A Quick Note on the Antiquity of the Shift

538 has a post up on the shift, giving special attention to Ted Williams. It includes a link to a piece from a few years back at CBS Sports that pushes the shift back to the 1920s, used against Cy Williams.

ted-williams-shift-fleer-1959-121613I offer here for your consideration this item from 1868, in the Q&A section of the New York Clipper, one of the leading baseball journals of the day:

[Question:]  In the club contesting there was a left-hand striker.  When this striker took the bat the players changed positions, the short stop taking the second base, the second baseman the right field outside the square.  The third baseman played behind the pitcher and also the third base.  One party bets the third baseman played short stop at the time the left hand striker was at the bat, and the other party claims the short stop did not, by changing his position from the usual position, forfeit his claim as short stop for the time being.  Now the question is this–was the short stop, while playing second base, short stop?  And if not, who was?

[Answer:] As you state the case, the third baseman was playing short stop.

Source: New York Clipper, September 5, 1868

There is little that is new under the sun.  It is generally a good bet that anything you think is an innovation in baseball was experimented with in the 19th century.  The interest lies in why, if it is such a good idea, it didn’t catch on?

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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26 thoughts on “A Quick Note on the Antiquity of the Shift

  1. Now the question is this–was the short stop, while playing second base, short stop? And if not, who was?

    Who was on 1st.

    (/oblig)

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  2. The risk of the batter hitting it the other way is a rather obvious downside here — it’s guaranteed extra bases if the batter makes contact just right. And the increased defensive strength may well not be noticeable.

    In other news, the author’s prediction that the Dodgers shall dash the Cubs’ hopes of reaching the World Series appears to be set up for proof after a dramatic end to game five of the LA-Washington series, though FiveThirtyEight is bearish on the Dodgers’ chances of pulling that off. FiveThirtyEight has an excellent piece about high-impact at-bats today, too.

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        • I listened to the end of game 5 on the radio. What was Bochy thinking when he pulled Moore? The guy had 2 hit one of the most potent hitting teams in all of baseball, and Bochy turns to a bullpen that he had to have known sucked. Managing today is a mystery to me.

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      • I grew up as a Dodgers fan, listening to Vin Scully. I stuck with them when I moved east, until the Rupert Murdoch era. I believe in sticking with your team, but there are limits. But I have a bit of lingering fondness for them: enough to root for them to beat the Nationals, not that this is a high bar. So I enjoyed the game last night until the inning that took over an hour, at which point it was far past my bedtime and I decided I could read the final score in the morning.

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    • One of my favorite plays ever:

      Omar Vizquel on first base, Bonds up. The other team puts on a heavy shift, with the third baseman playing not just shortstop, but shortstop cheating towards second. Bonds fouls off a few pitches and eventually walks. Vizquel moves to second and, seeing no one covering, strolls over to third.

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    • The risk of the batter hitting it the other way is a rather obvious downside here

      The difference between now and back in the day is that we have ample data, and the inclination to use it, about where any given batter hits the ball. At that point it is a simple calculation of the odds. I assume that the pitch selection also reflects the strategy, not giving the batter pitches on the outside to hit the other way.

      The interesting question is what, in the long run, will be the batters’ response. It is easy for us to talk about hitting the ball the other way, but for any given pitch placement the batter has very little control over this. I read a study a while back of the specific scenario of a runner on second with no outs. The batter has the incentive to hit the ball to the right side. This will move the runner to third, setting up a sacrifice fly situation, and win the batter a pat on the butt. It turns out that balls are batted to the right side only marginally more often in this scenario. This simply isn’t under the batter’s control to any significant extent.

      The exception is bunting. Bunt against the shift and you can saunter into first base. The argument against this is that these guys are paid to hit home runs, not infield singles. I mostly don’t buy it. One of the insights of sabermetrics is that the goal of the batter is to not get out. Not getting out matters more than how you do it. And is this really all that strange? If that slugger works the count for a walk we are happy. So why aren’t we if he lays down a good bunt?

      Oh, and if I turn out to be right about the Dodgers in six in the NLCS, I want some sort of prize.

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      • That’s your answer, isn’t it, for why the shift never caught on? Bunting.

        Most of the great hitters I can think of were pretty good at bunting, and for the right handers, this would keep the third baseman “honest” and have to play forward some to defend it. But it also precludes a strong shift against a lefty. Strong shifts against right-handers don’t make as much sense, I presume, because you sort of need to have someone to cover the bag at first on a ground ball.

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        • My guess is that it wasn’t bunting, but risk aversion. Even strong pull hitters will occasionally put one into the opposite corner. Put the shift on a guy, only to have him get a triple out of what would ordinarily be an easy out, and you have a lot of pressure put on you to not do that again. The two requirements to overcome this are the data to show that you still come out ahead overall, and a mindset open to such data-driven arguments. These are both fairly recent phenomena.

          See also: going for it on fourth down.

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      • I agree that sabermetrics is skeptical about the ability to locate where a ball is hit, but I think its also skeptical about the value of bunting. And the guys that tend to get the shift tend not be good bunters at all, they pop it up to the catcher, hit it back at the pitcher, fail to bunt on third strike.

        I would posit one theory is that greater access/use of stats means the success of the shift can be evaluated. Maybe the eye test is good enough with a great, established hitter like Williams, but with players without such a profile, anytime an extra-base dribbled through the left side of the field, the manager looks like an idiot.

