Analysis: Teams Should Shift Their Infield More Against Garrett Jones

Garrett Jones

Garrett Jones is one of the biggest pull hitters in baseball. (Photo credit: David Hague)

The Pirates did not need much help to hit into outs over the first week of the season, they were doing a good job all by themselves. Cubs manager Dale Sveum decided to make life a little more difficult for one of the Bucs’ best hitters, Garrett Jones.

On Opening Day, Sveum shifted his infield to have three of his infielders on the right side. Jones hit into the shift in his first three at-bats, only reaching on a first-inning error by infielder Brent Lillibridge.

“I guess it’s just that time of year right now, I’m just a little out in front,” Jones said. “Teams pick up on that.”

That was a day the shift worked. It’s a bold strategy, Cotton, but does it really pay off for teams that use it? I set off to find some evidence either way by watching and charting all of Jones’ ground balls and line drives dating back to the start of last season. If you have an MLB.tv subscription and no life, like yours truly, you too can waste the hours away in a similar way.

(All statistics that follow are accurate, I hope, through April 11, 2013.)

Jones Hits Grounders and Liners Mostly to the Right

First, we find the reason teams shift on Jones in the first place. He is a true-blue left-handed pull hitter. Since the start of 2012, Garrett Jones has hit more than 78 percent of his line drives and ground balls to the right side, and fewer than 19 percent to the left side.

Garrett Jones Batted Balls

(These categories are largely eye-balled, with any of the three middle categories defined by the middle infielder having to move toward second base to make a play.)

Getting Shifty

To study how often teams shift positions on Jones, I divided the infield shifts I saw into five different categories:

  • No Shift (12 times)
  • Mild Shift, in which the infielders all move to their left, but the shortstop is still to the left of second base. It’s very common against left-handed hitters, which is why I counted it (168 times)
  • 2B Grass, which is like a mild shift but with the second baseman positioned in the grass (3 times)
  • Infield In, only occurring with two runners in scoring position (2 times)
  • Full Shift, with three infielders gathered on the right side (37 times)

When I started watching Jones’ ground balls and line drives, one thing frustrated me: no one was pulling a full shift on him! It wasn’t until June 2 that I first spotted a full shift, provided by the Milwaukee Brewers and shortstop Cody Ransom moving to the other side of second base.

Immediately, Jones proved true the old adage: “the best way to beat a shift is to hit past it.” Or “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Whichever you like. Anyway, he singled to center.

Garrett Jones first shift

After that, the floodgates opened! Kind of! The Brewers shifted on Jones the rest of the weekend, then a few days later, interleague opponents Kansas City, Baltimore and Cleveland all shifted their infield when Jones came up to hit. Maybe those AL teams were compiling different scouting reports than the NL teams. Three examples and the results:

Kansas City Shift

Against Kansas City, Jones hit into the shift all three times.

Garrett Jones Baltimore

Against two Baltimore shifts, Jones hit an infield single up the middle and grounded to second.

Garrett Jones/Cleveland Indians

Garrett Jones went 2-for-4 on liners/grounders against Cleveland’s shifts, with one line drive single to left and one to right.

Since the start of 2012, the two teams that have shifted the most against Jones are the Chicago Cubs (under manager Dale Sveum) and the Houston Astros (under Brad Mills and Tony DeFrancesco). And when Jones hits into it…

“That’s very frustrating, especially when you hit it hard and it just one-hops right to him, and you know it would be a hit,” Jones said. “It’s tough. It can play games with you mentally.”

Here is an example of the shift the Cubs pulled on Jones on Opening Day, when he hit grounders to the right side three times.

Garrett Jones/Cubs

Since the start of last season, the Cubs have shifted on 11 of Garrett Jones’ line drives and grounders.

Notice how teams like the Royals and Orioles position their second baseman further back into the grass, like defenses often aligned against David Ortiz. Jones does not have the same power as Ortiz, but AL teams are probably used to positioning that way against him.

Couldn’t Jones Just Bunt Away From the Shift?

You, dear reader, have almost as much experience bunting Major League pitches as Garrett Jones does (unless Jack Wilson is reading this, in which case “HI, JACK!”). Let’s take a journey back to the halcyon day of August 18, 2009. Old friend Lastings Milledge hit his first Pirates homer in a 5-2 win, but it was all surpassed in beauty by Jones laying down a bunt single.

It remains the only bunt Jones has put into play over 2,113 MLB plate appearances. Though Jones is not completely green when it comes to bunting. Manager Clint Hurdle says everyone worked on bunting in Spring Training. And Jones points out it “doesn’t even have to be a good bunt, as long as you get it over there” down the third base line to beat a shift.

“I see that third baseman over there and a bunt could be a possibility,” Jones said.

