Scott, Johnson & The Double Clutch Shift
When listening to a recent episode of Effectively Wild, Baseball Prospectus‘ daily podcast, a thought stuck with me. While discussing team batting average with runners in scoring position, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller noted that some teams, and hitters, may have certain advantages over others aside from just having more raw talent.
Lindberg and Miller specifically referenced left-handed batters avoiding the shift. The belief is these hitters may benefit from defensive positioning with runners on base because the hole between second base and first base – their pull zone – becomes a little wider as defenders have to worry about holding runner, receiving pickoff throws, or setting up for double plays. If a team has multiple lefties routinely coming to the plate with men in scoring position, and those hitters can exploit the gap in defensive coverage, then in theory this team might have a higher than average mark with runners in scoring position.
The league average line with RISP this season is .254/.335/.387. The Cardinals are nearly lapping the field with a line of .328/.404/.455. In the American League, the highly talented Tigers led by Miguel Cabrera set the pace at .285/.362/.460. As shocking as it may seem, right behind them is the Rays, who have hit .278/.351/.412 as a collective. This after Tampa Bay ranked 26th in hitting with RISP from 2010-2012.
Wil Myers – and his knack for big moments – paces the Rays with runners in scoring position. Of his 63 overall hits, 20 have come with RISP (.364). Behind Myers, in terms of average, is not Evan Longoria, not Ben Zobrist, and not Matt Joyce either. Rather a trio of lefties: Kelly Johnson, James Loney, and Luke Scott that have helped put the Rays near the top of league.
Myers is one of the supreme talents in the game. It is no surprise to see him excel in any category when it comes to hitting a baseball. James Loney has fantastic contact skills and bat control that allow him to hit to all fields. Meanwhile, Johnson and Scott, though they both possess power, are not necessarily the most refined or naturally gifted hitters. Perhaps they possess a clutch gene that is unseen to the naked eye or in a box score. Or maybe the two left-hander are taking advantage of spacing.
Like most left-handed batters, Johnson and Scott enjoy hitting to their pull-side or to right field. With the shift becoming commonplace some of their groundballs that would normally rolled through the hole for a hit have become routine 4-3 putouts.
Admittedly, this is were the sampling will get a bit narrower.The league has not treated Johnson as extremely as others, but you will see the occassional defender graze over to the right side with the bases empty. The league average for left-handed hitters on pulled groundballs is .225. Johnson comes in above that at .278. With men on base, and a more traditional defense in most cases, it jumps to .364.
The shift has become customary for most of Luke Scott’s plate appearances. On groundballs to the right side with the bases empty, he has just one hit this season. Meanwhile, with runners on base, he has five hits on the same batted-ball type.
Correlation does not imply causation. That said, it would seem as if at least some of Scott and Johnson’s success (and clutchness) with runners in scoring position is a partial product of the defense being unable to correctly defend the type of ball they enjoy hitting.
Common sense says Rays’ manager Joe Maddon should tailor his lineup to feed hitters like Myers and Evan Longoria. At the same time, setting up the order in a way that also highlights the strength of lesser, naturally gifted hitters is important as well. In a perfect world scenario, Maddon places Scott and Johnson in spots* where they bat behind players with higher on-base percentages. This should decrease the number of opportunies opposing managers have to throw on the shift while increasing the likelihood of a ball hit to the right side sneaking through a hole that previously was not there.
*Maddon has used Johnson and Scott in the second spot in the order several times and used a similar tactic with Carloa Pena last season.
Data courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info