To shift or not, the bullpen shuttle and MLB's next big thing

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My working assumption about shifts in baseball has been that they work so often that when they don’t, it sticks in our minds. I also kind of figured pitchers who get burned by a shift now and again tend to see it the same way.

It’s a similar dynamic to errors. They are a rare thing these days. We’re on pace for 2,730 errors this season, which would be a record low, and the league-level fielding percentage (.985) is in a race with 2013 as the best ever. So when a player does commit a miscue, especially at a key juncture of a ballgame, we remember it. We don’t remember the six plays he made in other parts of the ballgame without incident.

I thought bad shifts were similar, but I may have been wrong. In fact, we all may have been wrong about shifting, and annoyed Phillies starter Jake Arrieta may be right in a way he didn’t mean to be.

Arrieta was referring to his own team’s ineptitude at shifts, which is supported by data. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Phillies have lost eight runs due to their shifting strategies this season, worst in baseball. (The overall Philly defense is at minus-53 runs saved, also last.) Only two other teams (Dodgers and Pirates) are negative in the shift category. On the other end of the spectrum, the Astros have saved 17 runs with the shift, one more than the Kansas City Royals.

It’s ironic that Royals shifts have been so effective because, just last week, manager Ned Yost told the Kansas City Star, “I don’t know they would ever do it but if they came to me and say would you like to outlaw the shifts, I would say yes.”

Don’t worry, Ned. That may not be necessary. (Or desirable, because despite your plus-16 DRS in shifts, your team is minus-1 overall defensively.) We know this, or at least suspect it, because of some new publicly available data that didn’t even exist at the beginning of this season.

The wizards that oversee Statcast data from MLB.com recently added detailed pitch-by-pitch shift data to their analysis tool at BaseballSavant.com. Before now, any shift-related data you’d see referred only to what happened to balls hit into play in shift situations. It did not include all the pitches in between those balls that get into play, which is why if you look at leaderboards for shift data, categories like strikeout percentage and walk percentage are zeroed out. This, it turns out, is crucial.

Anyone who watches a game closely knows that the alignment of the opposing defense is based on a number of factors. The spray sheet of the opposing batter is one of those and is the primary reason for shifted alignments in the first place. But also factoring in is the count, the base-out situation, and the strategy a pitcher wants to use to attack that batter. The alignment can change from pitch to pitch as the game situation evolves and, indeed, this is one of the things I like to observe while taking in a game.

With this new data, analysts now can look at what happened on all those pitches NOT put into play when the defense was shifted. The initial results cast into question the wisdom of widespread shifting in the first place.

MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, one of those aforementioned Statcast wizards, and Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carleton both leaped headlong into the data and came to similar findings.

The shocker was this: Pitchers walk more batters when throwing in front of a shift. In fact, the extra number of walks exceed the number of singles saved by the strategy.

Shifts do significantly lower batting average on balls in play, which is why the practice has caught fire. Petriello’s analysis of the 2017 and 2018 seasons showed that BABIP against shifted defenses has been .281, versus .299 without it. However, once you factor in the walks and the slightly higher home run rates (i.e., the increased launch angles meant to hit the ball over the shift), batters have put up a .336 wOBA against the shift versus a .334 on non-shifted players.

What the numbers say

The bullpen shuttle

With all of the talk of bullpenning this season, another trend that has taken root in pitching staff management has been the relief pitcher shuttle. You see it in action every day on the transaction wire. RHP X is optioned to Triple-A Y, while RHP Z is recalled from said minor league outfit. A day or two later, RHP Z is sent back down, and another reliever is summoned. Each time a player is optioned out, he has to stay in the minors for at least 10 days (barring an injury), so teams seeking to maximize this strategy tend to have a handful of optionable players around.

Besides being a boon to the travel industry, and the root of a major feeling of displacement for the player, this model of staff management is interesting because not every team leans heavily on it. This can be teased out in a few numbers gleaned from the transaction database I maintain and update daily.

Through Wednesday, teams had an average of 9.2 transactions since Opening Day that involved the optioning of pitchers. However, the number of transactions ranges from just two (Astros) to a whopping 17 (Dodgers). Here is the full list:

Listed is the total number of times each team has optioned a pitcher since Opening Day, along with its current ranking in relief pitcher bWAR. As you can see, the numbers are all over the place, but at a glance, it does look like being somewhere near the league average is the sweet spot. There have been 169 different pitchers optioned out so far. This does not include pitchers summoned with no options remaining and designated for assignment when their roster spot needs to be opened up.