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        • I don’t think that sabermetrics is skeptical of bunting. It is skeptical of sacrifice hits. Bunting for a hit, particularly against a shift, is another matter. Also, and I am strictly talking out my butt here so correct me if I am wrong, I think that bunting is a skill that can be taught. Your lefty power hitter comes up with a man on first? Great! This is a chance for a two-run home run. Giving up an out to put a guy in scoring position makes no sense, if you regard the batter’s box as scoring position. So those guys never learned to bunt, or at least never practiced it enough to get good at it. This is the interesting development-in-progress to watch.

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          • Part of the reason for skepticism of bunting in general is that it reduces outcomes to either a batter on first or an out. While the sacrifice has the additional cost of an out, a lot of the same issues still stand. More often its going to be better to swing away, where the outcomes are either going to be an out, batter on first, second, third or home.

            I think that bunting is a skill, but I’m not certain that everyone can be good at it. I mean there are reasons certain players are getting extreme shifts, and I think they lack a certain versatility in handling the bat.

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      • I’m not as sanguine about pre-live-ball hitters not being better able to place the ball than batters today.

        Anecdotally, Cobb and Keeler both chose a hands-apart grip on the bat specifically because it gave them better bat control in order to place the resulting hit at the expense of home-run power (Cobb did hit the occasional home run, but I suspect very few of them were Bonds-style moon shots, as he would likely have broken his wrists if he had tried). From McGraw’s Orioles to one of the Waner brothers there’s a persistent anecdote that he would just slap balls down the opposite-field foul line until one dropped in for a double, and was even confident enough that he’d continue to do it with two strikes (even after the foul-strike rule).

        And it passes the sniff test. Pre-Ruth, hitting for power was seen as a bad percentage play, and in that environment, it makes sense to trade pop for control, which could very well lead to an ability to have better results at hitting to all fields than in the modern game. Post-spitball, in a game where power-hitting was proven to actually be very effective, it would lead to a growing number of players who would both develop a style which would characterize them as a pull hitter and be unwilling to give it up if the defense shifted.

        In particular, IIRC, Cy Williams was both noted as a power hitter (even if his numbers don’t jump off the page compared to post-WWII) and played in Baker Bowl, where the umpire had to be careful not to invoke the infield fly rule too early on popups to the right side, lest the ball go over the stupidly high and stupidly close right field wall, making him look silly. So it would make sense that he was the first one who the shift attached itself to even if he wasn’t the first it was tried against (see also: Stengel with platooning).

        As you know, baseball has a long history of strategies and changes in thinking that seem in retrospect to have just been waiting for something in the environment to change, then they show up just where a historian would expect – only no one had the distance at the time to see it that way (or were dispassionate enough).

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        • I am going from memory here, and probably have it all wrong, but I believe that Nap Lajoie once said something to the effect that only one batter in ten could actually place the ball. Of course, if I am remembering this at all correctly, this is to say that one batter in ten can, and it is certainly plausible that Cobb and Keeler would be in that happy circle.

          Standard disclaimer: I claim expertise in some aspects of baseball history. These aspects generally come to a screeching halt somewhere in the mid 1880s. I am currently working my way through 1886. August 18, to be precise. So when I talk about the dead ball era, don’t take this as a claim that I know what I am talking about.

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          • And my knowledge, such as it is, is almost nonexistent before the 1893-1895 rule changes (foul-strike rule in the NL, pitchers’ box changed to rubber, foul tips counted as strikes) and quite spotty during the times statistics were solidifying (sacrifice flies, caught stealing) (basically the same time frame as the end of the “dead ball” era).

            If memory serves me right, Cobb and Lajoie had a “thing” – Lajoie was a modern hitter born before his time, and he disparaged the “scientific” hitters with all their bunting (both the endless sacrificing of the early noughts and bunting for hits) and hit-and-runs and run-and-hits and placing the ball and basically trying to be overly smart rather than decisive. While Cobb considered Lajoie to be basically John Goodman playing an aging Ruth, a grunting slugger with no finesse who the crowds loved because he was flashy despite the fact that he was going about his business all wrong.

            I suspect that he was right, that elite hitters might have been able to do it reliably, and lesser hitters might have been better off not trying. I just have an inkling that enough guys tried anyways to make it a normal thing. I mean, it lives on to my generation at least – the idea that you should be able to “hit behind the runner” on a hit-and-run (and should be made to run laps if you fail) wasn’t as strong in 2000 as it was in 1900 but it wasn’t completely dead.

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            • Following up on my own post – it took a while for a memory to bubble up like methane from the bottom of a stagnant pond…

              Don’t trust anything Cobb or Lajoie said about each other after the 1910 batting title slash Chalmers award fiasco. Particularly Cobb, but given Lajoie’s behavior as the events played themselves out, I suspect there was bad blood before, and I’m certain there was after.

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  3. It is generally a good bet that anything you think is an innovation in baseball was experimented with in the 19th century.

    Ain’t that the truth.

    When I was much younger I played in a softball league at work. Four outfielders, and a line on the field that all four had to be outside of when the pitcher released the ball. One year the coach played three outfielders at normal depth and put me right on the line, breaking inside it with the pitch. There were a surprising number — at least it surprised me — of bloop flies, line drives, and even ground balls that I could make a play on. When I asked the coach why he’d decided to do this, he said he’d seen it in some old book about 19th-century baseball.

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