One of the fun things you can do with data over at Statcast is take a look at team shifts. Statcast will show you how often each team in baseball puts the shift on, broken down against lefthanded hitters and righthanded hitters. Texas Rangers fans talk about the shift primarily in regards to teams doing it against Rangers hitters — in particular, Joey Gallo, who has prompted some of the most extreme shifts seen in MLB — but the Rangers put the shift on, as well.
Statcast has data on shifts going back to 2016, which allows us to compare what the Rangers have done over time.
In 2016, the Rangers were 23rd among all MLB teams in percentage of plays shifted on, at 9.4%. Texas shifted 4.5% of the time against righthanded hitters, and 19.1% of the time against lefthanded hitters.
Interestingly, the 23rd understates how often the Rangers shifted somewhat, because teams shift more often against lefthanded hitters than against righthanded hitters, and so a team that sees more righthanded hitters than lefthanded hitters will see its total percentage skew downward. The Rangers’ pitchers had 2058 plate appearances against lefthanded hitters in 2016, tied with the ChiSox for fewest in MLB — both the Phillies and Braves, by comparison, had over 2800 PAs against lefties. The Rangers’ pitchers had 4055 PAs against righthanded hitters that year, 3 more than the ChiSox for most in the league — no other team had more than 3790.
So if we break this down into individual components, in 2016 the Rangers shifted 19.1% of the time against lefty hitters, which was 20th in MLB, and 4.5% of the time against righty hitters, which was 16th in MLB. The Rangers were still middle of the pack, but closer to the middle than the 23rd overall number would suggest.
Just as a point of reference, the most extreme shifting team against lefties were the Astros, at 51.6%, while the Marlins were the least extreme, shifting 3.1% against lefties. Against righties, the Astros were at 19.7% and the Rays at 19.8% on the high end, while the Rays, Jays and Tigers all shifted less than 1% of the time against righthanders.
In 2017, the Rangers moved up to 13th in total shifts, at 11.3% of the time — the Astros, at 34.3%, were the most shifting team, while the Cubs and Cardinals, at 2.9%, were the least shifting teams. Splitting it out by handedness, the Rangers shifted lefties 25.2% of the time, 10th highest in MLB, while shifting righties 3.2% of the time, 13th highest. The Astros were the outlier against lefties, at 50%, with the Cardinals being the low team at 5.7%, while the Rays and Astros were at 25.8% and 22.2% against righties, with several teams being at 1.0% or below. The Rangers still saw more lefthanded hitters than the average team, but it wasn’t as extreme as in 2016.
So when we look at the 2018 data, we would expect to see something similar -- the Rangers have the same manager, much the same personnel, and shifting has gained in popularity, to the point there are Very Serious Articles written by baseball writers about whether the rules need to change to get rid of the shift, or at least limit it.
And yet, in 2018, we see a dramatic change for the Rangers — the 2018 Rangers are shifting just 4.9% of the time. Only the Angels (3.9%) and the Cubs (3.5%) shift less, with the Cardinals also at 4.9%. Texas is shifting less than half as often in 2018 as they did in 2017.
And while the Rangers are next to last in MLB in plate appearances where they face lefty hitters — ahead of only the BoSox — and are leading the MLB in plate appearances facing righty hitters, that alone doesn’t explain the shift. Texas is shifting 14.4% of the time against lefty hitters -- ahead of only Anaheim, the Cubs, and St. Louis, and significantly behind the team immediately ahead of them, the Braves, who are shifting 18.2% of the time against lefthanded hitters. Against righthanded hitters, meanwhile, the Rangers shift just 1.2% of the time -- ahead of just the Padres, the A’s, and the Angels, and at a similar rate to the Cubs.
Changes in frequency in shifting isn’t unusual -- in 2017, only three teams shifted at least 20% of the time, with another four shifting 15% of the time or more. In 2018, half of baseball is shifting at least 15% of the time, and eight teams shift at least a quarter of the time. What is unusual is a team reducing how often it shifts so dramatically. Perusing the lists, it appears the only teams other than the Rangers to reduce the amount of shifting they do so significant are the Brewers — who are still shifting a lot, dropping from 24.9% to 20.3% -- and the Padres, who also dramatically reduced their shifting going from 13.4% in 2017 (9th most in MLB) to 7.6%, 26th in MLB.
What does this mean? I’m not really sure. Its certainly interesting, seeing the organization make what appears to be such a dramatic shift in philosophy, particularly when they are zagging when many others are zigging. And while one can argue that this means that they are being too old-school and not keeping up with the advancing trends of the game, one can note that the Cubs, which are generally seen as one of the best run and forward-thinking front offices in the game, with one of the most strategically savvy and open-minded managers in Joe Maddon, are shifting less than any other team. And of course, Russell Carleton, who literally wrote the book on the Shift, suggests that the data shows it may take away as many, if not more, runs than it saves.
So I don’t have any answers to this — just an observation. But if any of the beat guys read this and want to ask Jeff Banister about the rather significant change in shifting this year, I’d be interested to hear what he has to say.