The Tampa Bay Rays deployed an interesting outfield shift on Christian Vazquez
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Aug. 27, 2017 – Source: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images North America)
As I was watching the enthralling 12-inning Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox game yesterday, I noticed a couple of interesting things. First of all, the Rays were deploying fairly extreme outfield shifts. Now, I could be entirely wrong but the NESN broadcast only showed it being used against right-handed hitters. In particular, Tampa Bay was shifting their outfielders when Christian Vazquez got to the plate.
Getting away from Vazquez before we even begin, let’s briefly talk about the outfield shift. With the success of the infield shift over the past couple of seasons, teams are now looking for another competitive edge. By and large, every team is employing infield shifts to various degrees because it presumably saves runs. The same logic can be found in large-scale outfield shifting, although it has been relatively untested compared to infield shifting.
Especially with the trending “fly ball revolution” we are seeing, the importance of optimally positioning your outfield is increasing its significance. Anyway, I think we have to discuss the definition of an “outfield shift” before we persist.
Teams have been “shifting” outfielders in minor ways for decades based on anecdotal evidence and actual number-supported evidence. This can range from playing shallower or deeper to moving horizontally. If Mookie Betts decides to play five feet closer to the infield against a certain batter, does that constitute an outfield shift? What if he moves seven feet closer to the line than normal? What are the parameters of an “outfield shift?” Actually, let’s rephrase that: what are the parameters of a meaningful, noticeably unique outfield shift? Does it even have to be unique to be a shift? What even is considered the baseline positioning for outfielders of which to gauge a shift?
Truth is, I do not know the answer to any of my questions. I am not an expert on shifts or how to track them. There are quite a few gaps in my knowledge on the subject. I think it is important to pose them, though. Thought is a good thing.
Teams probably have access to this information, anyway. They have access to such large quantities of data and are constantly extracting useful information from it.
Despite my uncertainty on the parameters of an “outfield shift,” I can definitely say what the Rays did on Vazquez was an outfield shift. The left fielder was playing far from the line, borderline left-center field. Meanwhile, center fielder Kevin Kiermaier was completely in right-center, leaving two enormous gaps to Vazquez’s pull side. Below is a picture of the shift in action, courtesy of a screenshot I took from MLB.TV’s NESN broadcast of the game yesterday.
It is not a high-quality picture, but it does not have to be. You see the rather drastic shift in action and, thereby, you see the potential holes Vazquez has the opportunity to exploit. There is an unusual amount of green grass in left center and down the left field line.
The newly-extended Red Sox catcher is the perfect candidate for this type of shift. Check out his 2017 batted ball outcomes, courtesy of Fangraphs.
A vast majority of his batted balls to the outfield have been concentrated to right and center field. He pulled a very paltry number of balls to left field last year. Based on this graph, the evidence seems to be in the Rays’ favor for justification of their shift.
With that said, when these shifts open up such galvanizing holes, people naturally wonder why an MLB hitter cannot just change their approach and turn on the baseball. After all, given the situation, Vazquez had a better chance of getting a hit to the left side of the outfield than the right side.
My retort to the musing of the masses is that not only is it easier said than done, but the Rays were pitching towards the shift. It is infinitely harder to pull a ball on the outside half of the plate than the inside half. Let’s take a look at Vazquez’s plate appearances in the game. All of these pictures are courtesy of MLB.com.
Note: a red pitch is a strike, a green pitch a ball and a blue pitch is a ball in play
Plate Appearance #1: Christian Vazquez vs. Yonny Chirinos in the 3rd inning
Result: strikes out swinging
Vazquez is a right-handed batter, so all of those pitches (1, 2, 4, 5 and 7) are high and outside to him. Pitches 3 and 6 were on the inside half but were high in the zone. The pattern is pretty clear. Most likely, Chirinos was actively trying to pitch away to him in the hope he would get him to hit into the shift. Ultimately, he got him to strike out swinging on an 84-mph splitter below the strike zone. Pitch number 8 certainly changed his eye level and remains an outlier relative to the other pitches in the bat. Perhaps this was an anomaly, though? One at-bat is too small of a sample size. Let’s check out the second plate appearance.
Plate Appearance #2: Christian Vazquez vs. Chaz Roe in the 6th inning
Result: line drive out to center fielder Kevin Kiermaier
The strategy worked, as Vazquez took the high and away 90-mph fastball right into the shift. Roe delivered three fastballs in the encounter (pitches 1, 3 and 4), while the second pitch was a big breaking ball that the 2008 9th-round pick offered at. Admittedly, Roe’s strategy was a bit different from Chirinos’ in one regard, as he was changing eye levels, throwing two pitches low and away. However, like Chirinos, he threw everything on the outside half. To reiterate, it is tough to pull the ball on those outside pitches. Instead, Vazquez went with the pitch, giving the Rays’ shift validation.
