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We Don't Need to Abolish the Shift

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I was recently asked the following question by Mike Murphy (or as many know him, Murph), one of the premier sports radio hosts in Chicago for years:

“I hear more talk again popping up of banning the shift. (MLB wants more hits, more excitement, etc.). Idea: You have Defensive Runs Saved. But, do you have Offensive Runs Lost?”

He went on to explain that he was particularly curious because he had seen a few plays recently where it was clear that the shift had taken away hits from Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, and he was interested if there was a way to see how much the shift was hurting offensive players.

In his question, Murph hits on an important concept that comes up often when I talk with people around the game about Defensive Runs Saved. When we refer to the defense saving runs, those runs are just as much lost by the offense, so we can understand the impact that defense has from an offensive perspective as well. In the case of shifts in particular, we track Shift Runs Saved, which measures the value of the shift relative to traditional defensive positioning.

Through the first two and a half months of this season, teams have saved 186 runs with the shift. Compared to the 8,916 runs scored in the league so far, that’s actually a pretty small impact. The difference ends up being only 0.09 runs per team per 9 innings, from 4.75 to 4.66. The shift has an impact but nothing like people think. It’s helpful for a team to shift—there’s no sense not doing it because it helps more often than it hurts. But it’s just a tactic, like platooning, where you get an advantage when you have a righty hitter face a lefty pitcher. You should do it, but it’s not a panacea, and certainly not a threat to offense overall.

In fact, despite the use of the shift continuing to increase year-over-year, we have actually seen scoring increase to the point that it is now consistent with historical levels. This season’s 4.66 runs per team per 9 innings is the highest since 2009 and is right in line with previous seasons in the modern era (steroid-driven years excluded). A lot of this has been attributed to an airball revolution—a concerted effort by hitters to get more lift on the ball—that, to some extent, comes as a counterpunch by hitters to the shift. And this is the really important point to take away here: the shift drives down offense, but hitters are still able to perform well despite the increased use of the shift because they too can make adjustments to combat it.


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