Shifts happen: an update on the Reds defensive alignments

Pickin' it. - Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The Reds have gone from one of the least to most shifting defenses in the National League. Is it helping?

About a year ago, I suggested that the Reds employ the infield shift more often. I also noted that, although the season was young, the Reds' vaunted defense had seemingly slipped based on my own observations and the metrics. Here's an updated version of the chart I did last May - with the final results of 2012 and what we have so far in 2013 thrown in (see my linked article for an explanation of the metrics):

DEF (raw)

Place in NL

DEF (BPro park-adjusted)

Place in NL

UZR

Place in NL

Shifts

2010

0.701

3

0.84

5

37.9

4

43

2011

0.705

1

1.27

2

38.5

2

43

2012 (as of 5/22/12)

0.689

12

-1.31

12

-1.8

10

2

2012

0.699

4

0.93

6

16.8

3

78

2013

0.711

3

1.61

5

10.4

3

33

Thankfully, my concerns about last year's defense were premature. I suggested then that the "slump" may have arose from the Reds' pitchers getting hit hard - as evidenced by the number of line drives allowed. Whether it was better pitching, guys getting healthier, or simply a regression to the team's true fielding talent, the Reds' defense righted itself to finish among the leaders. Carry on.

Like the other squads of the Jocketty era, this year's defense also looks to be among the league's best. Same as usual - except the defense was supposed to take a dive by playing three corner outfielders at a time. I have to admit that it hasn't always looked pretty in the outfield. By Defensive Runs Saved (which feeds into baseball reference's WAR), the Reds are a touch below average in the outfield.

So if the Reds' outfield has taken a hit, are the infielders making up for it? And if so, how? What prompted this article was this post I saw at Bill James' site last week which listed the Reds as among the big risers in using the infield shift. Last May, I bemoaned the organization's conservatism in shying away from the shift. At that time they were on pace for only 9 shifts for the whole year.

Suddenly, the Reds started shifting more. A lot more. With 33 shifts through last week, the team is on pace to shift 356 times this year. So much for conservatism.

I'm sure there are plenty of factors that account for variations in shift usage. The opposing lineup is probably the biggest, and I imagine that facing the Angels to start the year presented an ideal opportunity to employ the shift. But the exponential rise of the Reds' shift suggests that this is a wholesale change in the organization's defensive philosophy. One that has flown under the radar, from what I can tell.

Whether the shift helps is still debated. Hotly debated, perhaps, in particularly nerdish baseball circles. James himself remains skeptical, while John Dewan (of the Fielding Bible) has long been a strong proponent. Dewan notes that in addition to the Reds, the Cubs and Pirates have also dramatically increased their shift usage this year. Both teams (especially Pittsburgh) have also converted a lot more balls in play into outs. Yeah, it's early, and I know, correlation ≠ causation. But I wonder if the NL's Great Shift Renaissance is responsible for the league's defensive efficiency bump from .689 to .699 this year.

For the Reds, let's hope that the gloves continue to be a steadying force. Defensive consistency is certainly comforting when accompanied by a roller coaster of an offense.

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