That other infield shift, and five hitters who should fear it

There’s no denying that the infield shift has changed the way teams approach the game defensively. In recent years, we have seen teams shift more often than ever before, and most dead-pull left-handed hitters have struggled to respond adequately. If the left-handed hitter infield shift is so effective, then why have so few major league clubs implemented the right-handed hitter infield shift?

For those unfamiliar with the right-handed pull shift, the shot below depicts the Astros using one against Franklin Gutierrez in early April. The second baseman stands on the left-hand side of second base, and the shortstop plays deeper in the hole.

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The right-handed infield shift presents a few logistical difficulties for a defense that a left-handed hitter infield shift doesn’t. The obvious difference concerns the first baseman. For this shift to work, the first baseman must be able to cover the entire right side of the infield. However, the first baseman also must be quick enough to cover first base on any ground ball that isn’t hit to him. A capable and quick defensive first baseman is thus a necessity if a team is to pull of this type of shift.

Additionally, the right-handed infield shift requires that the second baseman be comfortable essentially playing shortstop. Arm strength might be a limiting factor for some second basemen playing in this shift, especially if the second baseman is to make a play by ranging to his right. Finally, as is the case with any type of infield shift, some hitters can beat the right-handed hitter infield shift by bunting.

What makes a good shift candidate?

Think about how poorly some left-handed hitters have responded to infield shifts in years past. The difficulties that the right-handed infield shift presents can’t outweigh those benefits. It makes sense to shift against a significant proportion of right-handed hitters, but I’ve laid out a more conservative list below of hitters that you’d have to be crazy not to shift against.

I considered several criteria in creating this list of hitters. The most obvious initial factor that must be considered in shifting against a hitter is opposite-field hitting ability. Pull percentage, pull-vs.-opposite-field batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and pull-vs.-opposite-field power all are indicators of this ability. I considered all three of these but included only pull percentage as a reference below.

Once I determined that a hitter might have trouble going the other way, I looked at batted-ball data based on pull and opposite-field hitting splits. I gave special consideration to those hitters who hit a large proportion of pulled batted balls on the ground. For these five hitters, pulled ground balls make up almost 25 percent of all balls hit in play.

Conversely, I took note of how often a hitter hits ground balls to the opposite field. These indicators, while not necessarily indicative of future performance, serve as rough and relevant signals of pull and opposite-field hitting tendencies.

Finally, the groundball density plots that I present with each hitter allow us to consider the finer aspects of defensive positioning. For example, some hitters would be especially hurt if an infielder played directly behind second base, while other hitters wouldn’t like to see two middle infielders playing shortstop. Think of the plots as topographic maps, with each additional contour line representing a greater concentration of ground balls.

The list

Alfonso Soriano

Pull percentage: 41.6
Groundball percentage for pulled balls: 52.3
Groundball percentage to the opposite field: 19.8

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Soriano doesn’t pull the ball as much as the other guys on this list, but his groundball distribution makes him the poster child for the right-handed infield shift. He has long been a pull-only hitter, and he can’t threaten any teams that wish to leave the right side of the infield uncovered. Soriano’s overall groundball percentage shot upward in 2012, and it continues to rise in 2013. Nearly 65 percent of all balls Soriano hit to the right side 2012 were fly balls, and in 2011 that rate was a staggering 80 percent. I’ll take my chances here.

Dan Uggla

Pull percentage: 50.9
Groundball percentage for pulled balls: 45.6
Groundball percentage to the opposite field: 12.5

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Poor guy. We knock him for his defense. We knock him for his bloated contract. Now I’m going knock him for hitting too many ground balls to the same area of the field? You’ll notice that Uggla pulls the ball to third base more frequently than any other hitter on this list, and around 60-70 ground balls he hit in 2012 were hit directly at third basemen.

A more extreme shift might be in order for Uggla, because he doesn’t hit anything up the middle or to the right side. I counted eight ground balls hit by Uggla to second base last year—eight ground balls in 630 plate appearances.

Ian Kinsler

Pull percentage: 48.1
Groundball percentage for pulled balls: 53.9
Groundball percentage to the opposite field: 14.5

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Kinsler likely will be the subject of trade talks later this season, and his pull tendencies definitely are worth watching. We love Kinsler because he steals bases and has some pop in his bat, but it isn’t surprising that he has hit exactly two opposite-field home runs over his entire career. If Kinsler hits a ball to the right side of the field, he’s doing something wrong.

