Thursday, April 26, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Numbers show that Tampa Bay Rays' radical defensive shifts equal wins

PORT CHARLOTTE — Tom Foley remembers back when he was playing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the extent to which infielders positioned themselves for specific hitters.

"It wasn't as much of a shift," he said, "as it was, hey, this guy's a pull hitter so you take two steps to your right or two steps to your left."

By the time Ben Zobrist was getting to the big leagues in the mid 2000s, the concept had evolved to the point where there was a third degree of distinction for hitters — straight up, slight pull and straight pull — and maybe even a third step in either direction.

"That to me was thinking a lot about your positioning," he said. "Now it's a totally different story."

And no bigger part of the story line than with the Rays, who combine their love for the glove with a sophisticated system of positioning and shifting that has made them the best defensive team in the majors.

"Defense has been our backbone," said Evan Longoria, their two-time Gold Glove-winning third baseman. "It's our staple. It's the way that we play the game."

Their game plan is to have above-average defensive players and make them even better by putting them in the right spots — even when that includes having the second baseman in short rightfield, or the shortstop on the right side of second, or the third baseman closer to second base than the foul line.

"It's a combination of us being a little bit more progressive with our defensive alignments as well as the abilities of those that we're moving around," manager Joe Maddon said. "Because I think we have really high-end defenders in regard to feet, hands, ranges, arms, those kind of things. And if you put them closer to the right spot, that should benefit you even more."

Quantifying defensive efficiency is already an inexact science, and determining the impact of positioning is even harder. But the statheads, computer programmers and writers of The Fielding Bible, Volume III, have tried, and they are certain it has factored heavily in the Rays' success.

By their math, termed Defensive Runs Saved, the Rays were the top team in the majors last season at plus-85 (for a benefit of eight-nine wins, at 10 runs saved per) and project to be the best again this season at plus-42.

And the fact that the Rays shifted more than any other team — by almost 2-1 over the past two years, by their count — was not merely a coincidence.

"It helps to have good players," book author John Dewan said, "but you can do things to make these players better, and all the shifting and all the positioning they do I believe really makes a difference."

Maddon first started experimenting with shifts when he was a bench coach for the Angels in the late 1990s (Ken Griffey was the first subject), and he quickly became a fan. Combining his advocacy with the Rays front office's extensive statistical research and openness to innovation, and the only question seems to be how far they'll go.

The Rays shift regularly against pull-hitting lefties, such as the Red Sox's David Ortiz, the White Sox's Adam Dunn and the Yankees' Mark Teixeira, using the second baseman as essentially a short-rightfielder and at times vacating the left side of the infield.

They've shifted at times against some right-handed sluggers, such as Toronto's Jose Bautista, putting three infielders on the left side of second base. They've used a four-man outfield and a five-man infield.

They have different formations based on game situations, and even specific pitch counts. There is a chart taped to the dugout wall each game listing the preferred alignment for each batter against right- and left-handed pitchers, and more detailed data close at hand.

But as complicated as it may seem at times, the concept is very simple:

See what the numbers and spray charts show, and put your defenders where the ball is most likely to be hit.

"You're playing the percentages," said Foley, the Rays' infield coach. "And usually the percentages are pretty big."

For example, half the balls Ortiz puts in play go to the right side (compared to 30 percent to left and 20 percent to center), so why not have an extra defender there?

"It just ends up being a byproduct of what the tendencies of a hitter are coupled with who's pitching for us and what the likely outcome is," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "There are very few things we can answer in this game that are 100 percent. It's just playing the odds and shifting things ever so slightly and hope that over the course of time it helps us some."

Usually, it's obvious whether it works — such as Zobrist spearing an Ortiz line drive or throwing him out at first — or not. But sometimes the Rays consider it a success just by the hitter's reaction, the confounded look on their face or, even better, if they try to "beat" the shift with a bunt or a ground ball to an open spot rather than take their usual full cut.

Every once in a while, even the players will wonder what Maddon is up to.

"You see our team do a lot of things defensively that no other team would do," Longoria said. "And then you go back and look at the numbers and you're like, wow, that makes sense."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topk[email protected]y.com.

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