Why the St. Louis Cardinals should utilize the defensive shift more in 2020

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 21: Manager Mike Shildt #8 of the St. Louis Cardinals visits the mound for a pitching change during the ninth inning of a game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on September 21, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 21: Manager Mike Shildt #8 of the St. Louis Cardinals visits the mound for a pitching change during the ninth inning of a game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on September 21, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images) /
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The Fielding Bible has updated its Defensive Runs Saved statistic and it gives a good insight as to how the St. Louis Cardinals defense has improved so much over the last few years – the wonderful world of the defensive shift.

2017 was the last full season with Mike Matheny as the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cards finished with a cumulative 24 Defensive Runs Saved which was joint 10th in the majors. Matheny was then replaced by Mike Shildt midway through 2018 and in this season the Cards dropped off slightly. Having just 22 DRS which was only 9th best in just the National League, nevermind all of MLB.

Mike Shildt’s first full season in charge of the Cards was 2019, and in this season Shildt lead the franchise to their highest DRS on record (Fielding Bible data going back to 2003) with a giant 91 Defensive Runs Saved. This was the 4th best in the majors in 2019 behind only the Dodgers (126), D’Backs (112) & Astros (96).

Now it was widely understood that Mike Matheny was very old-school in his ways and was extremely anti-defensive shifts. Even going as far in 2018 as to say that MLB should ban the shift. Towards the end of his tenure with the Cardinals, the team certainly struggled with their lack of shifting and this was evident from the poor DRS.

With Mike Shildt taking over, the team has increased their shift percentage from 2.9% in 2017, which was the lowest shift percentage in the majors, up to 15.8% in 2019, which was 11th in the National League.

This is still below the MLB average of 25.6%, but the NL tends to shift less in general. This is likely due to pitcher vs. DH differentials, so the Cards are shifting only 8.2% below the NL average. This addition in the percentage of shifts has reflected positively on the team’s defensive improvements in 2019.

PITTSBURGH, PA – APRIL 01: Paul DeJong #12 celebrates with Kolten Wong #16 of the St. Louis Cardinals after scoring on a past ball in the in the eleventh inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at the home opener at PNC Park on April 1, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA – APRIL 01: Paul DeJong #12 celebrates with Kolten Wong #16 of the St. Louis Cardinals after scoring on a past ball in the in the eleventh inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at the home opener at PNC Park on April 1, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

If we look specifically at infielder DRS, you will see that the St. Louis Cardinals had the most Defensive Runs Saved by infielders (60) in the majors in 2019. This was in fact 17 DRS higher than the next best-placed team (Oakland Athletics). Overall a significant shift from the -9 DRS by Cardinals infielders in 2017 and the 18 DRS from infielders in 2018.

The team gained 52% of its’ 60 DRS in 2019 from utilizing the shift. This was a massive uptick from the 28% in 2018 and then in 2017 they actually attributed negative Defensive Runs Saved from the infield when in the shift.

If we look at the top two teams that shifted the most in 2019, you’ll see the Los Angeles Dodgers (shifted 50.6% of the time) and the Houston Astros (shifted 49.4% of the time). These were the two teams in 2019 who had the most wins in their respective leagues and are strongly linked with being heavy adopters of analytics. So this may go a long way to showing the benefits, when adopted well, of utilizing the shift.

The St. Louis Cardinals, in general, shifted more in 2019, and when we look at specific players we see that the key defensive players benefited from utilizing the shift. Of the Cardinals 60 infield Defensive Runs Saved in 2019, the majority of these came from Paul DeJong (26), Kolten Wong (19), and Matt Carpenter (5).

  • Kolten Wong had the most Defensive Runs Saved of all second basemen in the majors in 2019. Of his 19 DRS, 74% of these were obtained when the shift was applied which was a massive uptick from 12.5% in 2018 and the -3 DRS from 2017.
  • Similarly to Wong, Paul DeJong had the most DRS of all shortstops in the majors last season. In 2019, DeJong gained 46% of his DRS when employing the shift compared to 0% in 2018 when he didn’t gain a single Defensive Run Saved with the shift on.
  • Finally Matt Carpenter, although not known as a defensive wizard, added 4 of his 5 (80%) DRS when playing in the shift last season.

So why not employ the shift more in 2020?

MLB has seen a steady increase in the use of the shift over the last 3 years, from 12.1% in 2017, up to 17.4% in 2018 and peaking last season at 25.6%.

The expectation is that this is going to increase further in 2020. Plus the Cardinals infielders are evidently benefiting from using the shift with the teams DRS increasing greatly in the last 3 years and the majority of this is due to shifting.

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Plus one final reason why the shift should be employed more by the Cardinals in 2020 is that there are some key figures in the National League Central who struggle against the shift. Predominantly Josh Bell, Joey Votto, Kyle Schwarber and Omar Narvaez.  Each are key members from each of the other NL Central teams.

Josh Bell was shifted against below the average for lefties (39.7% vs. the 41.9% MLB average for left handers), but had a significant drop in his wOBA when he was shifted. Bell hit a .465 wOBA when batting against a standard defensive formation, but his wOBA dropped 0.158 when hitting against the shift. So shifting against Josh Bell could really prove to help the St. Louis Cardinals defensively.

Joey Votto, throughout 2019, was shifted only 32% of the time, but when hitting against the shift Votto had a .314 wOBA which was .029 below his non-shift wOBA. Similarly, new Brewers catcher Omar Narvaez was only shifted 30.4% of the time but hit for a .055 lower wOBA when hitting against the shift. Finally, Kyle Schwarber also struggled with the shift, although Kyle was shifted 69.3% of the time he still hit a .353 wOBA in the shift compared to his .366 when not being shifted.

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Definitely something for Mike Shildt to think about going into 2020. From all the stats above, it looks like using the shift is working for the St. Louis Cardinals. So let’s see if the team can continue these defensive efficiencies into 2020!

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