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2017 Shift Slowdown

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2017 Shift Slowdown

September 11, 2017

Back in April, we took a look at the state of shifting in Major League Baseball and predicted that teams were on pace to total 31,677 shifts during the 2017 season. While this projection was a 13 percent increase over the total number of shifts in 2016, the projected year-over-year increase was actually the smallest increase in league-wide shifts since they began their record-breaking trend between 2011 and 2012. As the 2017 season comes to a close, it turns out that our April projection for a slowdown in shifts was too conservative. For the first time since the 2011 season, defensive shifts are on pace to decrease from the prior year. Note that all shift totals referenced in this article are shifts on balls in play.

MLB Shifts by Season
2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
2,350 4,577 6,882 13,299 17,826 28,130 27,187*
*Prorated from 23,998 shifts thus far

With a combined 23,998 shifts so far in 2017, this season's total has far exceeded the shift totals for any season prior to 2016. However, the projected 2017 shift total does not look like it will surpass the approximately 28,000 total shifts tracked in 2016. 

So what’s causing this stagnation? To best understand this question it’s important to consider that each team came to its own conclusion on when to make shifting a priority. A number of teams took the shifting plunge prior to the 2013 season and thus became “first wave” shift adopters. This group includes teams such as the Astros, Pirates, Rays, and Orioles. These teams continue to remain at the top of the shifting leaderboard in 2017, albeit with some teams slightly off of the last year's astronomic pace.

MLB Team Shift Prorated Leaders, 2017
Team 2016 2017 2017 (Prorated)
Brewers 1,489 1,454 1,647
Astros 1,869 1,349 1,528
Rays 1,588 1,336 1,503
White Sox 783 1,298 1,481
Mariners 1,482 1,295 1,467
Pirates 1,489 1,245 1,401
Yankees 1,380 1,117 1,274
Angels 1,479 936 1,060
Reds 877 911 1,025
Orioles 787 850 963
Note: through games of September 10

Conversely, there are a number of teams that began shifting more recently. These teams could be categorized as “second wave” shift adopters. This group includes teams like the Rockies, Cardinals, and Angels. It is the pullback by these second wave shift adopters that has caused the stagnation of total shifts in 2017.

Top Six Shift Decliners, 2017
Team 2014 2015 2016 2017(Prorated) Difference: 2016 vs. 2017 (Prorated)
Rockies 114 1,014 1,355 655 700
Cardinals 367 311 812 361 451
Angels 357 439 1,479 1,060 419
Astros 1,341 1,421 1,869 1,528 341
Braves 213 211 1,026 734 292
Giants 361 553 858 704 154
Note: through games of September 10

With the exception of the Astros, the remaining top six shift decliners in 2017 all had a sudden shift increase in 2015 or 2016, followed by a pullback in 2017. In particular, the 2017 Rockies are projected to shift less than half as many times as they did in 2016.

Of course, it's hard to draw definitive conclusions about how this year's stagnating shift trends can affect future years. However, it’s pretty clear that in 2017 some of the late defensive shift adopters seem to have had buyer's remorse with their shifting tendencies.


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