Beating the Shift

Beating the Shift

Last night the family and I went to the Diamondbacks game. During the game we watched as time and time again, the defense made a pronounced shift to try and prevent a batter (mostly left handed hitters) from getting on base.

What is the Shift?

According to an article on, shifting can happen almost continuously. If you read baseball books by Joe Garagiola, and even as far back as Joe Dimaggio’s seminal book Baseball for Everyone in 1941. It’s a bit hard to find, but it is a very enjoyable read, then you know that defenses shift to what the pitcher is trying pitch. They shifted Ted Williams.

What’s more there are lots, and lots of normal baseball shifts. A shift is just how you position your defense. Can draw the infield in to try and stop a run from scoring at home plate, they can do the “lefty” shift, or play at “double play” depth. Wikipedia as a pretty decent article on shifting in general.

What has changed, However, like so many things today, is the degree, frequency, and intensity of the shifts. According to since 2010, dramatics shifts have increased over 440%, from a mere 2,400 times to over 13,000 times during the 2014 season. Probably the most dramatic, and prior to 5 years ago uncommon shift was the over-shift for pull hitters.

What is the over-shift?

With the over-shift, the third baseman moves to short stop (leaving third largely uncovered, the short stop plays right up the middle, and the second baseman moves to shallow right.


To match this, the pitcher is trying to throw the ball “inside” on the batter, increasingly the likelihood they will hit the ball into this over-shifted defense.

Why do teams shift?

Because it gives them a chance to play better defense. By looking at the unbelievable wealth of data available to managers, coaches, and players, teams now look at a batters spray chart and they position the defense to give them the best chance of getting the batter out.

spray chart
Above is an example of Justin Uptons 2011 and 2012 spray charts.

Why don’t batters hit the ball the other way?

There are a couple of reasons.

Batters hit into shifts because of training.

Batters are told to “hit the ball where it is pitched.” This goes back to little league. If the pitcher throws the ball closer to the batter’s body (inside), the batter should “turn on it” and “pull” the ball. This means a left handed batter will hit the ball toward the second baseman, and right field. A right handed batter – pitched inside – should pull the ball toward the short stop and left field.

A ball pitched away should be driven to, “the opposite field”. A ball thrown away from a left handed batter, to the “outside” part of the plate, he should try to drive “oppo” – or into left field. Right handed batters hit oppo to “right”.

Batters hit into shifts because they are trying to hit home runs.

This one is a little trickier, but as I watch the world of sports, we very often reward behaviors that hurt our long term goals. Mickey Mantle famously said he was trying to hit a home run every time he came to the plate. Later, he admitted that he probably hurt his team because he struck out trying to hit home runs where he could have helped them score more runs by simply putting the ball in play.

Over the last few years, one of the consequences of all this data, is that players have started to change the way they feel about “outs”, and out is an out they say. It does not matter how you get it. By implication, they are trying to remove the stigma of striking out. And as an example of this, Mark Reynolds, who used to play for the Diamondbacks set a major league record number of strike outs on his way to hitting more than 30 home runs.

In the last few years less than 10 players in the league hit more than 30 home runs. Strike out 250 times? Not a problem if you hit 30 over the fence. And this goes back to high school and college.

College coaches and pro scouts are looking for “tools”. They are not looking for good baseball players. In their mind, they are all “good” baseball players. They are looking for what Ron Wolforth described as “outliers”, players with such exceptional talent that they can’t be ignored. For batters this is home runs.

If you start talking to ex-baseball players, trainers, coaches, you will hear stories of plyers that hit 500 or better in high school but did not get any looks from colleges. They lowered their batting average and started hitting home runs and the offers and scholarships came. The conventional wisdom seems to be that a player who can hit 400 and put 5 over the fence is more valuable than a player who hits 600 with no home runs.

