The Washington Nationals shifted 196 times on balls in play in 2014. Only the Rockies had fewer shifts, according to Baseball Info Solutions.
The Nationals are well aware of this. Manager Matt Williams is well aware of this. From Mark Zuckerman's article at CSNWashington.com:
“We were the team that did the least [in 2014],” manager Matt Williams said. “That’s a product of our pitching staff and a product of us understanding what our pitchers want and moving from there. There are times where we’ll employ the shift, and we’ll do that type of thing against a certain hitter. But for the most part, our pitchers will dictate that for us because they understand how they’re going to go about trying to get them out.”
It’s an interesting concept, and perhaps somewhat unique to the Nationals because of the dominant pitching staff they’ve assembled. Because they’ve got a rotation full of pitchers with above-average command, they can afford to move their infielders around based more on what kind of pitch is being thrown and where it’s being thrown than on the identity of the batter at the plate.
“We have all the information that we want to have,” Williams said. “We have tendencies, and years and years of those tendencies, that we can look at. But ultimately, it comes down to the guy that holds the ball, and if he wants a guy in a certain spot, we’re going to put that guy in that spot and make him comfortable out there when he takes the mound.”
The Nationals allowed the fewest runs in the National League -- the Mariners allowed one fewer run -- so it's easy to assume everything is working fine and there's no need to suddenly start going all crazy with the shifts. But would more shifting help the Nationals prevent more runs?
Let's look at the results against ground balls. The Nationals allowed a .246 average on grounders -- 15th in the majors and 10th-best in the NL. The article mentions that Doug Fister is the only big ground ball guy among the starters, and the Nationals did rank 11th in the NL in the total number of ground balls allowed, with 1,909, about 200 fewer than the top teams (the Rockies and Pirates). Against left-handed batters (most shifts are against left-handers), the Nationals allowed a .245 average -- tied with the Brewers for 11th best and well behind the Giants' .204 mark. So while the data suggest the Nationals pitch to their defense, there's no obvious evidence that the Nationals are doing better because of this level of skill or expertise or whatever label you want to put to it.
Here, a quick chart with each NL team's average on all grounders, total shifts on balls in play and batting average allowed on grounders against left-handed hitters:
If the Nationals had allowed hits against lefties at the same rate as the Giants, they would have allowed 172 hits on grounders instead of the 207 they did allow, or one fewer hit every 3.6 games.
Of course, that doesn't account for the defensive abilities of the infielders. Baseball Info Solutions rates the Giants' first basemen, second basemen and shortstops at a collective plus-13 Defensive Runs Saved, the Nationals' players at those positions at -1. Asdrubal Cabrera, in particular, had a very poor rating after coming over from Cleveland and playing second base.
The Giants are also the extreme example here. The NL average on grounders hit by left-handers was .236, so compared to league average the Nationals only allowed about eight more hits than expected.
Baseball Info Solutions has its own estimates for runs saved via shifting. The Giants and Cardinals tied for the NL lead at 12 runs. The Nationals saved one. So assuming the pitchers wouldn't be mentally affected in some way, the Nationals would likely save several runs by shifting more often.
In the big picture, maybe it's not a big deal. But don't fool yourself: Nationals' pitchers don't have any special ability to induce ground balls to a specific area on the diamond. Most grounders are hit up the middle or pulled.
I think back to the first game of the Division Series against the Giants when Stephen Strasburg got dinged to death and allowed eight hits in five innings in a 3-2 loss, including this RBI single by Brandon Belt. What if the Nationals had used a shift there?