The White Sox are shifting more, but to little effect

Rick Hahn loves to mention the 2021 Atlanta Braves’ stunning second-half turnaround as a reason to not give up on the 2022 White Sox. In fact, he just did it again in Scott Merkin’s latest newsletter.

During our 10-minute conversation, Hahn pointed to the Atlanta Braves, a franchise he often mentioned as a model during the rebuild – not only their path to the 2021 World Series championship but their run of 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005.

“Last year you saw an Atlanta team that scuffled for a good four-plus months,” Hahn said. “They wound up as the [third] seed, they were hot at the right time, and went on a run and won a championship.

Indeed, the Braves won the same amount of games in each half (44), even though the second half featured 17 fewer opportunities. When their divisional lead was whittled down to a half-game on Sept. 18, they finished the season going 12-2, including a three-game sweep that buried the Phillies for good.

However, the Braves didn’t suddenly just realize their talent and click into place. They drastically increased their amount of defensive shifting, going from a team that never did it over the first two months of the season to a team that shifted half the time. The White Sox remained in the bottom five throughout the entire season.

The difference in defensive effectiveness between teams during the White Sox’s four-game loss to Houston in the ALDS heightened the focus on this particular number, and Hahn said the number of shifts didn’t determine the effectiveness of defensive alone.

And it turns out he’s right, although not in the way he wanted.


These White Sox aren’t just sitting back and hoping a Bravening happens to them. In fact, they’re following the Atlanta playbook pretty closely in this regard.

Like last year’s Braves, the White Sox have steadily cranked up the shifting dial over the course of the season, at least when dividing up Statcast’s tracking of percentage of pitches thrown with a shifted defense.

As a result, they’ve shifted nearly twice as often this year (from 20.9 percent to 39.4 percent), and they’ve risen in the league rankings accordingly (27th to 10th).

There’s just no evidence that it’s working particularly well, or at least not enough to make an impact on season-long numbers.

Baseball Info Solutions, the company that Hahn cited for the data on raw shift totals and hits saved, released a leaderboard on runs saved by infield positioning via a post by Mark Simon. Despite a major surge in shifting, the White Sox are tied for the third-worst results in baseball with only seven runs saved.

Unfortunately, the SIS database isn’t publicly searchable like Statcast’s information is, so there’s a risk in mashing together two data sets into one table when they may have slightly different definitions of what constitutes a shift. I’d imagine this gives you a general shape of the correlation, but we can revisit it at the end of the year if the two companies vary wildly.

TeamShift%DRS-IP
Blue Jays54.716
Dodgers53.132
Astros49.424
Mariners48.319
Marlins45.314
Twins44.114
Mets43.412
Cubs42.67
Angels40.215
White Sox39.47

Without the ability to track progress for DRS or related stats over the course of the season, I thought that maybe there might be some sort of shift in the BABIP allowed by White Sox pitchers. That, too, is a dead end, because May is the only outlier.

  • April: .301
  • May: .311
  • June: .298
  • July: .293
  • August: .296

Last year’s Sox pitchers ranged from .271 to .313 when divided monthly, and this year’s White Sox hitter BABIPs have varied from .246 to .351, to get an idea of how wide the spectrum can get.

Anyway, when looking at batted balls that fit the bill — base hits or errors against the White Sox while they’re shifting, maximum launch angle of 10 degrees — you get the expected variety pack of shift-conquering rockets, soft tappers, makeable-but-mishandled plays, and, yes, ordinary grounders through vacated spaces. The raw numbers don’t tell you much, though, because it basically correlates with how much a team is shifting. There aren’t major differences in percentages (probably because Aaron Bummer has been hurt most of the year), so it takes a lot more mining to distinguish teams.

Simon writes that the characteristics of the teams that fare the best in Defensive Runs Saved: Infield Positioning Edition have a reliable-to-excellent shortstop, and positioning can help make up shortfalls elsewhere. Well, DRS says the White Sox are getting the third-worst shortstop play in baseball this year (-12), and second base is the only position that isn’t underwater. Josh Harrison is the only infield defender who has graded about above average this year and hoisted his position into good standing, and even then, he’s biffed a number of plays this month.

(If you’re wondering about Yoán Moncada, he’s been above-average personally, but hasn’t logged enough innings to overcome the damage Jake Burger inflicted. )


Last season, Moncada and Tim Anderson both turned in sturdy showings on the left side of the infield while playing the bulk of the year, which would explain why SIS says the White Sox got more out of their shifts last year, even though they barely shifted compared to this season.