Some notable teams:

— The Dodgers have shuttled pitchers both because of injury-related necessity and because the past few years they’ve in general been extremely flexible with the constitution of their roster. Last season, the Dodgers led the majors by total number of in-season transactions. This year, they are second, behind the Mets.

— The other team in last year’s World Series, the champion Astros, have had a quiet transaction wire since winning their first title. Houston easily had the fewest players in its spring training camp, with very few non-roster invitees, and hasn’t seen any more turnover now that the season is underway. Houston’s only two pitcher-related options both involved sending out James Hoyt. Overall, the Astros have appeared on the transaction wire since Opening Day just 27 times. The Mets, who we mentioned have made the most moves, have appeared 118 times.

— The Cardinals seem to be the clearest case of using the reliever shuttle. The luckiest travelers have been John Brebbia (three options) and poor Mike Mayers (six options). Despite all the shuffling, only the Indians and Marlins have fewer relief WAR so far this season than St. Louis. By the way, Mayers’ total of six times being optioned out is the most in the majors, one ahead of both Brock Stewart of the Dodgers and Eduardo Paredes of the the Angels.

— The Red Sox lead the majors in relief WAR and have done so with a very stable bullpen corps. Just two pitchers account for Boston’s six options: Bobby Poyner and Marcus Walden. Both were surprises on the Red Sox’s Opening Day roster, but clearly the fact that they both had options remaining played a big part in that happening.

Since you asked

Catching up with a potential trade chip

White Sox starter James Shields has played himself back onto the radar of the trade market, though time and circumstances have something to do with that. Shields is ostensibly in the last year of a four-year, $75 million contract he signed with San Diego in 2015. There is a $16 million club option with a $2 million buyout in the contract for 2019, but it’s pretty clear that the buyout will be the outcome of that.

In the three years prior to signing that deal, Shields averaged 15 wins, 34 starts, 228 innings, 200 strikeouts and posted a 3.29 ERA and a 121 ERA+, per baseball-reference.com. In the three years after signing the pact, he averaged 8 wins, 29 starts, 167 innings, 151 strikeouts and put up a 4.92 ERA with an 80 ERA+. His deal was a classic example of a team doling out a free-agent contract based on what a player had done, not what he was going to do.

Shields landed with Chicago just over two years ago and has toiled in relative anonymity since, while emerging as a veteran clubhouse leader and a go-to voice for the local media. The Padres have picked up a little over half of Shields’ tab since dealing him to the White Sox, so if Chicago were to deal him now, the team acquiring him would be on the hook for only a prorated portion of $10 million, plus the $2 million buyout. Those numbers could be even less if the White Sox were to take on some of the remaining cash.

Of course, even those numbers would be prohibitive if Shields were still performing below replacement level, as he did last season (minus-1.8 bWAR). However, a reinvented Shields has become a bedrock source of above-replacement innings for Chicago this season. Through Thursday’s rough outing in Minnesota, Shields is on pace to throw 215 innings.

Shields’ evolution actually began the latter part of last season, when he started using a lower arm slot. In doing so, he traded strikeouts for soft contact — the exact opposite of trends around baseball. Shields struck out more than a batter per inning in 2015 but has lost more than a third of his K/9 rate since then. However, his well-hit average this season (.119) is easily a career best. That number was .194 last season.

You can see the change in other categories. Shields gave up 2.08 homers per nine innings a season ago; this season he’s at 1.09. A big reason for that is he has managed to turn about a third of his fly balls allowed into pop flies, almost always an out. Last season, 39 percent of the balls Shields allowed into play were fly balls; this year, he’s at 29 percent. And here’s the real stunner: This season, 9.4 percent of Shields’ balls in play have been popouts. Before this, his career-best rate was 2.9 percent.

None of this is to suggest that Shields has returned to the ranks of the elite. His ERA is still worse than league average, as is his ERA+. However, given where he was last season, that Shields has pitched well enough to consistently get deep into games is remarkable. And it’s made him a viable trade target for the back of some contenders’ rotation.

Shields was honing these changes in spring training when I talked to him about that, about working deep and the challenges of being a veteran playing on a team in the middle of a rebuild.

By now, you’ve been with teams basically in every part of the winning cycle, from building up to winning pennants. Even though you haven’t been with this franchise all that long, you’re still one of the guys who predate the decision to change direction. For a veteran, what is the feel around a team during this process?

James Shields: It’s a great feeling right now in this clubhouse. Ricky [Renteria] has done a great job of building a culture where these young kids can adapt to it and really embrace it. For me, as a veteran player, you look in this clubhouse and you see an unbelievable amount of talent. It energizes me, but I’m a pretty energetic kind of guy. I look at these young kids, and White Sox fans should be feeling really exciting about what is happening.

