24 July 2017

Minor League Defensive Shifts

Joe Reisel's Archives

It's been several years that defensive shifts - generally considered to be three infielders on one side of second base, as opposed to the standard two - have become more mainstream in the major leagues. Once reserved for use against the most extreme power hitters, it's now commonly used against any left-handed hitter who is not known as a slap hitter and against many right-handed power hitters. But it's only been the past three seasons or so that the practice has spread to the AAA minor-league level. Indeed, over the past three years Baseball Info Solutions has asked its scorers to record whether the batter has been shifted against.

Although different organizations employ defensive shifts at the AAA level with much more variety than at the major-league level, there is some consensus. Against the Norfolk Tides' Pedro Alvarez, almost every team plays three infielders between first and second, with one player positioned several yards out in the outfield. This should be completely unsurprising, as Alvarez has a long track record. The consensus is that he pulls almost all of the ground balls he hits, and he is not a fast runner. From a competitive standpoint, it makes no sense to station a defensive player where a ball won't be hit. Most of the AAA International League teams I've seen, including the Tides, will shift against Alvarez-like players.

On the other hand, the Charlotte Knights - the Chicago White Sox AAA affiliate - don't shift at all. Even against Pedro Alvarez, their shortstops stayed on the left side of second base. While that makes no sense from a competitive standpoint, it might make sense from a development standpoint. Yoan Moncada, the Knights' second baseman (until he was recently promoted), is a young potential star and the White Sox may not want to complicate his development by incorporating defensive shifts. Or, they may want their shortstops to demonstrate their range more effectively by stationing him further away from where balls are likely to be hit.

But Charlotte's lack of shifting against the Tides isn't interesting. More interesting is the team at the other end of the spectrum, the Durham Bulls. The Bulls are the AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, a team historically at the forefront of the new wave of defensive shifting. The Bulls shift against Pedro Alvarez, as most teams do. They shift against David Washington, a similar although less extreme player; many teams employ a shift against him. But Durham also shifted against Johnny Giavotella, a right-handed hitting singles hitter, and Drew Dosch, a left-handed hitter making his AAA debut at age 25.

These shifts were generally successful; in the press box we commented and discussed how effective they were. It then struck me that this successful defensive positioning reveals something about the Tampa organization. Unlike the other organizations with teams in the International League, the Rays knew the offensive tendencies of Giavotella and Dosch. While the Rays may have assembled a dossier on Giavotella from his major-league time in the American League, they cared enough to pass that information down to Durham. And, because the Rays' A, Advanced A, and AA teams are in leagues different from the Orioles', they couldn't have personally seen Dosch play and so relied on their scouts or video for their information.

To me, at least, this illustrates that the Rays, as a organization, focus on gathering and disseminating information.. They care enough to collect data even on marginal prospects like Drew Dosch. Presumably, they care enough to tell the Durham field management to shift against unusual candidates like Dosch and Johnny Giavotella; at least, they encourage Durham to employ such shifts. The Rays organization is willing to explore non-standard methods to win more games.

And this information-gathering is cheap. The data-gathering and video review would be done by interns or entry-level employees. The information can be sent for free via email. It's unlikely to be substantially more expensive to hire minor-league managers and coaches open to new uses of information than those who are more resistant. There may be advantages to having players used to shifting at the minor-league level, rather than learning at the major-league level.

All of this is speculation and opinion; I don't know if any of what I've seen makes a difference or if my conclusions are valid. I do know that I'll be more interested in the Rays over the next few years than I would have been without having seen Durham shift so frequently.

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