September 1, 2014

Statistically Speaking: Defensive shift effect on Nationals hitters

Spring training so far has produced numerous surprises for the Washington Nationals, most of them coming from the mind of new manager Matt Williams. One of the more visible philosophical shifts has been his willingness to incorporate dramatic defensive shifts, which was on display last week against the Atlanta Braves. Add to this the Nationals naming Mark Weidemaier their defensive coordination advance coach and it’s plain to see the team and their new skipper will be shifting defensive paradigms in ways performed by only a few teams over the last few years, most frequently Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Oakland.

Coinciding with this new approach to fielding has been the release of defensive shift data from last year, courtesy of Jeff Zimmerman at the Hardball Times. The data was broken down by: hitters hitting into a shift, and; by teams and how often they implement a shift. Batting average on in balls in play (BABIP) stats for each data type was provided and showed how the offensive environment changed.

Fellow Beyond the Box Score contributor Chris Teeter also provided a great piece discussing on how you can take these numbers and figure out how many runs are saved by a team’s defensive shift, which you can find here. I will leave it to the reader to peruse Teeter’s findings on how much the Nats shifted last season and how many runs the defense saved from doing it. For now, I’d like to shift attention to the hitter data, in particular, data from Nats hitters.

First baseman Adam LaRoche is a notorious pull hitter and, as such, has been on the receiving end of many defensive shifts. In 2013, he hit into a shift 161 times, the fourth most of any player in MLB. Taking the difference between his BABIP with a shift on and without a shift on and multiplying that difference by the number opportunities to hit into a shift, we can find out how many hits lost (or gained) when hitting into a shift.

With the number of hits, his batting event rate for 2013, and knowing the run value for each event—something we can find in The Book— we can figure out how many runs he (or any other hitter) gained or lost due to hitting into a shift.

…and that is exactly what I have done for Nats hitters, or at least most of them. In the table below, I collected shift hitting data for every Nat who a) had a least 150 plate appearances, b) is still on the team this spring, and c) hit into a shift at least once, per Zimmerman’s data.

Some descriptions of the ensuing madness:

- taking the difference in BABIP, with and without shifts, and multiplying it by the number of times a hitter hit into a shift (labeled Total below), I figured out how many hits a player gained or lost— this is labeled ‘Hits diff”.

- I then took ‘Hits diff’ data and multiplied it by batting event rates, which are the frequencies at which each hitter hit a single, double, or triple; since home runs aren’t considered balls in play, they were not included in the calculation.

- each ‘Hits diff’ by batting event rate frequency was then multiplied by its proper run value (0.474 for 1B, .764 for 2B, and 1.063 for 3B) and then summed; this summary value is labeled ‘Runs’ in the table below:

Player Bats Total BABIP w/ Shift On BABIP w/o Shift On BABIP diff Hits diff Runs
Adam LaRoche L 161 0.286 0.272 -0.014 2.254 (+) +0.363
Bryce Harper L 9 0.444 0.303 -0.141 1.269 (+) +0.607
Danny Espinosa B 4 0.000 0.184 0.184 0.736 -0.593
Denard Span L 4 0.250 0.303 0.053 0.212 -0.350
Ryan Zimmerman R 1 0.000 0.318 0.318 0.318 -0.347
Ian Desmond R 1 0.000 0.337 0.337 0.337 -0.395
Tyler Moore R 1 0.000 0.313 0.313 0.313 -0.360
Wilson Ramos R 1 0.000 0.274 0.274 0.274 -0.182

An interesting quirk in this data is the fact that both LaRoche and Bryce Harper hit better with a shift on and have contributed additional runs with a shift employed against them. Overall, the Nats don’t suffer much due to defensive shifts—they lose 2.23 runs, but gain 0.970 of it back from LaRoche and Harper.

However, we must take into account the scant number of times the rest of the team have hit into a shift — 21 at bats is a very tiny sample in which to make any grandiose statements arising from the results of the sample. Just as a means of comparison, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard suffered the greatest against the shift in 2013, hitting into one 149 times, ‘losing’ 28.45 hits and 8.63 runs as a result.

Of course this data will change and evolve in 2014; it will be interesting to see if, like the Nats themselves, other teams begin to shift more frequently and aggressively. It will also be interesting to see how hitters like the aforementioned Rendon and Werth will respond to possible shifts, given their lack exposure to them, and if Harper and LaRoche can continue to take advantage of these shifts and hit ‘em where they ain’t.


Data courtesy of FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.

Stuart Wallace is a Contributor to District Sports Page. A neuroscientist by day, the Nevada native also moonlights as an Associate Managing Editor for Beyond the Box Score, stats intern at Baseball Prospectus, and a contributor at Camden Depot. A former pitcher, his brief career is sadly highlighted by giving up a lot of home runs to former National Johnny Estrada. You can follow him on Twitter @TClippardsSpecs.

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