The shift has taken over defense in baseball and it hurts the offense of most teams. However, the Cardinals are actually doing better against it than they are against a normal alignment.
The Cardinals actually haven’t been shifted against that much this year, probably because they have a young team. Because teams don’t have as much data on younger players, they assume that the best option is to do nothing different. While this is probably a bad idea, managers do it anyway, so the Cardinals have faced a normal defensive alignment for nearly 75 percent of their at-bats this season.
In this article, we’ll be focusing on what happens the other 25 percent of the time. As it turns out, other teams may not be shifting as much against the Cardinals because they hit against it, too. Cardinals’ position players with at least ten ABs against a shift are actually hitting 35 points higher on balls in play when shifted against versus when they face a normal alignment. In most cases, the shift is a useful defensive tactic. When facing the Cardinals, teams must figure out smarter defensive alignments.
The player shifted on most often is Brandon Moss. He is the only player on the Cardinals who is nearly exclusively shifted on. He has 132 at-bats against the shift versus just ten against a normal defense. However, even Moss has upped his BABIP with the shift on. Moss’s career BABIP of .298 is twenty points below the .318 he has against the shift this year. It appears Moss has made the adjustment the old-fashioned way; he is going the other way two percent more often this year. Before you say that two percent is not a lot, realize that it is exactly the difference between his career and season BABIP with a shift.
You put the shift on for Brandon Moss and then you pitch him outside and he burns you down the third base line…why Milwaukee Brewers? Why?
— Will Frank (@WillFrank1997) July 2, 2016
Some other players have similar stories. Randal Grichuk is pulling the ball much less, while Aledmys Diaz is shooting the ball the other way about 24 percent of the time. Sometimes, though, it’s even simpler. Matt Carpenter is hitting .364 against the shift versus just .287 without it on balls in play. However, he is only going the other way twelve percent of the time. How is he doing so well against the shift? Well, his soft hit rate is an insanely low 8.9 percent against it. Carpenter is just ripping the ball, and fielders will have to play deeper, not just over in order to stop him. The difference in BABIP is a bit of luck, but just moving the infield over will not change much when the batter is launching rockets.
Another interesting story against the shift is Kolten Wong. He is hitting 90 points higher against the shift than he is against normal alignments this season. Wong’s opposite field rate is nothing special, and his ground ball rate is too high. In fact, he seems like a smart shift candidate. Nevertheless, Wong can actually beat the shift without hitting it to the left side. Wong is three for four in bunting against the shift. Given that he isn’t a huge power guy anyway, that extra boost in singles is huge for him. The only way to properly shift against Wong is to keep the third basemen in against the bunt. That may work, but Wong would be able to hit it where the shortstop usually is with some frequency.
There are many other hitters that don’t even see shifts. Stephen Piscotty and Yadier Molina rarely see anything but a normal alignment. Jeremy Hazelbaker and Jedd Gyorko each went 6-18 against the shift and then stopped seeing it. Either way, the Cardinals are taking away the advantage that another team gets by moving their players to the best possible positions. A normal alignment is rarely the best alignment, but teams are using it anyway against the Cardinals. The Redbirds keep finding ways to put the ball through the vacated spot, bunt to the open area, or crush the ball so that it gets through anyway.
Don’t get me wrong, I love shifts. I think they are a great tool for teams. I just think that opponents are not properly shifting on the Cardinals. The proper shifts exist, but teams haven’t found them. The Cardinals’ offense has thwarted the earliest attempts and hasn’t seen many adjustments. If this team makes it to the playoffs, one advantage they will have is their defensive positioning. While other teams just give up and play straight up, the Cardinals will actually be facing teams that cannot beat traditional shifts. When a team beats the obvious shifts, opponents must scramble to find what works. Luckily for the Cardinals, there isn’t much time to figure out what the best solution is.
Photo Credit: Robert Hanashiro – USA TODAY Sports