Jones is also somewhat slow on the basepaths, especially trying to get his 6-foot-4 frame out of the batter’s box. I clock him at about 4.3 seconds to first base, making him a 40 on the 20-80 scouting scale.

Combine that below-average speed with the fact that Jones is barely acquainted with the bunt, and the suggestion that he simply bunt away from the shift down the third-base line may not work out so well. A good hitter like Jones would have to bunt successfully 40% to 45% of the time, as Tom Tango figured out last year, for the bunt-away-from-the-shift ploy to pay dividends. We would have to see Jones lay down more than one in-game bunt to have any idea if he could get it done two out of every five times.

Does Pitch Location Affect Where Jones Hits It?

Garrett Jones on Inside Pitches

It sure seems to. On pitches thrown down the middle or inside to Jones, almost 92% of his ground balls and line drives went to the right side. On pitches thrown outside, just 66% of his line drives and grounders were hit to the right side. That’s a pretty stark difference, even on a sample of only 79 inside-middle pitches and 118 outside pitches.

Garrett Jones on outside pitches

Pitch speed does not seem to affect Jones’ hit location as much, with the only significant number being that he hits fastballs up the middle more often than he does off-speed pitches.

How Jones Compares

There are many other players who see more infield shifts than Jones. Thanks to John Dewan for finding those guys so I don’t have to spend 100 more hours watching old at-bats.

Dewan found the hitters shifted against the most between 2010 and 2011. Let’s compare their ground ball/line drive numbers from those years (and how often they hit it to the right side) to Jones’ career marks.

Hitter Shifts, 2010-11   % hit to right  
Carlos Peña 341 81%
Garrett Jones N/A 80%
Ryan Howard 461 79%
Adam Dunn 305 76%
Jim Thome 223 75%
David Ortiz 486 74%
Adrian Gonzalez 205 72%
Prince Fielder 253 71%

(Batted ball data courtesy of BaseballHeatMaps.com)

With teams shifting on Ortiz and Howard, it stands to reason they should be shifting more on Jones, who hits more line drives and ground balls to the right side.

Conclusions (The important part!)

Here is the main reason more teams should shift on Garrett Jones. Look at his batting average on ground balls and line drives in play for each scenario.

  • When shift is on: 12-for-40 (.300 BABIP)
  • When shift is off/mild: 75-for-180 (.417 BABIP)

It’s not as large a sample size as I would like, but the difference of 117 points on balls in play remains pretty stark. Combine those numbers with Jones hitting about four of every five line drives and ground balls to the right side, and we can say pretty comfortably that more teams should be shifting on Garrett Jones.

As for the shifts being used on him now, Jones says he does not really change his approach when he sees three infielders on the right side.

“I guess I get pull-happy throughout the season, and that’s when teams do it,” Jones said.  ”It’s just a matter of trying to square the ball up… if you hit it hard somewhere, it’s going to find a hole.”

Even if the difference only ends up being 50 points on line drives/grounders in play, that would turn Jones from a hitter with a .320 on-base percentage over a full season to one with a .300 on-base percentage, especially if opposing teams pitch him inside.

Consistent shifts could turn Jones from an average hitter at getting on-base to well below average. All it takes is a couple steps to the left.

James Santelli

Author: James Santelli

James covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects. He is a Broadcast Journalism student at USC and has written for such outlets as NBCOlympics.com, Pittsburgh Magazine and the official websites of the Los Angeles Clippers and Pittsburgh Penguins. James previously covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report. He also broadcasts play-by-play for the USC Trojans baseball team and was awarded the 2013 Chick Hearn Memorial Scholarship and Allan Malamud Scholarship. James dispenses puns at his Twitter account (@JamesSantelli) where he promises to write in first-person. Google

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  • http://twitter.com/GawlowskiB GawlowskiB

    James- good piece. By any chance, did you measure his batting average on ground balls/line drives to the left with the shift on? Both mild and otherwise?

    • James Santelli

      Just did the calculation now. I added up hits to the left and middle-left with any kind of shift on, and Jones was 19-for-35 (.543) hitting grounders/liners to the left with a shift. No great surprise, if you’re hitting away from where the defense is, you will have better luck getting on base.

      • http://twitter.com/GawlowskiB GawlowskiB

        Ok.

        Interestingly, if you combine his hits when hitting to the left when with a shift on with his hits to the right, it gives him a .413 average (31-75), which is pretty similar to the .417 mark when the shift is off.

        • James Santelli

          Interesting indeed. And just as something anecdotal, it seems like Jones hits the ball harder to the right side than to the left side.

