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How Baserunners Alter the Way Teams Shift

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As defensive shifts continue to increase across baseball, more and more teams are reaping the benefits of improved run prevention. But how do baserunners affect the way teams shift?

Whether it’s driven by holding runners on, playing at double-play depth, or other situational alignments, teams in aggregate shift less often with more runners on. In the table below, shift percentage represents how often a shift was used for the given baserunner situation.

MLB Average Shift Percentages, 2015
Runners Raw Shifts Shift Percentage
None 11,812 17.5%
First Only 2,868 14.2%
Second Only 1,165 13.1%
Third Only 306 14.0%
First & Second 823 10.8%
First & Third 317 10.2%
Second & Third 204 12.0%
Bases Loaded 249 10.1%

However, in 2015, two teams bucked this trend. Both the Marlins and Cubs shifted on a higher percentage of balls in play with runners on base compared to when the bases were empty.

Teams Who Shift Most with Runners On Base (compared to Bases Empty)
Team Shifts with Bases Empty Shifts with Runners On
Marlins 7.1% 9.1%
Cubs 10.5% 11.3%
Blue Jays 23.3 22.7%
Brewers 10.4% 10.1%
Royals 14.1% 13.1%

The only situation when the Marlins didn’t match or out-shift their bases-empty percentage (7.1 percent) was when they faced a runner on second (3.0 percent). We should note the Marlins only shifted 300 times in total last season, fourth-lowest in the majors. For the Cubbies, they didn’t match or out-shift their bases-empty percentage (10.5 percent) in two different base-occupancy states: with a runner on first (10.3 percent) and with runners on first and third (2.9 percent). And the Cubs only shifted 84 times more than the Marlins, tied for ninth-lowest in baseball.

On the other end of the spectrum, three teams shifted more than 75 percent less often when a runner reached base: the Twins, Mariners, and Tigers.

Teams Who Shift Most with Bases Empty (compared to Runners On Base)
Team Shifts with Bases Empty Shifts with Runners On
Twins 22.4% 10.9%
Mariners 11.4% 5.9%
Tigers 16.3% 9.1%
Braves 6.7% 4.0%
Phillies 11.4% 7.0%

The Mariners finished last in shifting among American League teams in 2015 with 352 total shifts, while the Braves put up the lowest total among teams in the National League at 211.

Shameless self promotion: I am going to be giving an actuarial webinar next Tuesday, April 5th: Thinking Outside the Strike Zone – Actuarial Science and Baseball Analytics. Click on the link for more info. Note: there is a charge. 

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