On April 25, shortstop Cole Tucker was tasked with something he had not done many times before in his rise to the majors: start a double-play from the right side of the infield.
With a runner on first and one out in the eighth inning, the Pirates deployed an infield shift against Diamondbacks’ hitter Blake Swihart. The shift worked to perfection, with the left-handed hitter lining a one-hopper to Tucker, who stepped on the second base bag before throwing out the runner at first to end the inning. Had the defense been in a traditional alignment, Swihart’s rip would have gone into center field uncontested.
Tucker had not done a lot of shifting in the minors until he reached AA Altoona. Even though he does not have a lot of game experience on the right side of second base, he looked like a natural doing it.
“At first, going on the other side of second base was strange, but I’ve gotten used to it now,” Tucker said. “...Getting used to turning the double-play [from the right side] is weird, but I’ve had a ton of work with it and I feel comfortable at it.”
The play itself turned out to be inconsequential for the final result- the Pirates would end up losing 5-0- but it is an indication of a change with the defense. From 2013-2016, the Pirates were one of the most aggressive and effective shifting teams in the game. After losing their way in 2017 and 2018, the shifts have been working again in 2019.
There is a noticeable uptick in shifts across the league in 2019. This year, the Red Sox have rearranged their infielders at the lowest rate of frequency- 9.4%, according to Baseball Savant. Back in 2017, 13 teams did it less often than that.
So while the Pirates have increased their shift percentage from 14.2% in 2018 to 22.3% so far this season, they still remain near the middle of the league for how often they deploy a different infield alignment.
Ideally, a shift is most effective when the pitcher induces a ground ball. Over the last two seasons, when it came to ground balls, it didn’t make much of a difference where the Pirates infielders played. Batters were getting hits at very similar clips whether the infield was shifting or in a standard defense. In 2019, however, the Pirates are converting those ground balls into outs more frequently, especially when playing out of position.
Based on defensive alignment, here are the batting averages on ground balls against Pirates pitchers per year:
According to Baseball Savant, when deploying a shift or “strategic” defense (where at least one infielder moves from the standard position), the Pirates are holding batters to a .176 batting average on ground balls. That is the sixth best mark in baseball.
When line drives and pop-ups are factored in, the Pirates defense has the second best BABIP allowed when shifting in baseball.
According to second baseman Adam Frazier, part of the shifts’ success is due to changes they make mid-at-bat. For example, when a batter gets to two strikes, a bunt attempt becomes far more risky since a foul ball will result in a strikeout. Some shifts become more profound or are only deployed once the threat of a bunt is taken away.
“In the past, it’s just been a set spot. Maybe one step here and one one step there,” Frazier said. “Now, with two strikes, we’re moving even more often.”
Not all of those changes come from the analytics department, though. Frazier also stressed the importance of “reading swings.” If the players or coaches see the batter is trying to push the ball through a hole the shift created, they might move. It makes the shift less profound, but it also takes away the option for the hitter and forces him to readjust mid-plate appearance.
“It’s being a student of the game while you’re in the game,” Frazier said.
It’s a bit of a culture shock for a greenhorn like Tucker, but the rookie is adjusting.
“It’s nuts, man,” Tucker said. “The game has gone in a way where people know what’s going to happen before it happens more times than not.”