The Shift: Redesigning Baseball’s Defense

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
One of the most exciting things in sports is to see a truly great player shatter all previous assumptions about what is possible to achieve in the game.

Sports Announcer:
“Goal! Not possible! Not possible!”

Roman Mars:
But while fans applaud and announcers lose their minds, opposing teams scramble to find strategies to stop these greats. In basketball, they tried to stop Shaquille O’Neal by immediately fouling him when he got the ball so that he’d have to shoot from the free-throw line, which he wasn’t very good at. This strategy became known as the ‘hack-a-shaq’.

Sports Announcer:
“We immediately have a hack-a-shaq call. I don’t believe it. Five seconds in.”

Roman Mars:
In soccer, opposing teams continuously fouled the great Argentinian player Leo Messi to keep him from dribbling through their defense.

Sports Announcer:
“It’s right over the top. They’ve got a knee to Messi. That is absolutely scandalous.”

Neil Payne:
These tactics to stop the great players can be aggressive and they often stretch the limits of the rule book.

Roman Mars:
That’s Neil Payne bringing us our story today. He’s from ‘FiveThirtyEight’, the data journalism site owned by ESPN.

Neil Payne:
But in baseball, they did it differently. In baseball, the solution to stopping the greatest hitter of all time was to actually redesign the game itself.

Roman Mars:
It all started in the 1940s with the great Ted Williams.

Ben Bradlee Jr.:
Famously, he would say that when he grew up, he wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever lived.

Neil Payne:
Ben Bradlee Jr. wrote the definitive biography of Ted Williams.

Ben Bradlee Jr.:
Before a game in the clubhouse, he would put up a mirror and strip down to his skivvies and swing a bat and say, “I’m Ted Williams. I’m the best (beep) hitter who ever lived.” Pardon my French.

Roman Mars:
Not a humble man, Ted Williams, but also not wrong. In 1941, the young Red Sox superstar finish the year with a batting average of .406. Meaning that he got ahead and over 40% of his at-bats, which is incredibly good. No one has batted above 400 since Ted Williams.

Archive Tape:
“Ted Williams, the greatest hitter of them all.”

Sports Announcer:
“Williams swings. It is a high drive going deep, deep. It is a home run!”

Neil Payne:
And Williams kept it up, even left to fight in World War II, came back and was still the best hitter in baseball.

Roman Mars:
But in 1946 just as Ted Williams was on track for another record-breaking year, he came face to face with someone hell-bent on ending his streak. A guy with the Cleveland baseball team named Lou Boudreau.

Neil Payne:
Boudreau was a shortstop for the Indians, but he was also the manager of the team. Because back then you could actually be both a player and a manager at the same time. He was an incredibly ambitious person and a great player.

Roman Mars:
But despite Boudreau’s success, there was this other player that got all the attention, Ted Williams, the greatest (beep) hitter who ever lived.

Russell Schneider:
William’s got most of the headline’s praise for his work at being such a great hitter.

Neil Payne:
That’s Russell Schneider. He covered the Indians for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and became close with Lou Boudreau.

Russell Schneider:
Knowing Boudreau as I think I did, there’s no doubt, but this was a clash of egos between Williams and Boudreau.

Roman Mars:
But Boudreau had a plan. He knew that Williams almost always hit the ball to the right side of the field between first and second base.

Neil Payne:
As the Indians manager, he could actually set up his team’s strategy specifically to beat Williams.

Archive Tape:
“Employees whisper that Lou Boudreau, Cleveland manager, is burning the midnight oil, perfecting a new type of defense for Ted.”

Russell Schneider:
Lou sat down and he said, “I’m tired of having Williams beat us and this is what I want to do.”

Roman Mars:
Lou Boudreau decided that he would shift three players from the left side of the field to the right. He put a wall of three infielders between first and second base with a trio of outfielders backed up behind them. Now six of the seven defenders were standing on the right side of the field, only one lonely outfielder remained on the left.

Neil Payne:
The familiar symmetry of the baseball diamond had been disrupted and with it, the ‘Ted Williams Shift’ was born.

Russell Schneider:
I call it the ‘Boudreau Shift’.

Roman Mars:
Some people call it the defensive shift or just the shift. The first time Boudreau used the shift on Williams was July 14th 1946 at Fenway Park.

Russell Schneider:
When Williams stepped into the plate and saw the shift for the first time, he said that the empire said, “What the hell is going on out there? They can’t do that.”

Neil Payne:
But they could. Totally legal. And so Williams had a choice. Swing just like he’d always swung and he might hit a home run, but he might also hit the ball into the crowded defender, shifted to his right, or he could go outside his comfort zone and try to hit the ball to the left.

Ben Bradlee Jr.:
Boudreau knew that it would be difficult for Ted to alter his swing, that he saw himself as a slugger, a home run hitter, and that therefore he would continue doing it his way.

Neil Payne:
That’s Ben Bradlee again who wrote the Ted Williams biography.

Ben Bradlee Jr.:
He was appealing to Williams’s pride.

