Baseball is a game of strategy. The best managers know exactly when to pinch-hit, remove a pitcher, or call for a hit-and-run. A combination of statistical analysis and gut feelings navigate how the best skippers call a game. One strategic component of the game, from a defensive perspective, is the infield shift. Let’s take a closer look at what the shift is, its success, and how it originated.
What is the infield shift and why do teams use it?
The infield shift is a defensive alignment in baseball where the majority of the infielders line up favoring either first or third base.
The shift is used against hitters who tend to pull the ball. For example, if a left-handed batter is mostly a pull hitter, the third baseman, second baseman, and shortstop will all shift to play somewhere between first and second base. One of the players will most likely play shallow in the outfield. In the case of a right-handed batter, it would be the same setup, but between second and third.
For power hitters who make their living by pulling the ball, the infield shift can be incredibly frustrating.
Does the infield shift work?
The shift encourages players to learn how to hit to the opposite field. Some players refuse to change their style to accommodate the shift, stubbornly insisting on continuing to pull.
It’s become such a common defensive tactic that there’s been talk in baseball’s commissioner’s office about possibly outlawing the shift. This would create a situation where teams were penalized for “illegal defense” much like NBA teams in the pre-zone defense era.
But does the shift work? In a way, at least according to Five Thirty Eight, not really. Why not exactly? Because players are incentivized to hit the ball in the air, which is good practice anyway:
“In some ways, the shift has backfired. Batters have an incentive to hit more balls in the air, and balls hit in the air are more valuable. When batters faced a shift last season, 5.2 percent of balls they put in play went for a home run. When they didn’t face a shift, 4.1 percent of balls went for home runs, according to Statcast data.”
Players who take to the air are apparently more successful hitting into the shift precisely because they don’t hit the ball into the shift. They hit it over – in some cases, for home runs that are a lot more damaging than the base hits the shift is trying to prevent.
What was the first MLB team to use this strategy?
The shift was first employed against one of the greatest hitters of all time: the Boston Red Sox Ted Williams. Five Thirty Eight recounted how the shift was first employed by Cleveland Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau as a way to neutralize Williams’ effectiveness:
“Boudreau was a brilliant player in his own right, and to a certain degree, his biographer says, he resented the fame and attention that constantly came Williams’s way. More importantly, as Cleveland’s manager he also had to find a way to keep Williams from beating his Indians. So in between games of a doubleheader on July 14, 1946, Boudreau gave his fielders a quick crash course in the strange defensive configuration they’d be using later that day, one only sparingly used before in baseball history.”
Boudreau’s innovation became known as “The Ted Williams’ Shift.” Other teams followed suit, adopting a similar strategy. Williams once guessed that it may have chopped 15 points off his career batting average.
That’s the origin of the infield shift. But what about the strategy’s future? It would be shocking if baseball made a formal rule to ban the maneuver. However, as teams employ analytics more and more, they may stop using the shift if they find it’s not as effective.