Earlier this month, MLB released a new defensive metric for infielders called Outs Above Average (they had already had an outfielders’ version for a couple of years), and we took a look at it and how it felt about Red Sox infielders. For the most part, we focused on the individuals rather than any team-wide generalizations, but as I was doing the research I started to get curious about something. Specifically, it was while I was looking at the Michael Chavis section and noticing that his estimated success rate was so low. Was that his fault? Was it the team’s? Was it bad luck? In this age of shifting, in theory there should be more routine plays than ever. If a team is getting a relatively low rate of makable plays, is it a sign they are bad at shifting? Specifically, are the Red Sox bad at shifting? Let’s investigate!
Well, first, a quick note. I started thinking about this post as I was writing that linked post above and did all of the research immediately after. Obviously that doesn’t change any of the numbers or information since, ya know, they haven’t played any baseball games since then. However, the Red Sox have lost their manager since then. I don’t know how much Cora had to do with the team’s overall shifting strategies, but a new manager probably does shift things (no pun intended) at least somewhat. I’m still interested in whether or not they’ve been bad at this, though.
I will also say that, before I did any digging into numbers that my general perception was not that the Red Sox are a great shifting team. I didn’t think they were bad either, but rather that I just really didn’t think about them with respect to shifting at all.
So, let’s start with that Statcast stuff, because, well, why not? I figured the estimated success rate would be the best place again, because again it would seem reasonable that teams that were better at shifting would have a better estimated success rate. The Red Sox did not do super well here, coming in with the eighth lowest rate. Now, the natural rebuttal here is that the pitching staff was terrible, so of course they’ll have fewer easy plays. It’s a reasonable rebuttal! It is worth noting, though, that they were tenth lowest in 2018.
That, however, is the overall infield at any position. This new OAA metric allows us to look at fielders in certain positions. So, for example, we can look at when a second baseman is up the middle or when they are in shallow left field. Similarly, we can see when a first baseman is playing on the line. With that in mind, I made a couple of adjustments. First, I looked at the team’s numbers in any besides when their infielders were playing “straight up.” They moved up significantly here, ranking tenth in 2019. In 2018, they were ninth lowest.
I then looked at what we generally think of as the most traditional shift, i.e. when a lefty is up and the infield is shaded well to right field. I set it for when the first baseman is on the line, the second baseman is behind the first baseman or in the hole on the right side, the shortstop is shaded toward the second base bag or up the middle and when the third baseman is in the hole on the left side. They were even better in those situations, ranking sixth in 2019 and 20th in 2018.
So, judging from these numbers — which, to be clear, should not be taken in isolation as gospel — the Red Sox improved their shifting greatly from 2018 to 2019 and probably should have shifted more in 2019. I didn’t really want to stop at these numbers, though, so I went over the FanGraphs to do a little more investigating.
FanGraphs has a split in which they account for every time a pitcher throws in front of the shift. It should be noted that this only includes balls in play, which will matter when I tell you that Boston ranked 23rd in batters faced with the shift on. That does not necessarily mean they called for the shift the 23rd most often, as they may have struck out or walked their opponent. They ranked fifth in strikeout rate and third in walk rate, for what it’s worth. Either way, though, I think it’s safe to assume they were near the bottom of the league even if we aren’t sure of their exact ranking.
We can also look at how opponents did against these shifts. Batting average generally isn’t an ideal stat for analysis, but in this case all I care about is how often a guy is getting a hit. To that end, opponents had a .219 batting average on ground balls when the Red Sox had a shift on, judging by FanGraphs’ definition of a shift. That was the seventh lowest average in baseball. That’s good! But again, it’s not the full picture. Part of this was just that the pitcher did their job — shocking for 2019, I know. Boston’s pitching staff generated the lowest hard-hit rate and the highest soft-hit rate on grounders against the shift. I certainly don’t think those rankings are sustainable in any way, but it’s hard to deny they played a role in the success with the shift in play.
All in all, what can we learn from all of this? Well, I would hesitate to make any sweeping generalizations. These are defensive metrics in small samples, so I’ll say it again, they aren’t to be taken as gospel. That being said, I find myself thinking the idea that they should shift more to be intriguing, and probably true. It makes sense given that their infielders, while fine, are mostly average-at-best. There’s no reason not to put them in the best positions to succeed, particularly with run prevention at such a premium for this team. At the very least, it’s certainly something I’ll be watching more closely in 2020.