Despite a forward-thinking front office and a young manager open to advanced statistics, the Cardinals have shown a reluctance to use defensive shifts to take advantage of pull hitters. According to a recent piece at The Hardball Times, balls were hit in play when a shift was on 6,528 times. The Cardinals accounted for just 1% of those at bats with only 66 shifts. That placed them 26th out of 30 major league teams. Continuing to ignore the advantages of shifting is an organization-wide mistake all parties involved need to do better to correct.
Shifting works. The Hardball Times lists fifteen teams that employed a shift in at least 200 at bats. Of those teams, only the Cubs and Yankees had a BABIP against them that was higher than their average using a traditional defense. To help show why shifting works, here are the spray charts of Pedro Alvarez, Anthony Rizzo, and Jay Bruce, the three players in the NL Central who were shifted against the most in 2013. Images courtesy of Fangraphs.
The cluster of ground balls on the left half of the infield is massive compared to the one between second and third. Putting more fielders where the ball is hit more often makes sense. Compare the charts above to the one for Matt Carpenter.
Carpenter still hits a lot of balls to the first base side of the infield, but the shift is less likely to be successful against him. The shift also needs to work with the Cardinals staff. If left handed hitters are spraying grounders all the way across the infield, a shift might not work as well. Here are the spray charts from 2013 against lefties for Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Joe Kelly. Keep in mind, these charts are against all lefties, not just those players that are pull hitters.
All of the starters show a bigger cluster into the strength of the shift. Based on Wainwright and Kelly's chat, an argument could be made to employ the shift against a majority of lefthanders. While Lynn may benefit the least, there is still a shortstop on the left side of the infield and Lynn already struggles mightily against lefties which should provide more reason to try something different.
The biggest reason the Cardinals have not made more use of the shift is pitcher buy-in. Earlier this month, Mozielak had all but given up on using the shift at the major league level at this point, instead focusing on the minor leagues.
Mozeliak says "buy in" #Cardinals want for defensive shifts will have to start in minors, where they will be used more often in '14.— Derrick Goold (@dgoold) February 13, 2014
If Mozielak is frustrated, it would be understandable. The Mike Matheny seemed optimistic about using defensive shifts last October.
"I believe in a lot of things that the numbers show in shifting," manager Mike Matheny said. "And I wouldn't be surprised if that's something we do more in the future."
Of course that came on the heels of the shift's essentially being eliminated in August 2013 because of a lack of pitcher willingness.
"No matter what I believe, we can talk to guys about the importance and show them the statistics, but if they don't feel comfortable with how the defense is aligned behind them, we're wasting our time."
Within that same piece, Shelby Miller voiced positives regarding shifts and expressed confidence in Yadier Molina.
The shift is hit or miss. But I think if you execute the pitches that Yadi calls -- because Yadi calls them toward the defense -- good things happen. Those two balls that Freddie hit, he hit them hard, but they were both outs. I won't complain about it.
Given the success the shift has had around the league, it is somewhat curious the organization has not done a better job of getting its pitcher's to buy in. If the organization told them to work on a certain pitch, an area of the zone, to simply throw whatever pitch Yadi calls, the buy-in would likely be immediate an universal. For some reason, the organization has not put its foot down in this matter. This is not a new problem either.
As long as our guys understand what we're doing and we give them the information to show why we're doing it, that's what counts...We do want these guys to have confidence in what we're doing," Matheny said. "If they feel they have to alter their stuff to accommodate our positioning it's counterproductive."
That last quote is from May 30, 2012. For two years, the Cardinals have tried to get their pitchers to buy in to the shift. Trying it briefly has not worked. Even anecdotally, opponents hit 90 points lower in batting average when the Cardinals used the shift last year. To be clear, I'm not saying that means the shift works for the Cardinals. There are not enough at bats, but if the pitchers were paying attention, they would have noticed a lot more outs with the shift in use. With David Freese gone and Matt Carpenter over at third, they even have better personnel to use the shift in 2014. The Cardinals have a full month of games before they count. If Matheny is not going to get buy-in from his pitchers, it might be a good opportunity to have his pitchers get used to a strategy that is working well for the rest of the league.