Mike Trout is the best baseball player in the world. He’s held this title for quite a few years now and has shown no signs of giving up that distinction. After a 2018 season in which he posted a .312/.460/.628 slash line with 39 home runs and career-high 191 wRC+, Trout seems to be getting even better. This is a scary thought for opposing pitchers and defenses as they continue to search for ways to get Trout out. Fortunately for these pitchers and defenses (and unfortunately for Trout), they now have some options to do so.
These options are a direct result of the meteoric rise of sabermetric implementation across baseball. Coupling this movement with tons of expansive databases to manipulate, and teams are now continuously looking for innovation, change, and that extra competitive advantage to put them over the edge and win it all– however weird or unorthodox it may be.
One such unorthodox change that has come out of the sabermetric revolution is that of frequent utilization of “The Defensive Shift” against certain players. Until recently, the defensive shift was mainly used against left-handed power hitters. Even then, it was used on a relatively infrequent basis. Now, teams employ the defensive shift all the time. The data says it works, and the results have backed it up. Thus, teams have adopted it like crazy. Players like Anthony Rizzo, Matt Carpenter, and Daniel Murphy, just to name a few, have all seen countless hits taken away by the opposing defense simply shifting to a specific side of 2nd base.
But none of those players are Mike Trout. No one else is even in the same stratosphere as Mike Trout. The shift can’t possibly work against him, can it? Well, let’s dive into the data (courtesy Baseball Savant and Fangraphs).
For this deep dive, let’s consider Trout’s ground balls hit in fair play since that is the main event where defensive shifts are applied. Stay with me here, and we can walk through the opposing teams’ thought process on shifting against Trout through the analysis of a few calculations.
So, in 2018, Mike Trout hit 110 ground balls. The calculation below (Exhibit A) shows that he was OUT about 2/3 of the time and SAFE about 1/3 of the time.
Okay, duh, ground balls are usually outs for most players, so we need to dive deeper. Where on the field did Trout hit his ground balls most frequently? Exhibit B shows staggeringly convincing data in favor of the shift, as Trout hit nearly 91% of his ground balls either to the left side of the field or up the middle (the exact area a shift defense would cover).
This data shows that a shift would probably work to get Trout out on ground balls, given that his ground ball spray chart plays perfectly to it, but teams took some time to catch on. Checking out Exhibit C will show that teams didn’t shift on Trout perhaps as much as they should have.
So, teams were only shifted about 30% of the time in instances where Trout hit a ground ball (31 times). The other times, teams were in a traditional defensive alignment (79 times). Let’s look at the difference in outcome for Trout in these situations (Exhibit D and E).
The main takeaway from Exhibit D and E is that when a ground ball was hit against a traditional (non-shifted) defensive alignment, Trout was safe ~35% of the time (28 times). When a ground ball was hit against a shifted defensive alignment, Trout was safe just 29% of the time (9 times). Additionally, out of the 9 times where Trout “beat the shift” and was safe on a groundball, only ONE batted ball was hit to the opposite field (a groundball single to right fielder Avisail Garcia). Out of the other 8 times when Trout was safe on a ground ball against a shifted defense, the result was one of the following: a softly hit infield single, a defensive error, a deflection of sorts, or a hard hit rocket that found a hole (only twice). NOT quality “shift-beating” by any stretch.
Thus, in this (admittedly small) sample, shifting against Mike Trout could lead to around a 6% better chance at getting him out on a groundball (35% – 29% = 6%). In this age of baseball, with teams looking for every possible edge they can find, that 6% could make all the difference. It is also likely one of the reasons teams began shifting against Trout more and more as the 2018 season came to a close.
However, while shifting against Trout may be a good strategy now, there is no way to predict that it will hold up in the future. Mike Trout has shown to be a master of adjustments, and may very well have another trick up his sleeve. Remember when Trout was a poorly rated defender? He made adjustments and is now top 20 among all MLB outfielders in Outs Above Average. Who says he can’t make the same adjustment for hitting ground balls to the opposite field? It’s extremely difficult to do, and teams should continue to shift against Trout until proven otherwise, but if anyone can adjust and learn to “beat the shift” consistently, I’m betting on Michael Nelson Trout.
Featured Photo: Keith Allison