No, MLB Teams Aren't Stupid By Shifting
Congratulations anti-shifters, the second inning of Game 2 of the World Series was your moment where all your assumptions were proven correct.
With a man on first and one out, Yuli Gurriel hit a ball right to where second baseman Ozzie Albies normally plays. There was only one problem for the Braves. Albies had been shifted to the other side of second base, giving the Braves three defenders on the left side of the infield.
So Gurriel’s ball trickled through untouched to the outfield.
Instead of two outs and a man on second or a double play that would have ended the inning, the Astros had runners at the corners. Three singles and an error later, the Astros had taken a 5-1 lead.
And as you would expect, there was plenty of hatred for the shift that followed.
Of course no one batted ball actually proves anything.
Yes, Gurriel hit a ball that was a hit because of the shift. That’s understandable. Infield shifts will never be perfect. They take away some hits by putting infielders into traditional unconventional places but also give some back with the same type of positioning.
But because anti-shifters want to have shifts disproven, they are prone to choice-supportive bias. They remember the times that the shift harmed their team and quickly discard the times where the shift helped nab an unexpected out.
Just a day before, the Braves recorded three outs in the ninth inning, all on ground balls that were at least turned into easier outs because of the shift. It could be argued that all three could have ended up as hits without the shift.
That’s been the story early on this series and what goes on throughout baseball. There have been plenty of balls hit right into the teeth of the shifts, and there have also been balls hit away from the shift that has pitchers turning cartwheels.
There have been countless studies that show the efficacy of shifting. I’m not going to roll out another list of stats to try to prove something that has largely been proven.
I’m just going to use an even simpler form of logic to argue that all these MLB teams aren’t stupid by shifting. The proof is that we can assume that all 30 MLB teams aren’t collectively stupid.
MLB is a copy-cat league. New ideas are constantly tested. And when you see something spread quickly from one team to many, you can safely assume that the idea has been tested, analyzed and dissected in multiple front offices around baseball. If it spreads rapidly, you can feel confident that the idea was found to have merit.
Now this doesn’t mean every new idea is a good one. While we can assume that MLB teams are rational actors, that doesn’t mean they are correct in all their assumptions. But not all ideas spread. Some experiments are just as quickly discarded. Others rapidly spread from team to team.
And that rapid spread is the confirmation that teams have realized they wish they had come up with the idea first.
When the Rockies decided to shift to a four-man rotation in 2011, the idea was tested and quickly discarded without anyone else hopping on to start a trend. The Cardinals decision to bat their pitchers eighth for a while never became a league-wide movement. Front offices look at pretty much everything going on league-wide. If an idea doesn’t have staying power, it’s probably not a winning idea.
On the other hand, when an idea spreads from one or two teams to most of the league in a short period of time, it’s an extremely strong indicator that someone somewhere came up with something useful. And when that happens, most everyone is going to quickly try to narrow the gap of that advantage.
Something as simple as batting better hitters at the top of the order rather than picking leadoff hitters on the basis of their speed is an idea that was at one time novel. Before long it became conventional wisdom.
Five years ago, MLB catchers almost without fail set up in a “traditional” crouch. Now many catchers and many teams have adopted the one-knee setup, where the catcher sets up with one knee on the ground. The idea came about as a way to better present pitches and get more called strikes.
Some are convinced that it leads to many more wild pitches, passed balls and stolen bases. We studied it at Baseball America and found that all of those rates were relatively stable between one-knee and traditional setup catchers.
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But without even looking at any data, you can just be comfortable in knowing this -- if it was a bad idea, it’s incredibly unlikely that it would have spread so widely through pro baseball so quickly. The effort it takes to convince and teach MLB catchers an entirely new setup, one they haven’t generally used, can only be justified if MLB teams found that it brought with it significant benefits. In the case of one-knee catching, much of the league has adopted it in the past three seasons since the Twins jumped on board in 2019.
If you believe that catchers are foolish to adopt a one-knee setup, it also requires you to believe that MLB teams are actively working against their own best interests or are caught up in a collective delusion.
Catcher’s pitch framing itself was a debated topic just a decade ago. In 2011, Mike Fast (now a Vice President of Baseball Development for the Atlanta Braves) was writing about finding proof that catchers influenced the amount of strikes called by how they received pitches. Over the next five years, top-notch pitch framers became highly coveted around the league. Soon after that, teams began to focus on training all of their catchers to adopt the attributes in receiving that led to more borderline strikes.
In baseball, there’s no way to keep a good idea exclusive for long.
Over the next 5-10 years we will surely see other ideas that run counter to the traditional ways of baseball. Some will quickly disappear. Others will become so pervasive that we may even forget that we used to think differently.
But you can feel confident in something. If a trend takes over the league, and you hear ex-players or others call it misguided or stupid, ask yourself this. Who is more likely to be right? Is it the 20-plus teams who have decided to follow the trend (likely after much intensive internal study) knowing that if they are wrong they could lose their highly-coveted jobs?
Or is it more likely that an ex-player who thinks the game was better the way he used to play it is correct?
I’m betting on the teams in those cases.