Scott Boras vs. Shifting
One of the most iconic sports agents to ever hold the title, Scott Boras, called shifting in Major League Baseball “discriminatory” to left-handed hitters. Well actually, that’s not completely true. The definition of discrimination is defined as the unjust treatment of different categories of people. So, by the definition, left-handed hitters must be severely worse against the shift than right-handed hitters, right? Scott Boras may think so, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Yes, left-handed hitters are hurt from shifting, but so are right-handed hitters. In fact, right handed hitters saw a more significant decrease in wOBA, batting average, slugging percentages, and BABIP than left-handed hitters did. While their overall numbers still remain higher than left-handed hitters, it is not by much and the right-handed batters are closing the gap year by year.
The first chart shows the outcomes of home runs, walks, and fly balls by left-handed batters from 2015-2018 and the chart on the right shows the same outcomes but for right-handed hitters.
While the overall statistics are decreasing for both lefties and righties, the totals in some categories are in fact increasing. This is interesting because shifting is supposed to be a strategic way of getting a batter out, shifting players into positions where that particular hitter hits the ball the most. Well, defenses can’t put players in the stands to catch batted balls and that’s where a lot of batted balls are headed against the shift. As we see from the tables above, home runs and fly balls are increasing year by year, with a small dip in 2017 but then the totals shoot right back up in 2018. In fact, 2018 saw the highest totals in home runs, walks, and fly balls than any year against the shift for both left and right-handed hitters.
Justin Turner of the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers said it best: “You don’t beat the shift by hitting around it or through it, you beat the shift by hitting over it.” That is exactly what players are doing now.
The line graph above shows the average launch angles from 2015-2018 against the shift. Right-handed hitters saw a dramatic increase from 13.5 (their lowest since Statcast started) to 15.3 (their highest since Statcast started). Lefties have seen an increase every season except for this one where they were only .3 degrees lower than last season. This brings to light Justin Turner’s quote as players are definitely trying to hit over the shift rather than through it or around it. Now let’s dive into directional hitting and see what the numbers say.
The top chart shows left-handed batters wOBA, batting average, slugging percentages, and launch angles from 2017 to 2018 when pulling the ball against the shift. The bottom chart shows the same statistics but for right-handed batters. Both tables of numbers show a decrease from 2017 to 2018, but the data still portrays what can be considered as successful outcomes for left-handed and right-handed batters. What about when hitters go the opposite way against the shift?
Again, the top chart shows left-handed hitters against the shift going the opposite way and the bottom chart shows those same statistics but for right-handed batters. Interestingly, lefties are better in every category going the opposite direction with the baseball than righties are.
Arguably Scott Boras’ biggest client, Bryce Harper, was also mentioned in the conversation by Boras when talking about shifts. "Shifting is grandly discriminatory in the game against power left-handed hitters", as Boras claimed the shifts are hurting his biggest client’s production. Well actually, the following data proves otherwise.
Bryce Harper’s averages against shifting has been quite the rollercoaster ride, rather than a downhill plummet. For Boras to claim that shifts are hurting Harper’s production, there should be evidence of a consistent decline year by year. The numbers show there is not, as Harper has bounced back every season following a down year against the shift. In fact, His home run production as well as average launch angles, show that he must be trying to hit over the shift, like Justin Turner’s quote suggested players should do. Even his walk rate has seen consistent increases, with 2017 being the only outlier.
Evidence further suggesting that Harper is trying to hit over the shift is shown above. The line graph above shows Harper’s numbers when pulling the ball against shifts, whereas the right graph shows his numbers when he goes opposite field against the shift. Just like the previous graphs, there are many peaks and valleys, but Harper’s batting average for balls in play (BABIP) has gone up every season since 2016 when pulling the ball into the shift. His slugging percentage has remained a respectable number and so has his wOBA. When going the opposite way his numbers are even better, which should be expected but is definitely worth the mention. The great hitters in baseball always adjust. Baseball is a game of adjustments and the graph on the right shows that when Harper adjusts to the shift and takes the ball the other way, he sees tremendous success against the shift. Nullifying his agent’s statements, claiming that the shift is hurting his client. If anything, it could boost his value because it’s proving that Harper can and has made the adjustments necessary to remain one of the most electric hitters in the game today.