BrooklynFans Of Books: Carleton Looks At New Baseball Strategies, Including “The Shift”

(Aaron Judge of the Yankees at the plate with the shift employed by the Miami Marlins against him on April 17th – Photo by Jason Schott)

The Shift: The Next Evolution In Baseball Thinking

By Russell A. Carleton

Triumph Books

Baseball has always been a game of numbers. Mention Joe DiMaggio’s 56, Hank Aaron’s 755, and Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2,632 to avid baseball fans, and they will know instantly you’re referring to how many hits Joe D. had in a row, Aaron’s career home run record, and Ripken’s consecutive game streak.

For generations, fans have held these numbers up as touchpoints that transcend the national pastime and act as cultural markers of greatness. Sometimes, the numbers themselves tell the story with no other explanation needed. But what if that story turns out to be fiction?

Russell Carleton, a psychologist, baseball writer researcher, and fan living in Atlanta, examines the new numbers changing the way we play and think about our game in The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinking.

Carleton,  who is definitely a ”numbers guy, ” has been a regular contributor to Baseball Prospectus since 2009, writing about advanced statistical analysis in baseball, with an emphasis on the gory mathematical details. He holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from DePaul University in Chicago, and has provided statistical consultation to several teams in Major League Baseball.

Using an engaging and accessible style, Carleton breaks down not only the role of sabermetrics in evaluating how to build a winning team but also how the numbers can illuminate, rather than ignore, the human element of the game.

Carleton writes of how much you can analyze this game, “Baseball is a game. Games create their own ecosystems. Over time, all ecosystems change, even if we don’t want them to.

“There’s a lot of downtime in baseball, which means that there’s a lot of time for incubating the tiny mutations that can shape the game. It takes three hours to play one game and six months of nearly daily installments to play a whole season. There’s a lot of time to think, not just between each pitch, but night after night and plane ride after plane ride. A baseball season is more like a six-month mantra. There are a thousand little things that can happen over and over again, and you can pick any one of them to fixate on as you meditate. You can think about the implications of throwing a fastball vs. a curveball in a thousand different situations, and it’s not entirely academic to obsess about it. The pitchers on your team have to make that decision a thousand times in the space of a week, the same way that they had to the week before and the week before that. A game and even a season could turn on any of those pitches.

“Baseball is a thinking game. Maybe it’s even an obsessing game. It is most certainly a shifting game.”

While Carleton focuses on an overall strategy change in baseball, to title this book The Shift was a smart idea because it is something largely driven by numbers.

Something that was unique to start has now evolved to the point where it is employed  by teams quite often. At this point, fans anticipate seeing infielders move around to defend pull hitters like Aaron Judge of the Yankees or Jay Bruce of the Mets.

Highlights include a thoughtful foreword from baseball writer Jeff Passan praising Carleton’s ability to bridge the gap between analytics and the human element; how Wins Above Replacement conquered baseball statistics by asking a better question; how to build the perfect team, even if you don’t have the perfect players; a thorough analysis of why everyone might have gotten the defensive infield shift wrong; measuring the intangibles that separate great managers from the ones who are just pushing buttons.

Carleton writes of seeing the shift in action on Memorial Day in 2014 at  when David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox came to bat against the Atlanta Braves game and what went through his mind, “If there’s one thing that David Ortiz did that most changed the game of baseball, it might have just been that he was left-handed. It was well-known during Ortiz’s career that he was a pull hitter, especially when he hit the ball on the ground. In fact, his pull tendencies were so well-known that in the mid-2000s, teams would routinely shift their infield-defense when he came to the plate. Instead of lining up in a traditional formation with two infielders to the right of second base and two to the left of second base, Ortiz would often see three infielders on the right side of the infield, while the lone left-sided infielder would play in the space normally occupied by the shortstop.

“It made sense. If Ortiz was going to hit his ground balls mostly to the right side, why not put an extra defender over there? This Sicilian defense had originally been deployed in the 1940s on another iconic left-handed Red Sox hitter, Ted Williams, but it left and obvious hole. The third-base line was completely unguarded. The nearest defender was playing 40 feet off the chalk. A ground ball hit anywhere near the line would have no trouble scooting through to left field for a hit. In fact, even if it didn’t make it out of the infield, by the time a fielder got to it, even the slow-hoofed Ortiz would have  been standing on first, the proud owner of a single. Everyone in the ballpark, including Ortiz himself, could see that.

“So as David Ortiz strode to bat on this memorable Memorial Day in Atlanta and saw that once again, no one was bothering with the third-base line, my father leaned over to me and asked a question that had probably occurred to everyone else in the ballpark. ‘Why doesn’t he just bunt?’

“‘Why doesn’t he just bunt?’ is the kind of question that seems easy to answer, but isn’t. It’s a good exercise in thinking a question all the way through. The most commonly given answer was that Ortiz was a power hitter paid to hit home runs, something that he did 541 times over his career. Bunting was for the weak. Bunting was something that pitchers did when they had to bat. No matter what else bunting meant, ordering Ortiz to drop a little tapper toward third meant that he wouldn’t be hitting a home run in that plate appearance.

There’s a bit of masculine pride on the line. Most baseball players grew up in a culture where the ‘good players’ were the ones who hit a lot of home runs. Even more than that, they grew up in a culture where masculinity is intimately linked to physical strength. A home run is a feat of might. A well-executed bunt might travel 60 feet and is a feat of restraint. Perhaps it was as simple as that?…

“There was plenty of initial resistance to the shift for the same reason that there’s opposition to any shift in thinking: it was weird. Pitchers grew up in a world where defense lined up in a two left-two right formation. Consciously and unconsciously, over years of repetition, they had tailored their strategies to this set of assumptions. Sure, teams had a long history of moving their fielders a jump to the left or a step to the right depending on the hitter, but moving a fielder 30 or 40 feet is a very different proposition.

“There was psychological resistance too. Loss aversion rears its head again. The shift inevitably produces a ground ball hit directly at a fielder who is playing in an odd place. It would have been a base hit if the team had lined up in a traditional formation, but with the shift on, it’s an out. Success! The problem is that the shift also produces a few ground balls that scoot through into left field exactly past the place where the third baseman would ‘normally’ have been playing. Mathematically, as long as the shift is producing more outs-that-would-have-been-hits than it does hits-that-would-have-been-outs, then it’s a net winner. Unfortunately, that’s not how the human mind works. Humans are more disturbed by ‘losing’ an out that they have had than they are by gaining one that they otherwise would have gotten. The shift felt icky, but baseball eventually embraced it.”

A love letter written to baseball in the margins of a statistics textbook, The Shift combines Carleton’s scientific approach with his reverence and passion for the poetic majesty of the game.

“Finding the places where the individual ends and the team begins in baseball is trickier than it is in other sports,” writes Carleton. “On a baseball team, 25 grown men must learn to play a game together, even though most of the time they are only minimally interacting with one another. In sports where any of the players can score at any time, one or two players can carry the load. In baseball, the lineup dictates who will bat next and the calendar determines the day’s starter. Anyone, however, might be thrust into a key situation. Everyone has to be ready. Baseball is a very democratic sport.”

The Shift is equal parts Moneyball and Malcolm Gladwell. Through Carleton’s storytelling, with humor and clarity, this great new title has the power to make baseball nerds race to grab some hot dogs in the nosebleeds while transforming bleacher bums into statisticians.

Students of baseball history, who love the game and appreciate its evolution, will find a lot of value in this game-changing new work.

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