Chase Headley vs. The Shift

Defensive shifts have totally changed the way baseball has been played in the field over the past several seasons. It seems that every year as more data is made accessible to teams more and more players are getting shifted on. It’s gotten to the point where shifts might actually be one of the biggest factors in the uptick of offensive output by second basemen we saw in 2016.

Last season there were 34,081 instances where a batter faced a shift. This is up roughly 10,000 from 2015, and 20,000 from 2014. If you go all the way back to 2010, the earliest season for which we have recorded shift data, the total number of instances of a batter facing a shift shrinks down to 3,323. That means that teams are currently shifting 10 times more often than they were 7 years ago.

How has this affected hitters’ performance? Well, in 2010 batters averaged .293 when teams did not use a defensive shift, and .306 when they were being shifted against. This seems counterintuitive, considering the whole reason for a defensive shift is to keep batters from getting hits. A few managers seemed to recognize this, and in 2011 we saw slightly fewer shifts compared to the previous year. However, what we also saw in 2011 was a dramatic drop in batting averages against the shift, with hitters only batting .289 against shifts, this time 2 points lower than when they weren’t hitting against the shift. A lot of teams took notice, and in 2012 we saw shifts nearly double in frequency from 2011, and that number has been increasing ever since, in spite of some fairly inconsistent outcomes.

vs. Shift     vs. No Shift     Difference

2010          .306               .293              + .013

2011          .289               .291               – .002

2012          .301               .293              + .008

2013          .291               .294               – .003

2014          .297               .295               + .002

2015          .287               .298               – .011

2016          .297               .298               – .001

As you can see, more often than not the shift succeeds in getting batters out, but not by much, and not with much consistency from season to season. Still, defenses use the shift because it “usually” helps.

These, of course, are league averages. For some hitters, the shift is much more frustrating than for other hitters. One such hitter for which the shift has evidently become quite frustrating is none other than much beloved Yankees third baseman, Chase Headley.

In 2015, when Headley saw a huge increase in defensive shifts against him from the previous season, he noticeably struggled.

vs. Shift     vs. No Shift     Difference

2015          .284               .350              – .066

Then in 2016, Headley adjusted, and the numbers looked very different.

vs. Shift     vs. No Shift     Difference

2016          .311               .304               + .007

Now it seems Headley is looking to continue his relative success against the shift into 2017. In the Yankees’s season opener on Sunday, in his very first at bat of the season, he turned a pitch inside-out for a single down the third base line, where no one was standing. Then in the 7th, with a runner on 1st, Headley beat the shift again with a well-placed bunt single down a yet again vacant third base line. He finished the day 3-4, batting 1.000 against the shift.

So it would seem Headley is determined to continue his crusade against the defensive shift, and he’s willing to take advantage of it in any way he can, with the hope that teams will eventually start fielding a normal defensive alignment against him, allowing him to get more line drive hits through the infield gaps. The last season in which Headley saw virtually no defensive shifts, 2012, he slashed .286, .376, .498 for the Padres and was a 7.5 fWAR player. There’s no guarantee that he will ever reach that level of production again, in fact I would never bet on it considering how flukey his power numbers were that year, but hey, if a defense first 3B like Headley can continue to finagle his way onto the bases, he has the potential to be an above average player and not a huge headache for Yankee fans.


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