Plate Appearance #3: Christian Vazquez vs. Jose Alvarado in the 8th inning
Result: called out on strikes
So, my theory takes a bit of a credibility hit. Alvarado tossed three pitches to Vazquez, the first two being 98-mph fastballs and the third pitch being a curveball that Vazquez looked at for strike three. Granted, it was only three pitches but it is not overwhelming like the other plate appearances. Let me offer a justification for the anomalous at-bat, though.
To start, Roe and Chirinos were right-handed pitchers, while Alvarado is a left-hander. I do not know what, exactly, this means in term of general lefty/righty pitcher’s zone patterns, but it probably does not mean absolutely nothing. Further, I looked at Alvarado’s career Heatmap versus right-handed hitters (what Vazquez is), courtesy of Fangraphs, and discovered something interesting.
The following heatmap is from the catcher’s perspective, aligned with the zone at-bat pictures from MLB.com. Basically, Alvarado does not frequent the outside half very much versus righties. You can see he prefers to work inside, shying away from the outside half. I used a 5 vs. 5 grid for this heatmap for simplicity purposes but the 10 vs. 10 probably shows his tendency to avoid pitching away to righties better. You can click here to see that for yourself!
Further, if it were not for the inside breaking ball (the third pitch) the pattern would still be valid for this matchup. With that said, Alvarado almost exclusively throws his breaking balls low and inside to right-handed batters, so he was not going to change the trajectory of his secondary pitches to conform with the shift. Obviously, it worked and it does not necessarily detract from the Rays’ philosophy of pitching Vazquez to the shift. Wow. I spent way too much time and effort disproving an aberration. In another note, this theory also proves that I have way too much time on my hands. Onwards we go to the next plate appearance…
Plate Appearance #4: Christian Vazquez vs. Andrew Kittredge in the 10th inning
Result: groundout to second baseman Joey Wendle
Three of the four pitches (pitches 1, 2 and 4) from Kittredge were sliders and the third pitch of the plate appearance was an outside fastball. Kittredge conformed to the pitching Vazquez away strategy, with only one pitch actually maybe considered “in the zone.” He threw more balls down than Chirinos and Roe, but considering they were all sliders, it is not shocking. Breaking balls tend to do better down in the zone. You probably know that. He got Vazquez to ground the ball to the opposite field. Cool stuff.
Before we enter the conclusion of this article, let it be known I intentionally omitted Vazquez’s 5th plate appearance of the contest. I did this because he dropped down a sacrifice bunt on the first pitch of the plate appearance. There was nothing of substance there.
Regardless, I think there was a definite pattern that emerges, here. The Rays applied a fairly extreme outfield shift based on where Vazquez has been known not to hit the ball. Further, they pitched him to the shift, exploiting Vazquez’ weakness with pitches on the outside half of the plate, particularly up and away. This is the last image, I promise. Thank you Fangraphs for your hard work today.
Above, we have a heatmap of the contact percentage Vazquez made in 2017 off various sections of the zone and even outside the zone. The redder the square, the better percentage of contact Vazquez made off pitches in that zone. Conversely, the bluer the square, the worse percentage of contact he made off pitches in that zone.
As mentioned, take a look at the high and away section of the strike zone. Not a lot of good stuff happening there, with blue and white squares aplenty. It should become obvious that Vazquez is better at making contact off pitches on the inner-half.
Granted, we need to be cautious about reading into this heatmap for two reasons. First of all, contact percentage does not tell us quality of contact. If Vazquez constitently hits weak fly balls off pitches in the lower, right quandrant of the strike zone, then he is not effective with those pitches. Secondly, the sample size for some of these square may not be very large, distorting the data. For example, in the rightmost, middle section of the heatmap, Vazquez has 100% contact percentage on those pitches. In reality, he probably only saw a couple, possibly even one, pitches in that section.
The overarching takeaway is that Vazquez probably is not as adept at hitting balls on the outside part of the plate. As such, pitchers pitch to his weakness and shift accordingly.
To be fair, I am not even sure if the Rays shifted on every Vazquez plate appearance. I am pretty sure they did but I am not certain. Just putting that disclaimer out there.
Still, the point remains that Christian Vazquez is a perfect outfield shift candidate. There is a lot unknown about this potentially new competitive advantage but if you are going to do it to someone, a guy with Vazquez’s batted ball profile seems ideal. Further, it is interesting that not only are they shifting, but they are pitching to the shift.
As the series progresses, do not be surprised if you see the Rays outfield do more of the same to Vazquez. As the year progresses, do not be surprised if you see other teams do the same.