Roman Mars:
And it worked. The first time Williams came up to bat, he hits straight into the teeth of the shift. In fact, he hit the baseball right to Boudreau himself, standing directly between first and second base. Boudreau kept using the shift on Williams and pretty soon other teams were using it against him too.

Ben Bradlee Jr.:
It wasn’t long at all, maybe within a week or two that the rest of the American League was adopting it. Williams argued that no, he wasn’t going to alter natural swing that the fans were showing up at the Park to see him hit.

Neil Payne:
In interviews, William said he thought the shift shaved about 15 points off of his lifetime batting average. In fact, it’s probably the only tactic that ever actually had an effect on Ted Williams.

Roman Mars:
Eventually, Ted Williams retired and the shift, it more or less disappeared from baseball.

Neil Payne:
A lot of managers were hesitant to use it because it didn’t always work.

John Dewan:
When it goes bad, you look bad.

Neil Payne:
This is John Dewan, the author of ‘The Fielding Bible’ and a guy you’d be safe calling the godfather of shift data.

Roman Mars:
And he says for a long time teams didn’t have the kind of data that would back up the idea that risk would pay off over time.

John Dewan:
You know, there weren’t real strong analytics back in the seventies and eighties that could tell you this kind of thing would work.

Neil Payne:
But then sabermetrics came along.

Roman Mars:
Sabermetrics is a movement in baseball that started in the 90s to collect data and study it to find advantages.

Neil Payne:
Suddenly GMs and front offices across the major leagues were focused on this idea that to win without spending much money, all you had to do was look at the numbers.

Roman Mars:
Enter the Tampa Bay Rays formerly known as the Devil Rays.

Jonah Keri:
It was regarded as maybe the worst franchise in all of baseball for quite a while.

Roman Mars:
That’s Jonah Keri, a journalist who wrote a book about the Rays.

Jonah Keri:
They just didn’t really understand what it took to win.

Sports Announcer:
“This is… This is bad baseball.”

Sports Announcer:
“Four defensive miscues have cost the Devil Rays dearly in the eighth.”

Roman Mars:
But things started changing for the Rays in the mid-2000s.

Neil Payne:
Stuart Sternberg, former partner at Goldman Sachs, decided he was going to buy the team and with him, he brought a bunch of other Wall Street types. You know, number guys, quants, guys who are good at using data to find hidden advantages.

Jonah Keri:
His theory was let’s just succeed and be 2% better than the competition.

Neil Payne:
The Ray’s number crunchers studied the data and they discovered a really efficient tactic that could help their fielding and defense. A tactic dredged up from baseball’s distant past. You guessed it, the defensive shift.

Jonah Keri:
The shift really is a perfect example of an extra 2% advantage. Because the shift frankly doesn’t work all the time. In fact, it fails quite a bit.

Roman Mars:
But the Rays didn’t have much to lose so they decided to take a risk and bring back the shift. And they hire a manager for the team who’s on board with their plan. A guy by the name of Joe Maddon. And right away Maddon starts using the shift on all kinds of different hitters.

Sports Announcers:
“Joe Maddon, he’s kind of the doctor and the master of the defensive shit.”
“Interesting shift. We haven’t really seen one like this against Hardy.”
“Joe Maddon has come up with all kinds of interesting shifts this year.”
“I mean you don’t really see this type of shift all that often…”

Jonah Keri:
And all of a sudden just this disaster of a team becomes this airtight team that you can’t score runs off their pitchers.

Sports Announcer:
“Ground run ball to second. Iwamura’s got it. Rays are going to the World Series!”

Neil Payne:
From nowhere, they transformed themselves from a perpetual doormat to a championship contender. And the shift was right at the center of their resurgence.

Roman Mars:
The shift caught on. All of a sudden, every team in the league started shifting. In fact, other teams began shifting against the Ray’s own best hitters, including this guy.

Carlos Peña:
My name is Carlos Peña and I played Major League Baseball for 14 seasons.

Roman Mars:
Carlos Peña grew up playing baseball as a kid in the Dominican Republic and being a power hitter, he believed was his ticket to the US.

Carlos Peña:
We swing our way off the island. We have to. That’s the way we’re taught. We want to make it to Major League, you better be swinging for some power.

Sports Announcer:
“Carlos Peña, it is a there’s a fly ball deep to right field.”

Neil Payne:
And swing for power, he did. Carlos Peña hit 46 home runs in 2007 while playing for the Rays. Right around the same time, Joe Maddon was re-introducing the shift to the Major League.

Sports Announcer:
“And there’s a high flying ball back into right field. God. And he hits number 46.”

Carlos Peña:
It was 2007, I had have 46. 2008, I had the shift on me. And this shift is absolutely a killer.

Sports Announcer:
“And here’s Peña. Ground ball right into the teeth of the shift and Lopez from short right field throws out Peña.”

Carlos Peña:
You’re like, wait a second, is this the way it’s going to be for the rest of my career? And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.

Sports Announcer:
“And he lines this one right to Johnson who hadn’t played between first and second in the shift.”

