TCB Astros Strategy Spotlight: The shift works and doesn't work

Tom Szczerbowski

Shifting is here to stay. Why doesn't it work all the time?

A year ago, it was controversial. Now, the Astros have become the shiftiest team in the West and no one really cares.

The shift got a lot of attention last season, when Houston exaggeratedly moved its infield and outfield around to take advantage of batter's tendencies. Part of the Pittsburgh Pirates resurgence was made possible by the shift, as it helped turn their defense into one of the best units in the league.

Things didn't go so well for the Astros and the shift last season, as pitchers like Lucas Harrell (well, really ONLY Lucas Harrell) complained about it time and time again. Houston leaned into the pitch, though, going out and acquiring more ground ball pitchers who can take advantage of all those shifty plays.

How well is it working, though?

Well, for this week's Strategy Spotlight, we're going to look at two situations where the shift worked and didn't work.

The first comes from last Sunday, when the Astros held a 7-1 lead in the ninth inning against the Angels. With a runner on second and third, Raul Ibanez was at the plate with Anthony Bass on the mound. Let's check on Ibanez's spray chart to see if the shift was justified.

Ibanez_spray_chart_medium

That's his batted ball data, courtesy of Texas Leaguers, for the past two seasons. Notice that, while he made the majority of his outs on the left side of the infield, he hit the ball to the right side plenty of times as well. The percentages say he's going to hit it left, but there are still a few balls that go right to short.

Houston shifted for him, putting the shortstop behind second base. What happened?

Ibanezshift6apr2014_medium

If Houston had shifted correctly, it would have moved Villar behind second (which it did), and put Dominguez at short (which it didn't.)

The reason? Pujols on third. Matty D couldn't play where he needed for this shift because of the base runners. If he had played a more straight-up shortstop, Pujols would have had a license to steal home.

So, Dominguez had to play closer to third with Villar behind second to hold Hamilton. Ibanez hit into the less-likely (but still common ground ball area at short) and got a two-run single for his efforts.

Contrast that situation with this one from Tuesdays game. With Jose Bautista at the plate and Brett Oberholtzer on the mound, Houston shifted again.

Joeybats8apr2014_medium

The difference was that Bautista was leading off the inning. With no one on base, Houston could shift to fit his profile. Here's a quick peek at his batted ball profile.

Joey_bats_spray_chart_medium

That's why you see Villar positioned where he is here. Even though there is a similar cluster of balls hit to second base, Bautista didn't hit too many balls right at the traditional second base spot. You could see a second baseman positioned right by second base could get to a ball hit on the other side (maybe).

Either way, these two situations show how complicated shifting can be. It'll be fascinating to watch Houston use the shift in different situations this year and how well it works.


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