Shifting interest in Rays defense vs Rangers

Tonight in Arlington, Sunday Night Baseball features a clash of the division-leading Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers.

Texas leads the league in runs, but the most interesting thing to watch when the Rangers are batting will actually be the shifting Rays defense.

Last season Tampa Bay led the majors by shifting their infield 216 times, an average of 1.3 shifts per game.

This season the Rays have already used 125 infield shifts, amplifying their usage to nearly six times per game.

The huge spike in shifts has primarily been caused by adjusting more often against right-handed hitters. Last season, the Rays shifted on seven percent of such at-bats; this season, the number is 50 percent.

Most Infield Shifts This Season

Is this hyper-shifting working? Perhaps. Twenty-one games into the season, the Rays rank 20th in defensive efficiency but are 2nd in defensive runs saved with 20.

Tampa Bay’s opponents are hitting .255 on ground balls this year, compared to the league average of .226.

Looking at a larger sample size, Rays opponents hit .222 on ground balls in 2011, notably worse than the league average of .237.

It’s worth pointing out that the shift not only affects ground balls, but also line drives. Opponents are hitting .642 on line drives against the Rays this season, six percentage points lower than the major-league average.

Again, this season’s sample size is small, but the Rays defense was very similar a year ago, also holding opponents to a line-drive batting average six percentage points lower than the major-league average.

Several Texas Rangers are strong candidates to see shifts tonight. Since 2009, Josh Hamilton has hit 68 percent of his ground balls to the middle-right or far-right portions of the field, with 19 percent to the middle-left or far-left.

Righties Ian Kinsler (74 percent) and Mike Napoli (75 percent) have both pulled about three-quarters of their ground balls since 2009. Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz aren’t far behind, at 65 percent each.

According to The Fielding Bible, the first known use of shifting was in 1946 against Ted Williams, who walked on four pitches. Sixty-six years later, the Rays are taking that idea to the extreme, and tonight’s game may be a showcase for their defensive revolution.

Information from Baseball Info Solutions was used in this post.