wit, he has the 11th highest opposite field percentage among the 209 qualified batters thus far this year. Conversely, his pull percentage his pull percentage is the 16th lowest among that same crop of qualified players. It should go without saying that there is a decent possibility of this being small sample size noise. However, Shaw has shown an ability to adjust on the fly. Additionally, he’s publicly talked about the way he’s been able to thrive with access to major-league advanced scouting. At the very least, this is something to watch going forward.

As for Bradley, it’s not as encouraging, but also not as dramatic. Last season, it wasn’t a very extreme case of shifting, with 42 shifts against 104 non-shifts. I’m unable to split this up on a per-month basis, but there’s a possibility these shifts starting coming later in the year. Early on in 2016, it’s roughly a 50/50 split, with ten shifts versus nine non-shifts. Unfortunately, Bradley hsan’t been able to adjust as his his pull percentage is up a few ticks from last year. However, to be fair, his opposite field percentage is up as well, which means he’s hitting the ball up the middle less. That’s its own problem for another day. We’ll see if teams continue to shift him, and if he’ll able to make an adjustment. Right now, however, that’s not the biggest concern for Bradley.

Finally, let’s take a quick look at this from the other side of things. How often to the Red Sox put on the shift against their opponents? Going back to 2010, the Red Sox are just ahead of the middle of the pack, ranking 11th on the leaderboard. Last year, they were all the way down to 17th and they are dead last so far this year. Those last two placings are a little surprising to me, considering the number of ground ballers on their staff and Brian Butterfield’s presence on the coaching staff. I have a feeling they’ll get more creative defensively as the year goes on.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Porcello pitched in front of the shift more than any other pitcher on the staff in 2015. Given his ground ball-based approach, it’s a logical outcome. However, it clearly didn’t change much for him, as he allowed a .374/.381/.484 line with a .370 wOBA on those plays. Among all pitchers who recorded at least 30 outs with a shift last year, his opponents’ wOBA was the 13th highest mark. However, that’s a number based on a small sample and is more indicative of his poor performance than it is a case against the shift.

Generally speaking, the Red Sox haven’t been overly interesting with respect to the shift over the last few years. We knew Ortiz was shifted against on almost every play, but it’s still neat to have some numbers to attach to it. As I said before, it’s a little surprising to see the Red Sox ranking so lowly in terms of shifting against opponents. I’m really interested in watching that moving forward. The Shaw numbers are interesting, however, and that’s the biggest thing I’ll be watching as the year goes on. He’s continuously surprised me with his talent and ability to get adjust at the highest level. Having another example of that just makes me regret underselling him over the last year even more.