Look at any college show case, how is it structured? Players get:

  1. One 60 yard dash
  2. Five throws from their position (infield or outfield)
  3. Ten swings of the bat

Teams spend time in proportion to what they care about. Speed – a little. Throwing and defense – some. Hitting? A lot. And you better hit bombs. These showcases are designed to show tools (raw physical ability) not baseball smarts, or any other skill. As a side note, the pitcher face 5 batters – so they are encouraged to throw absolutely as hard as they can – but that is another story for another day. Let’s just say that’s not good either.

The Bottom Line

Baseball does not reward consistent productivity, they reward sporadic excitement. The possibility that a player can hit a home run every time they come to the plate is worth more than the player who consistently puts the ball in play.


Because that’s what the fans want.

We may never see another 400 hitter because no one wants that. We want more 40 home run hitters.

So back to the shift. Many fans wonder why player don’t just start poking the ball the other way?

The simple answer is that you are asking grown men who have spent thousands of hours training to do one thing, the very thing that brought them into the pros, to stop doing that and do something different.

Most of the players who can hit the other way effectively don’t make it to the pro’s. They are left behind because they don’t hit enough home runs. The system weeds them out. Grab the starting line up from any MLB game and look at the size of the player and you will see what I mean. Of the 18 starters in last nights Diamondbacks vs Rockies game only 2 players were under 6 feet tall and only 3 were under six foot 2. There were more nearly a third of the players were six foot three and there were two players six foot 4.

Baseball has become a game of BIG. Baseball of 2015 is the NFL of 1970. Why? Because big dudes can drive the ball over the fence.

Ironically, offense is universally down across the board and most people believe it’s because baseball has banned performance enhancing drugs. (PED’s). Really? It couldn’t possibly be because hitters are putting the ball in play (making contact) at the lowest rate in the history of baseball?

Will We See Small Ball At the Pro Level?

So what is the answer? In a close 4–3 game, the Diamondbacks did something I have not seen a pro team do… heck, ever. They started playing small ball. In the bottom of the 8th, the Diamondback hitters bunted three times in a row. The effect on the over shifted defense was devastating. The Diamondbacks scored 3 runs in that inning.

The capstone was Peralta who changed his approach at the plate to swing “inside/out” and fist a ball into left field successfully defeating the shift and driving in the 7th run.

Baseball is definitely changing. How it is pitched, how it is defended, and how the hitters approach the game. It seems crazy, but over and over again the sport drifts into rewarding behaviors (let’s try to hit lots of home runs) that actually produce outcomes that hurt the sport and the teams resulting in record low contact, record strike outs, hitting in shifts.

Pay Attention

The main thing as a fan is to pay attention. The sport is changing and evolving right in front of us. Even as the entire infrastructure of baseball from high school all the way through college and into the pros desperately seeks bigger and stronger power hitters, I can’t help but wonder if some clever manager is going to dig out their history book and wonder what a speedy, contact, control ball club could do against todays defenders.

The Diamondbacks gave us a glimpse last night. It could be very interesting.


Another very recent phenomena is the explosion of “flashlights” at the game, fans lighting up their cell phones in a galaxy of twinkling lights. It looks cool, and is possibly quite distracting, but this is the first year I have seen it break out spontaneously on this scale.

Blinky Lights

Note: These are my opinions and even I don’t always agree with them.

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June 20, 2015 at 09:03AM

Just discovered iOS automation. Three very interesting apps. Launch Center Pro ($5), Drafts 4 (which has a great keyboard) and Do – from the IFTTT folks. I am writing this post with Do. The concept behind IFTTT is simple – IF This, then That. You create simple formulas that result in triggers. Do builds on this idea by letting you make a note THEN DO something with it – like post it to twitter, or save to evernote OR post to blogger.