          • http://twitter.com/GawlowskiB GawlowskiB

            Not to mention that it sounds like’s hitting it to the left disproportionately when the shift was on. All sorts of game theory stuff

    • James Santelli

      — Eh, not that much. On the 37 full shifts (with only one infielder to the left of second base), Jones still hit the ball to the right or middle-right 65 percent of the time.
      — That’s less than the 78 percent of the time he hits grounders/liners to the right in all situations. It’s an intriguing number, but small sample size limits the statistical significance, especially since the difference is not as large (percentage-wise) as the difference between a .300 average and .417 average on balls in play. In fact, I would be more comfortable with more data all around.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    James…great article.

  • jg941

    Great stuff, James!

  • silversalmon586

    Thanks James – this is VERY helpful

    Signed,

    The St. Louis Cardinals and the rest of the National League

    • James Santelli

      Okay, but I get a finder’s fee!

  • lawdog

    I cant argue with the stats, but I argue against the conclusions.. Jones should bunt on the shift. Although the “stats” say he would have to be successful 40-45% of the time, this ignores in my mind two crucial facts:

    1. In the shift, unless a hitter is an almost laughable bunter, any slug bunt down the third base line past the pitcher is a hit 100% of the time as there is no third baseman. Jones does not but because he is a power hitter, but I assume until proven otherwise he is an average bunter.

    2. Back in the steroid age, many fans asked why wouldn’t everyone just walk Barry Bonds? The answer was even with 80 home runs, he still makes an out between 6 and 7 times out of ten, and still only hit a home rune about 15% of the time. Teams fear base runners more than home runs. The shift is meant to take away base hits, not home runs. A hit is a hit, yes you lose the chance of a home run or double, but you are putting guys on base, which is much more likely to lead to runs than the occasional homer.

    Teams are not strat-o-matic automatons. One or two bunts against each team that employs a shift that results in a hit, especially if that hit becomes a run, would greatly diminish the shift (by shading the ss or 3b to guard against it) or end it altogether. I find it hard to believe in the real game, and not in sabremetric numbers, that if a team lost a few games by one or two runs because Jones or Alvarez put it down the line and walked to first and they came around to score managers would just blindly keep putting a shift on and risk losing the game.

    • James Santelli

      Lawdog, you have some perfectly reasonable critiques, though I disagree with them (shock of shocks!).
      *** I don’t know why you have to put “stats” in quotation marks. It’s perfectly reasonable that an above average power hitter like Jones would need to get on base with bunt singles at about a .400 or .450 clip to match the offensive value he brings to the table with his power.
      *** I kind of left the door open about Jones’ bunting abilities by writing, “We would have to see Jones lay down more than one in-game bunt to have any idea.” Hell, that’s why I wrote a whole section on it. Problem is, Jones has only laid down two sacrifice hits in the Majors or Minors since 2004. 2004! So for almost a decade, the guy has not been asked to bunt in a competitive game for nine years. Could he be good? Maybe, but letting that skill atrophy for almost a decade makes me think “average bunter” is a bit too optimistic for him.
      *** As for the Barry Bonds comparison, I wouldn’t liken an infield shift to walking a player at every plate appearance. We have never seen such a strategy, but we have seen plenty of infield shifts on players like Howard, Pena, Dunn, Gonzalez and Ortiz. I don’t want to simply appeal to authority, but I don’t think so many teams would do it if it offered negative value.
      *** “Teams are not strat-o-matic automatons.” Of course not. Which is why I talked to the managers and the players about this subject. I’m not telling teams to blindly keep a shift on, unless my writing the words “we can say pretty comfortably that more teams should be shifting on Garrett Jones” means something completely different to you than it does to me. The sample remains small, and it would be good to see more results either way.

      • lawdog

        I see your points, but that would lead to the conclusion, not just with Jones but other players with a shift to either just accept that their average with balls in play will now be reduced 50% or a team needs to find a player that can put up the same production where he hits to all fields. Since they have no one to replace Jones, I would think at least attempting to bunt would be better than just accepting teams have your number and if you do not hit it over the fence your average is going to go down.

        Its like why they tell a player to hit the ball the other way, even if their power is all when they pull the ball. Get enough hits to the opposite field, then a pitcher would rather risk pitching inside and you hitting a homerun if your average is less pulling, because the occasional HR is better game-wise then having the same player get on base more with singles. Its counter-intuitive, but taking singles with outside pitches actually leads to more home runs over the season since they are getting some more pitches in their power zone.

        • James Santelli

          You’re right about that. And if teams were to shift more often on Garrett Jones, he would try to hit more to all fields or even lay down some bunts. Clint Hurdle even pointed out that they do directional hitting drills to get hitters to spray the ball. My main point is that more shifting would limit Jones’ offensive production over the long haul, and I still believe that is true.