Aaron Hill

Pull percentage: 47.9
Groundball percentage for pulled balls: 42.7
Groundball percentage to the opposite field: 20.0

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Hill’s profile is extremely similar to Kinsler’s. Hill hit 26 home runs in 2012, and all 26 of those were hit to left field. Hill’s power splits are indicative of his inability to hit to right field. His line-drive rate is also much lower to right field than to left field. The Diamondbacks are hoping that Hill can match his breakout performance from last year, but his batting average could take a dive if teams begin to shift against him.

Albert Pujols

Pull percentage: 52.3
Groundball percentage for pulled balls: 50.9
Groundball percentage to the opposite field: 15.9

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I had heard that this shift had been attempted against Pujols, but I was surprised to see that he qualified for this list. Skeptics may argue that Pujols has the opposite-field hitting ability to beat the shift, but I don’t see how it could hurt to at least give it a try. I’d ask these skeptics to consider his 2012 season. Last year, opposite-field ground balls represented 2.4 percent of Pujols’ balls hit in play, while pulled ground balls made up 26.9 percent of his batted balls put in play.

Conclusions

The infield overshift for right-handed hitters obviously deserves more consideration across the league. It should be used on pull hitters who don’t hit ground balls to second base, and it should be used on these hitters until they demonstrate the ability to beat it.

We have seen that many lefties still attempt to pull the ball in the face of an extreme shift. Hitters like Carlos Pena and Adam Dunn appear either unable or unwilling to change approaches. Why should we assume that this wouldn’t be the case for Pujols or Soriano?

This shift is out there, and we know it can work effectively. The only thing I see standing in the way of league-wide shifting against the above hitters is conventional wisdom. Then again, if it weren’t for conventional wisdom, some of us wouldn’t have anything to write about.

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Comments

  1. Alan Nathan said...

    Ted Williams….”..after his last war effort, he went on to win at least one American League batting championship”

    In fact, exactly two:  1957 and 1958

  2. philosofool said...

    Maybe Kinsler is stupid, but a guy with his speed should just see this as a chance for bunt hits. Even trying it once or twice should break the shift.

  3. John said...

    I don’t understand why people don’t bunt away from the shift.
    Garrett Jones looked at the Reds playing three IF’s on the first base side of second and the SS shding 2nd base.  Jones didnt even have to get a good bunt down.  You could pop a bunt in the air all the way to 3b and be fine. 
    The ego of the MLB hitter amazes me.  Take the free hits.

  4. Robert Haymond said...

    Remember Ted Williams?  In the face of the infamous infield shift to the right side of the infield, he refused to hit to the left side.  I recall him saying that he wasn’t being paid to hit singles but homeruns.  As a boy, I remember surmising (along with professional sports writers) what his batting average would have come to had he decided to go to the opposite field.  There was never any doubt that he could have had he wanted to.  On the other hand, there was no convincing Teddy when it came to hitting or…pretty much anything else.  The Boston sports writers despised him. Yet he participated in WWII as a fighter pilot and then re-enlisted in the Korean War and this, of course, affected his baseball career.  Nonetheless, even after his last war effort, he went on to win at least one American league batting championship.  Even in his last game, Teddy remained steadfast, refusing to tip his hat after hitting a homerun.  A man of principle!

  5. Marc Schneider said...

    “The Boston sports writers despised him. Yet he participated in WWII as a fighter pilot and then re-enlisted in the Korean War and this, of course, affected his baseball career. “

    Not to take anything away from Ted’s patriotism, but he did not re-enlist during Korea.  He was in the Reserves and they called up the Reserves for Korea. He did not have a choice.

  6. Jhf884 said...

    @Drew—“inflating your batting average with infield hits”  Last I checked getting on base with an infield hit counts as much as getting on base with a single or walk.

  7. Andy said...

    I can’t remember having seen anyone pull the right shift on Kinsler, but yes, with his speed, he could likely get on with a bunt a few times. However, I’d be interested in seeing his spray for this year so far. Smaller sample size, but I’ve seen him go the other way a number of times this year. I think a lot more frequently than in years past. Maybe it’s the new hitting coach.

  8. Drew said...

    Free hits? It’s not tee ball.

    Also, batting average.

    Home runs and extra base hits are perhaps not as egotistical as inflating your batting average with infield hits.

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