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How to Make a Digital First Aid Kit

I Use This: Gear Ties, Sea To Summit Ultra Mesh Bag, Jabra Drive

I have been traveling a lot lately and as I sit here in my LA Hotel room, I reflected on several things that make my road warrior lifestyle a little easier. Perhaps the most important one, is my Digital First Aid Kit

Tired of always scrambling to find a charger or cable in my backpack, I decided to get organized. I went to REI and picked up a 6.5L Sea to Summit Ultra mesh bag – think of a scuba net bag only much, much smaller. These are also called “Ditty bags” by campers and they are meant to keep small loose things organized in your backpack or rucksack. I have round they work great for cables.

The big advantage with this kind of bag is that you can see everything inside of it without opening it. What’s more, being mesh, it is stronger and less split-prone than a clear plastic bag.

Full Bag

Then I assembled:

  • one colored usb car charger
  • one colored usb “wall wart”
  • an ipad caliber usb wall charger (for fast charges)
  • Two USB to lightening adapters
  • Two USB to Micro usb cables
  • A PNY spare battery
  • Spare set of earbuds
  • Spare Aux cable

Travel Bag

And then I tie all my cables together with Gear Ties. Gear Ties by Nite Ize are extremely useful rubberized reusable twist ties. They make it easy for me to keep all my little cables together and keep them from doing the “tangle dance”.

In truth my bag has gotten slightly more cluttered with a few more odds and ends like my Jabra Drive Speaker Phone (Best bluetooth speaker phone I have ever seen. Check it out on Amazon, it has like 1200 reviews) and a spare superman led flashlight I got from Magic Mountain in California, but all in all this bag holds what I need to charge anything, any where and let me hook my phone up to virtually any rental car.

So far my favorite use for a Gear Tie is to make my cheap knock-off FitBit HR Charger work. The springs are too strong or the pins are too long so it’s always popping out and I’m too lazy to order a new cable from Fitbit itself (for $20). So one Gear Tie and voila, the cable works as intended. Cost? about 75 cents and some stubborn ingenuity.

FitBit Charger

So far having everything organized and at my finger tips has saved me countless hours of heart burn, but I think the real advantage is that now I am like an electronic medic. People are always forgetting this stuff, their batteries are always running down, they always need a charge, or a cable or a something and I usually have what they need in my travel bag. It feels good to be helpful.

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An E3 Story

We are in Los Angeles for E3. E3 is always exciting and fun, but it has had a strange history.

Here’s what I experienced as a video game studio executive.

When I first got to Rainbow we were the kids at the back of the pack. Jumping up and down, we were outsiders. People knew who Rainbow was, but no one really wanted to see us. Then, Rainbow Shipped Motocross Madness and things changed. People wanted to speak to us. So we were invited to go to E3.

People started bringing us into closed door meetings. That we were working on Motocross 2 didn’t hurt. Microsoft treated us well and showed the game off for the press. E3 was a gas because you always needed to produce a working version to impress people. In some ways, in many ways, E3 was more stressful than launch. You had to take all of this stuff months before it was ready and make it look gorgeous and fun. The playable part was the hardest.

Somewhere along the way, we went from the back of the pack kids to the front of the pack. Publishers wanted to see us before we got to E3. They would fly out to meet us. Yes we would still have closed door meetings at E3, invited to every party at E3, but now people were talking about buying the studio. Eventually the studio was sold to THQ and then we became insiders in a different way. We watched as THQ would setup their million dollar booths. They would create these elaborate stages and platforms to show games. It was all exciting, it was all cool, but what was it all for? As developers we never really asked that question. We were just excited to be there. We wanted to show off our game, win some awards (hopefully), impress the press and win some fans. But most of all we wanted to have a big party, geek out on our favorite games (the ones we weren’t making) and check out what everyone else was going.

E3 was nothing if not electric.

Then a funny thing happened. Right about the time I left development to start my own company, E3 STOPPED. Cold. They just stopped doing it. I have heard a lot of rumors as to what happened, from too many fan boys were coming, to the show got too big. On the day of E3 I will now add my own speculation to the mix.

