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Discussing Defensive Shifts In 2014, And The Future

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The Astros use non-traditional defensive alignments often. How is that working out for them, and the league as a whole? And what might be on the horizon?

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

I remember the first time I saw a defensive shift.  It was many years ago against Mark McGwire.  Even though it worked in that particular at-bat, I remember thinking at the time that it was gimmicky, a "sometimes" play, and would eventually fall away once batters would adjust to it.  Well how wrong could I be?  As anyone who follows the Astros can see, it has turned from a "sometimes" play to an "almost all the time" play.  But really, how has it worked out for the teams employing this tactic across the league, and for the Astros in particular?  And while we are on the subject, what is the next step in defensive shifts we may see?

For an answer to the first question, Steve Moyer of Inside Edge (a data provider to teams in MLB) has written an article for the Wall Street Journal.  He is attempting to answer whether the shift works, and are some teams better than others. Per Mr. Moyer:

Some of what we've learned isn't surprising. For one thing, baseball can breathe a sigh of relief: Overall, the shift works. Shifts have saved a net of 390 hits this season through Monday. If we were to add those 390 hits back into the grand total, the overall MLB batting average would rise to .254 from .252-a significant increase considering we're talking about 146,785 at-bats.

So which team has benefited from the use of these alignments?  That would be the Astros.  They use the shift more, and have saved a net 44 hits in the process.  But, he notes, teams are still "working out the kinks", and not all teams have had the success others have had.

So what is the future of defensive shifts?  An interesting idea was presented this week, written by Eno Sarris of Fangraphs, and posted at foxsports.com.  He asks the question "How far away is the in-game corner outfield switch?"  Think about it.  Astros in the field in a tie game, late innings, runner on second.  The data shows the next hitter is a righty who pulls the ball most of the time.  Why not swap Grossman and Marisnick to get the better arm in left field, and give the team a better chance for a play at the plate?  Sounds good, right?  Not necessarily.

This isn't something that would make sense on most teams. Most left and right fielders are too close in talent to move around just because a right-handed pull hitter is at the plate...The small defensive upgrade would be negated by the unfamiliarity with the other outfield corner.

He does go on to say that if there was a large difference in the skill level of the two players, it may be a tool that managers would use, especially late in the season in important situations.

Give me your thoughts.  What do you think about the defensive alignments the Astros have used over this season?  Do you think with all the data available to coaches and front offices, outfield shifts will be an idea that will eventually take hold, or would you consider them "over-coaching" that wouldn't give enough of an edge?  I thought that about infield shifts at one time...