Last season Manny Machado hit into 7 shifts. His batting average on balls in play when a shift was on was a lofty .571, while his BABIP with no shift was a more normal .324. That said, 7 samples is a ridiculously small sample size and tells us little about what playing a proper shift against Machado would do for a team.
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Let me start by showing how I’d play Manny if I were an opposing manager, and briefly describe how it differs from a traditional defensive alignment.
The most obvious change here is in outfield alignment, as I have all three outfielders shifted fairly far around to the left field line. I also recommend having the third baseman play tight on the line, while the shortstop plays deep in the hole and the second baseman shifts much closer to second base. The first baseman will float from close to the bag (with a runner on) to off a bit to cover part of the hole the second baseman has left open.
This is a pretty significant change in how you play defense, so allow me to show why I think this makes sense. We’ll start with the infield because that is the most straight forward.
It all starts with a spray chart showing every groundball Manny has hit in his career:
I’ve circled three clusters of balls that are significant. The first is down the third baseline, the second is deep in the SS hole, and the third is up the middle from second base. These are where the vast majority of Manny’s groundballs go. As such it makes sense to align the infield defense to compensate for this.
By moving the second baseman up the middle we can eliminate some of those groundballs that could sneak through for hits into centerfield. Additionally, the shortstop and third baseman would be able to handle many of the groundballs in the two clusters on the left side of the infield. Finally, the first baseman can play off the line with nobody on and take some of those groundballs that will be to the right (from the catcher’s perspective) of the second baseman. Ultimately there aren’t many balls over here, so it’s not critical.
Like I said before, pretty simple and not that drastic of a change in all honesty. The outfield is where things get more interesting.
In order to understand my proposed outfield alignment I need to preface my arguments with a few charts. The first shows all of Manny’s career home runs:
You can clearly see that Manny has hit the vast majority of his home runs to the left field portion of the field, ranging from down the line to left-center. I’ve drawn some lines on the chart showing the basic path for Manny’s Home Runs. Outfield alignment won’t do much to help this, but it’s worth looking at as we examine the next chart, line drives:
Again I’ve split this out into three major zones roughly representing left field, center field, and right field. Left field clearly has a higher density of line drives than right field, and center field has a fairly large distribution as well (though that zone is larger than the other two). It’s important to note that Manny appears to drive the ball down between the left field line and where the left fielder would traditionally play.
The last chart that we’ll explore is the fly ball spray chart for Manny, showing where his fly balls land in the outfield:
Once again I’ve circled three clusters of fly balls, showcasing the most common zones into which Manny hits. It’s obvious that the clusters in left field and center field are much smaller than the one in right field. In fact, there are quite a lot of fly balls into right field, which seems to fly in the face of my recommendation for swinging the right fielder towards center. There are two additional charts to consider however that make that recommendation more sensible:
The above spray charts highlight how long the ball is in the air coming off of Machado’s bat. The chart on the left shows balls that are in the air for 3 seconds or longer, while the chart on the right shows balls that are in the air less than 3 seconds (not counting groundballs).
As you can see, the cluster in right field for Manny’s fly balls seem to be mostly balls that are in the air for 3+ seconds, whereas there are a lot fewer balls that are in the air for less than 3 seconds. Conversely, center field and especially left field have a lot of balls that aren’t in the air very long.
It would seem that the right fielder could shift towards center, and still catch many of the balls that Manny tends to hit into right field. Essentially, they can cover double the ground by shading towards the balls with less hang time, because they’ll still be able to reach the balls that hang up longer. It also allows the right fielder and center fielder to cover more area that Manny hits balls into with less air time.
The last piece of this puzzle is looking at other hit types for Machado, specifically doubles and triples. These balls the outfielders can have an impact on, and my proposed defensive alignment would help them do that.
Most of those doubles into right field are ones that can’t be stopped unless the right fielder plays extraordinarily close to the right field line. It seems that based on the above distribution the majority of doubles are either right down the line or off the wall, making stopping those plays much more difficult.
However, you can see that there are clusters of doubles and a few triples in right center and left center, that would more easily be covered by the right and center fielders respectively. Sure, a hard ball down the right field line could occasionally go for a triple if the right fielder shades too far towards center, but there has to be give and take unless you want to have four outfielders.
The other impact of shifting the outfielders around is that the new left fielder will hopefully be able to stop some of those balls down the left field line before they become doubles now. If he plays a little more shallow and closer to the line, he’ll be able to cover more of the ground Machado’s doubles landed in over the past two seasons. While you might give up a few extra bases in right field, you could take those away, plus some, in left field.
This proposed defense highlights an interesting trend in Manny’s approach. Line drives and ground balls are generally pulled. This likely goes for hard fly balls as well, which typically go for home runs. However, less hard fly balls to right field means that Manny’s attempts to go the opposite way results in can of corn fly balls that the right fielder can easily handle. Manny appears to be trying to use all fields, but he hasn’t been able to drive the ball to all fields. As such, opposing teams could take advantage by shifting the defense towards left field in a significant way.
Manny hasn’t shown that he’s a David Ortiz-like pull hitter. However, his tendency to pull hard hit balls makes him a candidate for shifting, especially as the tactic becomes more popular across Major League Baseball.
Jeff was the owner of the Orioles blog Warehouse Worthy, which focused on making advanced statistics a part of the conversation for the average fan. Outside of baseball, Jeff is a graduate of Loyola University where he received his Bachelor’s and Master’s in Business Administration. The Maryland native currently works for an Advertising Agency in downtown Baltimore. Previously a contributor to Beyond the Boxscore, he joined Baseball Prospectus in September 2014. You can reach him at [email protected].