By 2006 a couple of interesting things were happening in the industry. First you have to ask yourself, what is E3 for? What purpose did it serve? E3’s primary purpose was to sell games to retailers. It’s secondary purpose was to build demand via the journalists attending the event.

If you have ever been to Toy Fair in New York, you know what I am talking about. It is a massive exhibition to help the many thousands of retailers know what to buy in the coming months. Much like video games, the toy industry is an industry that makes the lionshare of its revenue in the 4th quater.

Even today Toy Fair caters to many many retailers. Even my company, GameTruck qualifies as a specialty retailer. We have meetings with toy companies. But in the video game industry Walmart changed everything. While E3 was getting bigger and bigger, the retail industry was consolidating.

When Walmart entered the video game industry, they told a friend of mine, “We will be 30% of the video game industry revenue in three years.” He laughed. Who would go to Walmart to buy video games. The answer? America. Within three years Walmart represented 40% of video game industry sales. And Walmart buyers rarely leave Bentonville. In short, they don’t go to E3.

In a very short amount of time, nearly half the buying capacity of the industry did not travel West to Las Angeles for a video game show. Those buyers expected you to pay them a visit. The story I mentioned about how Publishers started to come visit us ahead of E3, played out with all the major retailers, and the journalists as well.

If your sales team was going to make a trip to Bentonville, then they had better hit Minneapolis the homeland of Target to pay them a visit as well. In the mid 2000’s 80% of video game retail counted on just 10 accounts. Woa be to the major publisher who did not lavish attention on those accounts before E3.

But there was more. The rise of the successful movie video game meant that the really large licensors had to bring more properties to bear to get shelf space for their video games. DreamWorks would make custom videos featuring Shrek for the Walmart Channel. Those efforts were not cheap or easy.

And they did the same thing with the Press. For the making of ATV OffRoad Fury 2, Sony flew out journalists from every major magazine, we rented race quads (not an easy task) and fitted everyone out in custom uniforms from our gear sponsors that went into the games. This was not a cheap day, but it was an absolutely blast riding quads in the desert.

If you are spending time at the retailers office, and you take the press out on fancy junkets with the developers to get early playable looks at the video games… what exactly are you doing at E3? And who exactly are you talking to?

That became the core problem with E3. Companies were spending millions, and I mean, Milllions of dollars on booths, and demos, and space to show their games… to fans? To the smallest possible buyers and the press not important enough to visit?

I heard that EA was the one who pulled out first. Followed by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. With the anchor booths gone the whole show evaporated nearly overnight. That lead to the year of no E3.

I think most people realized pretty quickly that was a mistake, but the reasons were not so obvious. So the show organizers went to the big dogs and said, what do you need? On the one hand, they felt they needed to return the show to a true industry event. It was becoming like comicon, but the costs had also grown way out of control.

So they arranged the event at Santa Monica. That addressed some of the problems, but from what I could tell – it did not address the real problem created by the absense of a big E3. Excitement. The video game industry as an entertainment industry thrives on excitement. E3 was the one time a year when the entire industry came together and companies like Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft could throw their corporate muscle behind having fun.

Having one place where virtually every developer, every executive, every staff member of every level shows up to look at everyone elses games – was valuable, but perhaps the single most valuable thing? Auditoriums full of cheering video game fans to announce your products to. There is an energy around a large audience anticipating a major announcement. You just can’t get that kind of energy from a conference room with 30 people or an auditorum full of staff told they have to be there.

E3 has become a cultural platform, a stage where the industry tries to convince themselves they have created something that will entertain the world. While expensive, the feedback they get from this process is invaluable. No in store demo, no card board merchandising rack can generate the level of excitement a well constructed booth can create at E3.

In many ways, E3 is where video games are really born to the world. They come out of hiding, they are dressed up to be as beautiful as possible and they tell us the future is bright. And I don’t know anyone who travels to E3 not expecting to buy that bright future.

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