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Checking in on the Red Sox shifting success

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Or lack thereof.

Boston Red Sox vs Detroit Tigers Photo by Christopher Evans/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

The Red Sox aren’t going anywhere anytime soon unless they totally revamp their run prevention. This is not a novel concept, nor is it anything really anyone is unaware of. The pitching, and as a result the run prevention, was a disaster in 2020, and while there are a few exciting names in the system there isn’t help coming in the short-term. The Red Sox are going to have to go out and actively improve this group. However, as we have talked about a bit before, run prevention isn’t entirely on the pitching. Defense matters too!

That linked post was in reference to outfield defense, which is clearly important and more important than ever, really, given the concentration on launch angle by hitters in recent years. Today, I want to talk about the infield defense, but I want to do so less in terms of the actual players. We mostly know what the infield is going to look like in 2021. Second base is a bit up in the air, but Bobby Dalbec will likely spend most of the time at first base while the left side of Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers is set in stone, barring injury.

There are some legitimate questions in that group, particularly on the left side, but infield defense is much less an individual game these days than it has been in the past. Individual talent still helps, but a lot goes on the scouting department and coaching staff to get players in the right positions. Shifting is king among infield defense in today’s league, and as a team that is desperate for run prevention however they can get it, the Red Sox need to take advantage. They didn’t in 2020.

For one thing, they simply shifted less than most other teams in the league. FanGraphs keeps track of shifts on balls in play, which isn’t a totally accurate counting of how often a team shifts but is close enough for our purposes. And by their tracking, the Red Sox shifted on just 782 balls in play in 2020, the eighth-lowest number in all of baseball. Furthermore, when they did shift they had the second-worst rate of success in terms of preventing hits. Their .310 batting average against was bested (worsted?) by only the Phillies, who had a baffling .340 batting average.

Now, you can’t just look at this number and say it was all on the defense or all on the coaching or all on the pitching. Most likely, it is all of them combined with some bad luck mixed in. That said, there are some troubling signs both for the coaching and the pitching. Consider first that the Red Sox were in the bottom-third of the league in ground ball rate when they had a shift on. Pitchers weren’t getting batters to roll much over, which obviously doesn’t give the defense much of a chance to take advantage of their positioning. Furthermore, Boston was in the top-third of the league in terms of hard-hit rate against them when the shift was on. More balls will find their way through a shift if they are hit harder, of course, and Red Sox pitching was crushed on a regular basis, shift or no, in 2020. That hard-hit rate was even higher on the leaderboard looking only at ground balls against the shift, too.

It is worth mentioning, though, that the coaching may not have always picked an optimal time to shift. The Red Sox were in the top half of the league in grounders hit the other way while a shift was on, something that stood out anecdotally as well. Without going deep into each individual shift occurrence it’s hard to say how much of that was bad luck versus bad positioning versus bad pitching, but while the shift did save some hits, it created some for the Red Sox as well.

The easiest way for Boston to prevent more runs in 2021 is simply to get better pitching. Their staff is one of the worst in the game right now and without reinforcements it will be once again when play opens up next year. Defense can help mask some of those issues, though. Part of that is going to be being better about shifting, and while the bad pitching exacerbated issues on that front as well, the gameplanning can still improve.