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The Cardinals are getting shifty

After previously rooting themselves in defensive orthodoxy, St. Louis has oft turned to the shift in 2019.

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

You’ve seen it hundreds of times over now, the overloaded infield with three infielders positioned on one side. But if you thought it has been commonplace for the Cardinals defensively, think again.

In their first four games of 2019, the Cardinals employed the shift for 10, 13, then 10 again, and seven plate appearances, respectively, according to Statcast. For context, only once in the span of 162 games last season did the Cardinals shift more than seven times–and that game with nine shifted plate appearances was an extra-innings affair. In fact, the Cardinals used the shift with less frequency against left-handed batters than any other team in baseball last year and second least often overall at just 4.4% of the time.

This was despite the fact that across Major League Baseball, the shift has been a robust method of converting otherwise base hits into outs. Statcast compartmentalizes infield defensive positioning into three primary classifications: shift, strategic, and standard. Comparing the expected wOBA (xwOBA) on batted balls hit into each with the actual wOBA that batters received, we can quantify just how effective the shift has been relative to the alternatives. The table below looks at the difference between wOBA and xwOBA, with a lower number indicating that the defense took away more hits than usual.

Leaguewide performance by defensive alignment

Year Shift Strategic Standard
Year Shift Strategic Standard
2018 -0.009 0.005 0.002
2017 -0.014 0.007 0.001
2016 -0.009 0.014 0.002
2015 -0.003 0.013 0.006

It becomes abundantly clear that the shift–when utilized properly, at least–is far superior to its “strategic” and “standard” counterparts. Yet under Matheny in 2018, the Cardinals used such shifts in only 5.6% of all plate appearances, a figure that further dipped to 2.6% under Shildt’s watch. Take this with a grain of salt considering the sample size, but 28.6% of the Brewers’ plate appearances in their opening series saw St. Louis turn to the shift.

The Cardinals have “saved” 33 wOBA points as compared to their xwOBA when using the shift through that first series against Milwaukee. As to when they didn’t go for the shift? The team’s wOBA allowed is 34 points higher than its xwOBA.

It remains to be seen whether or not this trend will hold up as the season progresses, but if nothing else the Cardinals’ more shifty-heavy start to 2019 is an additional something to watch for in the coming weeks and months. I, for one, wouldn’t complain in the slightest if these shifts hold up for the long haul.