Why do baseball teams use the shift? How Dodgers, Rays deployed MLB strategy to reach 2020 World Series

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Why do baseball teams use the shift? How Dodgers, Rays deployed MLB strategy to reach 2020 World Series 1

The Rays ushered in baseball’s modern era of shifting about a decade ago. They likely didn’t imagine that 10 years later, they’d be the facing the heaviest-shifting team in baseball in the World Series.

While the Rays shift much more than they did in 2010, so does the rest of Major League Baseball. The Los Angeles Dodgers are the kings of the shift in 2020, so the World Series is likely where ground balls go to die. The Rays have another defensive-alignment trick up their sleeves that they’re out ahead of the rest of baseball on: the four-man outfield.

Defensive positioning isn’t what brings fans to the stadium or gets eyeballs on television screens. But it might just be what determines the shortened 2020 season’s champion, a dream come true for those Joe Maddon-era Rays.

WORLD SERIES 2020: Breaking down the keys for Dodgers vs. Rays

What is the shift in baseball?

Shifting is a defensive strategy in baseball in which the defense overloads players on one side of the field. Major League Baseball defines an official shift as having at least three of the four infielders positioned on one side of second base at the time of the shift.

Teams have made the shift a popular trend in recent years, but it’s not a new strategy. Stories about Ted Williams from the 1940s reference occasional attempts to stifle the Hall of Famer by positioning an extra fielder to his pull side on the right half of the infield.

In recent years, shifts have taken on more statistical certainty thanks to the availability of batted-ball data that shows where a hitter is likely to direct the ball. Almost every hitter will see some shift, even if not an official one, in each of their at bats, including movement of the outfielders, too. The most common shift is to a batter’s pull side in the infield, because ground balls more naturally result to a batter’s pull side.

Why do the Tampa Bay Rays shift so much?

The Rays needed their version of “Moneyball,” a market inefficiency that would allow them to compete despite a small payroll. Shifting was it. Tampa Bay became the first MLB team to consistently deploy extreme defensive shifts early in the 2010s.

Classified as having at least three infielders on one side of second base, the shift was done more by Tampa Bay than any other team in baseball in each of 2010, 2011 and 2012. It was thought of in part as then-manager Joe Maddon’s brain child, but it was really an organizational method to compete. From 2009-2011, Tampa Bay’s opponents got hits on 22.4 percent of their ground balls compared to 23.6 percent against an average American League team, according to Business Insider

“There’s so many people that participate in this game and in business in general that could only mimic what they’ve heard,” Joe Maddon told The New York Times in 2012. “I want the freethinker.”

The Rays have continued to shift frequently as the rest of baseball has caught up, and in many cases, surpassed Tampa Bay. In 2020 (a shortened 60-game season), the Rays shifted 731 times, which is 510 more than they shifted in the entire 2010, 162-game season when they led baseball.

How much do the Rays (and Dodgers) shift?

Despite an increase of more than 500 shifts since a decade ago in a season less than half the length, the Rays didn’t lead baseball in shifting in 2020. They actually ranked 19th out of the 30 teams in shifting, which they did on 33.1 percent of opportunities. 

The MLB leader in shifts in 2020? Tampa Bay’s World Series opponent, the Los Angeles Dodgers. They shifted 1,210 times in 2020, 55.8 percent of the possible opportunities to shift. That was 114 shifts more than the next closest team. The Dodgers shifted right-handed and left-handed batters more than anyone in baseball, with 77 percent of lefties being shifted by the Dodgers.

Shifting doesn’t necessarily lead to success, though, as the second- and third-highest shifting teams in baseball were the Tigers and Pirates, two non-playoff clubs. The Astros, who the Rays just eliminated, shifted the fifth-most times in MLB in 2020. 

Why do the Tampa Bay Rays use a four-man outfield?

The Rays pull out a rarer defensive alignment on occasion. It comes when a hitter with predictable, pull ground ball tendencies comes to the plate. If Tampa Bay anticipates a heavy majority of ground balls going to one side of the infield, it can move second baseman Brandon Lowe into the outfield, where he plays occasionally outside of this scenario.

During the regular season, the Rays used the four-man outfield for 60 batter plate appearances, more than half of MLB’s total, according to MLB.com

“Depending on the matchup, whether it’s their guy hitting the ball in the air a lot or a pitcher getting a lot of outs in the air, and when it lines up, we’re going to do that,” Rays manager Kevin Cash told MLB.com.

As long as Tampa Bay feels pretty assured that there won’t be an opposite-field grounder from the hitter, the four-man outfield works out to be a favorable play. Against the Dodgers, a couple prime candidates to see this alignment at least once during the World Series are Joc Pederson and Corey Seager, two left-handed hitters who rarely hit ground balls the other way but pose danger when they put the ball in the air. 

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