Roman Mars:
Even the grades like Peña can’t hit home runs all the time. When Pena was shifted on, he had to make a decision, do I swing my natural swing and maybe get a home run or maybe hit straight into the shift or do I change my swing?

Neil Payne:
Eventually, unlike Williams, whose ego led him to try to power through the shift, Peña started to adopt another tactic. He did something Ted Williams had only tried a handful of times during his whole career.

Sports Announcer:
“Shift is on for Peña and he’d bunts the ball third base side.”

Neil Payne:
Carlos Peña bunted.

Roman Mars:
The humble bunt. There’s nothing pretty about this move. You just kind of bumped the ball with your bat and it dribbles out onto the field. Bunting was something that players traditionally did just to move their teammates from one base to another.

Neil Payne:
But Carlos Peña turned the bunt into his own secret weapon.

Roman Mars:
Using the bunt, Peña could tap the ball toward third base where no one was around to pick it up and it worked a lot of the time. Even if he didn’t always feel good about using it.

Carlos Peña:
It felt like I was giving in, you know, like I was saying, “Okay, you guys got me, I’m just going to bunt.” That’s kind of silly, but in reality sometimes as prideful athletes, we think that and “Like no man, play the game”.

Roman Mars:
Peña knew he had to swallow his pride, but it went against everything he had learned growing up.

Carlos Peña:
I grew up watching home runs, home runs, home runs, and all I wanted to do was hit home runs. That’s what was celebrated, you know? No one said, “That’s a great bunt, son.”

Neil Payne:
Peña’s bunt though, they were actually great. At one point in his career. He was 15 for 25 on bunts against the shift.

Jonah Keri:
Carlos Peña becomes one of the most prolific bunters in the Majors against the shift.

Sports Announcer:
“Fastball inside. And it’s bunted. How about that. Great play. A two-strike bunt by Peña.”

Roman Mars:
Peña says his success at combating this shift has actually changed the way the game is played, but he’s not happy about it.

Carlos Peña:
Man, the shift is just a nemesis. The shift is something that I wish that they could get rid of.

Neil Payne:
New baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred actually agrees with Pena. Here he is talking to ESPN about how he wants to improve the game.

Rob Manfred:
“Things like eliminating shifts. I would be open to those sorts of ideas.”

Neil Payne:
Manfred thinks the shift makes the game less exciting because it makes it harder for teams to score runs. He also thinks it’s just happening too much now.

Sports Announcers:
“Shift is on.”
“The shift is on.”
“There it is.”
“Shift is on.”
“The shift is on for the Rockies defensively.”

Roman Mars:
In many ways, the fight about the shift has become a fight over the nature of the game. Ever since sabermetrics came along, baseball fans and pundits and players have bristled at the idea that on-field decisions are basically a product of data analysis.

Carlos Peña:
That could be maddening to many players. It’s like, “Wait, this kid from Harvard who has never thrown a baseball is deciding my future?” Oh, that angers players like you wouldn’t believe.

Neil Payne:
But unless there’s a rule change, the field will keep shifting. Because it works.

John Dewan:
Oh, it’s huge. It is really huge.

Roman Mars:
According to John Dewan, the author of ‘The Fielding Bible’, it can help when about three extra games a year, which is significant.

John Dewan:
Three wins, I think every single year, has separated a team from getting into the playoffs or not.

Neil Payne:
Teams are not going to give up that competitive advantage. So now it’s a fight between the number guys and the traditionalist. Between the nerds and the jocks to decide the design of the game.

Roman Mars:
In the meantime, if my boys ever decide to take up baseball, I’m going to make sure and tell them “Great bunt, son.” 99% Invisible was a collaboration this week with ‘FiveThirtyEight’, the data journalism site owned by ESPN. It was produced by Joe Sykes with editing from Jody Avirgan and adapted for 99pi by Katie Mingle. Special thanks to sports reporter Neil Payne. Neil is a panelist on FiveThirtyEight’s sports podcast, Hot Take Down, and they’re doing a whole series of documentaries called ‘Ahead of Their Time’ about players and coaches who were doing something radical but weren’t appreciated in their era. You can find them all at fivethirtyeight.com/podcast or by searching Hot Take Down in your favorite podcast app.

  1. Aaron

    I think all pro baseball players should be able to adapt and learn to hit the ball the other way.

  2. MrCogsworth

    Dammit Roman. You made me listen to a sporting ball episode. And it wasn’t bad. Coincidentally, as I write this, it’s the bottom of the 9th in game 7 and the Cubbies and Indians are tied 6 to 6.

  3. Jason

    This reminds me of the Neutral Zone trap in hockey. It led to rule changes including eliminating 2-line offside.

  4. James

    I can only imagine this episode was of intense interest to all your beautiful nerds. Sports is always interesting…. Especially American sports.

  5. Dean

    This episode reminded me of the “bodyline” series in cricket. Where rules had to be changed because bowlers were directly targeting the head of the batsman and putting all the fielders in the only place a shot could be played.

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