When the Mets played the Braves and Nationals recently, their National League East rivals deployed an infield overshift against lefty-swinging first baseman James Loney. When the Mets then played Chicago, the Cubs played their infield straight up against Loney. What did Chicago know that those other teams didn’t? The answer has something to do with the evolution of defensive strategies.
Only one team in baseball, the Marlins, uses the shift less often than do the Cubs. And guess what, all you shift lovers: Chicago is turning batted balls into outs more often than any National League team in 41 years!
The Cubs are zigging when the rest of baseball is zagging, and it’s paying off. Their success in this area is particularly surprising because their manager, Joe Maddon, is the Father of the Modern Shift.
When Angels general manager Bill Bavasi hired Terry Collins as the team's manager before the 1997 season, he told Collins he could hire his own staff, but he did ask Collins to interview a few coaches from the existing staff, including Maddon. Collins did interview Maddon and was impressed by his preparation and his savvy with computerized information. Collins hired him as his bench coach.
Before playing the Mariners in September of 1998, Maddon approached Collins and said, “The numbers show that Ken Griffey Jr. almost never hits a ground ball to the left side of the infield. What do you think if we shift the shortstop over and play three infielders on the right side?”
“Let’s do it,” Collins said.
The modern shift was born Sept. 20, 1998. Griffey came to bat in the first inning against Angels righthander Omar Olivares with runners on first and second and no outs. He looked up and saw just one infielder on the left side. Griffey took one pitch for a ball. Then he decided to exploit the defense by dropping a bunt—except when he tried to do so on the next pitch, he popped out. The Angels won the game, 3–1. Maddon would later tell Griffey, “If you want to bunt every time up, that’s fine with us.”
In 2006, Maddon became the manager of the floundering Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and one way he helped turn the franchise around was with the help of defensive shifts. He even used four-man outfields against sluggers Travis Hafner, David Ortiz and Jim Thome.
It’s been a different story with the Cubs. Maddon’s team plays straight-up defense—the kind used for more than a century—most of the time. The Brewers, for instance, play in the same division as Chicago and use almost three times as many shifts as the Cubs.
What’s in Chicago's secret sauce? Catching coach Mike Borzello coordinates the team's “game planning”—similar, for instance, to how an NFL defensive coordinator formulates a game plan against each opponent. Borzello, along with bullpen coach Lester Strode and pitching coach Chris Bosio, synthesizes all the information available on batter-pitcher matchups and hitters’ spray charts. Make no mistake, it helps that the Cubs have a veteran-heavy rotation (Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jason Hammel are all north of 30) with exceptional command. They are expert at inducing weak contact. Shifts are designed to turn hard-hit balls into outs, not the weak ones.
“Our pitching coach is a little more old school in his thoughts on defense,” president Theo Epstein said. “The other thing is that when you shift you risk turning hitters into better hitters than they otherwise would be. You’re opening up holes and encouraging good hitters to use the whole field. [Loney] is a good example.”
Indeed, Loney is a good contact hitter who is more likely to hit the ball the other way if a team shifts to the pull side. Wide swaths of open territory are enticing to the eye, and can encourage a hitter to stay back, let the ball travel and take hits to the opposite field.
The Giants also have cut back on their shifts in reaction to the better hitters adjusting to them. The Astros have been reevaluating their extreme shifts for the same reason. They have had internal debates, especially about leaving shortstop Carlos Correa even slightly on the third base side of second base rather than the right side of second base. It can be a huge difference visually to a hitter. Batting average on balls in play has increased from .299 last year to .301 this year, the highest since 2007.
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What can’t be argued is that the Cubs are playing spectacular defense by shifting less. Again, the quality of stuff from their pitchers is most important. No one should ever talk about defense without talking about pitching, and vice versa. They are co-dependent elements, not independent ones.
But know this: Through Monday, the Cubs were turning 72.5% of balls in play into outs, matching the best rate of defensive efficiency in the NL since the 1975 Dodgers. The .261 batting average on balls in play against them is the lowest by an NL team since the '82 Padres.
The table below shows the teams with the best defensive efficiency (the rate of turning batted balls into outs) and BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of the wild-card era (1994 to present). The 2016 Cubs are second behind only the 116-win Mariners of 2001 in the former category and rank first in the latter.
Chicago's impressive defense is just one reason it spent a good portion of the first-half of this season on pace to challenge Seattle's win total, is tied for the highest in major league history. The Cubs' recent slide—they've lost 11 of 16—has cooled that thought, but the bottom line is that they are still the most efficient defensive team since shifting became popular, and they’ve done it by shifting less.