SweetSpot: defensive shifts

Yankees shifting philosophy on defense

May, 8, 2014
May 8
4:45
PM ET
Yankees ShiftAP Photo/Gerald HerbertThe Yankees even employed defensive shifts in spring training games.
About the time the "Moneyball" movie came out, a spoof trailer made its way around the Internet. "Too Much Moneyball," it was called, and it presented the New York Yankees as the very opposite of everything Moneyball and the Oakland A's stood for.

The only numbers that counted were the ones on the ridiculously outsized contracts. The only analysis was in how to spend all those dollars floating through the Yankee Stadium corridors.

It was brilliant. It was hilarious. And it was almost entirely misleading.

Moneyball probably isn't the right term for what the Yankees are doing. But if you're going to rank major league teams as to where they stand on the old-school vs. new-school debate, the 2014 Yankees are a lot more Oakland A's or Houston Astros than they are Detroit Tigers or San Francisco Giants.

"We consider them a smart organization," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said this week. "They don't talk about it a lot. They don't get a lot of publicity for it. But we do think they're a progressive organization.

"Way more than people think."

If you're looking for evidence, check out which teams have most completely embraced the move toward using radical defensive shifts.

According to numbers compiled by Baseball Info Solutions, the Astros lead all of baseball in shifts deployed (no surprise there). The Yankees are second (no way you expected that).

When the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays met last weekend at Yankee Stadium, it was the Yankees who were more likely to set up with three defenders on the left side of the infield. It was the Yankees who seemed to have their infield moving around for every pitch.

They were out-shifting the original shifters.

"They're exceeding us," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It doesn't surprise me. It disappoints me. I much preferred when they thought we were nuts, that we were bastardizing the game.

"All I know is it bothers me. It means [Rays opponents] are all getting better, and it makes it more and more difficult to get an edge."

To be clear, the use of shifts doesn't completely correlate to whether an organization relies on analysis. Also, while the Yankees have outdone the Rays on shifting, so have a whole bunch of other teams. So far this season, the Rays rank 16th in the majors in shifts, and dead last in their own division.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter, Tom Foley
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports"We played them in the spring," Rays third-base coach Tom Foley said. "I looked up, and all of a sudden [Derek] Jeter's standing next to me."
"We have really taken a step back," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "I don't know if it's just because we're getting more data. For whatever reason, it's worked."

The Yankees admit that their shifts remain a work in progress, open to adaptation as the season goes on, and even during games, as they get more information.

The Yankees also remind you that they continue to maintain a very large scouting staff.

"We're an organization that embraces all information," assistant general manager Billy Eppler said.

That's not exactly new. Joe Torre, in his book "The Yankee Years," tells of general manager Brian Cashman handing him lineup suggestions based on statistical analysis, as far back as 2007. Former Yankees scouts speak of how Cashman increasingly relied on information from Michael Fishman, whose title is director, quantitative analysis.

"I don’t think there's any doubt [Cashman] has always worshipped Billy Beane," one former Cashman employee said, referring to the A's general manager who was the star of Moneyball. "He's so enthralled with Billy Beane, it's unbelievable."

Beane remains highly regarded in the game, and his A's continue to win division titles with nowhere near the resources that Cashman's Yankees have. There's nothing wrong with trying to learn from what the A's have done, or even improving on it.

There's nothing wrong with embracing shifts, either, even if the early-season numbers said they have actually cost the Yankees three net runs (that wouldn't have scored without shifts).

Seriously, why should defenders always stand in the traditional positions, when the numbers say that the batter at the plate almost never hits the ball there?

Change isn't easy, and it's why the Yankees have stopped shifting behind veteran starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, who wasn't comfortable with it (just as the Rays don't shift behind David Price, for the same reason). There are occasional grumbles from the Yankees' pitching staff about the shifts, especially when a hit goes through a hole that would have traditionally been filled by the shortstop or second baseman.

It is a work in progress, but it's a project that the Yankees are fully committed to, and are convinced will work. In a baseball world where shifts are increasing exponentially, they're now one of the teams leading the way.

"It's pretty remarkable," third baseman Kelly Johnson said. "We've even shifted on guys who don't have a lot of at-bats. That's kind of incredible."

The Yankees' shifts come from data delivered by Fishman and David Grabiner, coordinated with major league coaching assistant Brett Weber and then with third-base coach Rob Thomson.

"And then the players have to execute it," Eppler said.

From spring training, the Yankees leaned on Johnson (who had shift experience from his time with the Rays and Blue Jays) and second baseman Brian Roberts (who shifted regularly with the Orioles) to help explain the shifts to the other players. They've implemented shifts with their minor league affiliates, too, to get young players accustomed to it.

They've definitely caught a few opponents by surprise.

"We played them in the spring," Rays third-base coach Tom Foley said. "I looked up, and all of a sudden [Derek] Jeter's standing next to me."

He was there because the Yankees were in an exaggerated shift, the kind that once only teams like the Rays would use. It was their edge, making better use of information to counter the Yankees' greater use of money.

It worked for the Rays. Maybe it worked too well, because eventually the Yankees would start making more use of the same type of information themselves.

More and more, they have. More and more, they've become a data-driven team.

And that's no joke.

Mark Simon and Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this post.

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