There seems to be a narrative out there that the Cincinnati Reds need to stop shifting on defense. Why this narrative exists is tough to understand. First, teams aren’t doing it while facing the information that they are costing themselves outs. If the data showed that it wasn’t working, they would stop doing it. But the data is very clear: It’s working. Yes, we can all remember the ground ball that would have gone right to the third baseman had he been playing in a “normal” positioned spot. And that’s probably why the narrative exists: Humans remember the negative far more than the mundane and normal. The “easy” play isn’t remembered. And many of these shifted outs that are converted look easy. And they look that way because shifting is actually working.
Baseball Info Solutions Andrew Kyne took a look at the data in 2019 thus far on a team by team basis. What he was looking for was how close fielders began the play to where the ball ultimately crossed the players area (based on a gridded field). Kyne looked at all ground balls have gone, and how close each teams fielders were on them at the start of the play, versus how close they would have been in a “normal” spot for a non-shifted fielder would be.
The Cincinnati Reds rank 2nd best here, trailing just the Arizona Diamondbacks. 39% of the ground balls hit against the Reds saw their fielders begin the play within a 3° angle. A traditional alignment, based on Kyne’s data, would have had the Reds defense with only a 28% rate. The 11% difference represents an increase of 39% over the “normally played infield defense”. The Reds are seeing a significant improvement in the likelihood that their fielders are going to make a play by shifting. Only one team in baseball, the Boston Red Sox, were actualyl doing worse in this break down. They were at a 0.6% difference between shifting versus a normal defense.
The data is clear. Shifting works. And for the Cincinnati Reds, their shifting and positioning has given them a larger advantage than 28 other teams in baseball versus a normal defensive alignment. Remember that the next time a routine grounder goes into the outfield that would have been fielded by a normally positioned guy that even though that happened, the shift is still working out more than it’s not. And that is what matters in the end, as frustrating as you may get seeing the times that it didn’t work out.