How have the adjustments to your delivery been working out for you?

JS: It’s going good. It’s a work in progress. I’ve [been] having fun with it, getting some good reviews from the way hitters react to it. So we’ll see how it goes over time.

More and more, it’s becoming rare for starters to work deep into games, especially younger guys. It makes me wonder how we will find those workhorses in the future if pitchers are never given much of a chance to prove they can work deep.

JS: For me, if you look at the past six to eight years, there aren’t too many teams that make the playoffs without having over 900 innings from their starting staff. It’s few and far between. At the end of the day, it’s a long season and you need to save that bullpen. You are always going to be looking for guys that can help you do that.

What did you have to show Joe Maddon when you were in Tampa Bay that convinced him to allow you to complete so many games? For a while there, you were kind of like a 21st century version of Walter Johnson.

JS: [chuckles] I don’t know about that. I remember in 2010, I hadn’t had a complete game since, I think, maybe four or five years prior to that. I told [Maddon] in spring training that I wanted to finish games off. He believed in me. He believed in the process. In 2011, I had 11 complete games that year. At the end of the day, you have the trust of your manager and you have to have that mentality and work ethic to be able to do that.

Coming right up

A chance to remember a Redbirds icon

There are a couple of upcoming anniversaries I dredged up for a reason about to be made obvious. Next Thursday marks the 62nd anniversary of the day that the St. Louis Cardinals and hyperactive general manager Frank “Trader” Lane dealt Red Schoendienst away from his beloved Redbirds to the New York Giants in a nine-player swap, the kind of which we don’t see much of anymore. Then, one year and one day later, the Giants sent Schoendienst to Milwaukee, where he helped spark the Braves to their first championship since 1914.

A lifelong Cardinal, Schoendienst needn’t have felt bad about being traded. Lane once tried to trade Stan Musial to the Phillies before owner Gussie Busch put the kibosh on the deal. Anyway, Schoendienst eventually found his way back to the Cardinals as a player and never left again, save for a two-year spell as a coach with the Oakland A’s in the 1970s. In his heart, the reddest of them all, he probably never really left.

All told, from the time he signed with the St. Louis organization in 1942, Schoendienst spent over 75 years in professional baseball. Schoendienst was baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer when he died Wednesday at age 95. As of this writing, funeral arrangements have not been announced, but presumably he will be laid to rest during the coming week.

I like to tell people that I’ve been heavily into baseball history literally the entire time I’ve been literate. The first book I read (after the children’s books phase) was an anthology of the biographies of some of the great St. Louis Cardinals stars through the 1950s. Because of that book, and even though I’ve never been a Cardinals fan, my favorite historical player (i.e., one I never actually saw play) was Dizzy Dean. I got a little misty-eyed in Cooperstown last summer when for the first time I encountered Dean’s uniform in a display at the Hall of Fame museum.

But elements of Schoendienst’s story from that book have always stuck with me. First, like me, he was a rural Midwestener, having grown up in Germantown, Illinois. When he was a teenager, he nearly lost an eye when he was hammering nails into a barn and a nail ricocheted right into it. The injury caused him problems for years and even led to his decision to become a switch-hitter — his vision problems made reading curveballs off righties problematic. Years later, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, though he didn’t know that while playing all seven games of the 1958 World Series with the disease. He was expected to retire, but he went on to play for another five years.

Ten or 11 years ago, I was in St. Louis to cover a season-opening series. I had never worked a game there, and the day before the opener I was on the field during a workout. There was Schoendienst, in uniform, already in his mid-80s and still swinging a bat and pounding out grounders for infield practice. I knew he was still a coach for the team — it was a title he never relinquished — but to see him still that active, at that age, was unforgettable. Of course, no one around Busch Stadium seemed to think much about it. It was just Red.

Today, I’m thinking back to that book I read so long ago. Schoendienst. Musial. The Deans, Diz and his brother, Paul. Joe Medwick. Johnny Mize. Pepper Martin, who managed Schoendienst in the minor leagues. Frankie Frisch. Rogers Hornsby. Grover “Pete” Alexander. Marty Marion. Walker Cooper. Country Slaughter. There have been many great Cardinals since that era, when the majors didn’t have another franchise west of the Mississippi and Cardinals baseball held sway over an enormous swathe of the country.

There will be many great Cardinals to come, but with Schoendienst’s passing, the last vestiges of that original era, the one when the old Cardinals made St. Louis the baseball city we now know it as, are now truly gone. Nothing lasts forever, even if Red sometimes made it seem like it might.



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