Ideally, the White Sox would’ve been able to run last year’s players with this year’s strategy to get a stronger sense of whether the coaching staff indeed has the goods to put players in a better position. Unfortunately, this year’s White Sox featured too much Burger at third, an Anderson hampered by a groin issue, and episodes of shaky hands for José Abreu, so it might be a wasted sample size on the whole.

That’s not to say the rest of the season is a lost cause. For all we know, the addition of Elvis Andrus might give the White Sox the stablest infield they’ve had all year. With injury eliminating the other serious options, the infield is basically fixed with Moncada at third, Andrus at short, Harrison at second, and Abreu at first. Moncada was certainly in the right spot on Wednesday for what might be the most important defensive play of the season.

In fact, that play makes me feel slightly reluctant to publish this post now, as though I’m incapable of reading the room. Ultimately, it’s still worth talking about, and it’s possible to spin it in a more positive fashion, even swimming against cynical tides.

POINT: Here’s some evidence that the White Sox are trying not to make the same mistake in consecutive years.

COUNTERPOINT: Maybe they’re just rushing headlong into a different problem of their own creation?

POINT: OK, still, let’s just pin the numbers where they are, because maybe this experienced and stable infield will produce better results the rest of the way.

COUNTERPOINT: What a great point.

It just requires some cooperation on the health front. As long as Anderson and Leury García are out, it’s incumbent on the regulars to remain regulars. If the ranks are reduced to an infield with Burger and Lenyn Sosa leading the way on the left side, the world’s finest spray charts and 1½ seconds of advance notice wouldn’t be enough to close the gap.

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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a-t

When legs suffer, the whole team suffers. Ironic that the guy that came into spring training saying that he emphasized working his legs to improve durability in the offseason (Giolito) has been tripped up by other things.

Side note on Kopech and his knee/hammy issue: Tommy John surgery these days usually replaces the torn UCL in the throwing arm with a tendon from the pitcher’s opposite side hamstring. It’s known to make pitchers somewhat more vulnerable to related issues on that plant leg. So not a unique thing to Kopech. The antidote is to give special attention when training (esp in offseason) to that landing leg’s hammy. Hard to say if the cause is the training staff’s ineptitude or the training staff being unable to contact players for most of the offseason.

Wayne

Good point. Maybe they need to go back to cadaver UCLs or Hamstrings?

GrinnellSteve

Cadaver Night at Guaranteed Rate Field!

As Cirensica

Seby Zavala is again the catcher today. He has been productive, but I find it curious how La Russa is hiding Carlos Perez as much as possible. Perez has been up for 4 days? and he hasn’t had a single PA

metasox

Learning that Grandal shouldn’t be out long, La Russa and staff may have decided it isn’t worth putting too much effort into Perez – rushing to learn the pitchers, etc. But veteran Cueto tomorrow might be a good way to get his feet wet

Last edited 29 days ago by metasox
As Cirensica

Now, onto the article. I agree with Jim that the lack of infield stability (injuries, too much Burger, etc) might cause the data to not be representative of what the current infield might be capable of doing now that we have Andrus and a healthy Moncada. It will be very interesting to see what role will La Russa give to Elvis once Anderson is back.

upnorthsox

Interesting question as you have 2 players who have never played a single inning at any other position besides SS. Either that will change or one will be sitting I guess.

T Cods

Since presumably the 1st batters for whom you would shift are the most “shift-worthy”, it should be expected that the marginal benefits of shifting would go down as you started shifting for more batters. In other words, the largest gains for shifting would be expected to result from shifting for the most predictable hitters… as you expand from those hitters to others, the benefits of shifting reduce and more randomness comes into play.

Foulkelore

That point/counterpoint conversation ends just like every other Twitter/internet argument. The person arguing is convinced by a logical statment and admits it is a great point.

metasox

Social media has fostered such fantastic societal advancement

As Cirensica

Think for a minute how one gets breaking news these days? Thru Twitter mostly. All baseball related news, etc. Sometimes I wonder that not long ago I relied on printed newspapers, radio or the evening news to learn about things…nowadays it is almost instantly.

ParisSox

I don’t have a Twitter account and I get along just fine. Maybe I learn about things several hours or days afterward but I’m no worse for it and probably better off for it. I digest news on my time and not on twitter’s time.

Now get off my lawn!

a-t

let’s go Mariners love da M’s

lifelongjd

Someone should remind Rick that Atlanta traded for Pederson, Rosario, Duvall, and WS MVP Jorge Soler at the deadline and he picked up (checks notes) Jake Diekman this year. What a clown show

soxfan

That ISO tho…😬

LamarJohnson

I just realized the Sox offense is built like the ‘82 Cardinals, except they play on grass in a ballpark built for HR, are quite slow in the aggregate, and play bad defense. And their skipper was managing the Sox at that time 40 years ago.