The Cardinals Need To Get More Shifty


The St. Louis Cardinals are 34 games into their 2019 season. Small sample sizes could be prevalent here.


The club entered 2019 with a new manager (Mike Shildt) at the helm; a manager who was supposed to make huge sweeping changes when compared to his predecessor (Mike Matheny). I, personally, believe he has done that quite well (meaning both having done it and making positive changes) in terms of the culture of the clubhouse.


The club entered 2019 with a new pitching coach (Mike Maddux) in place for his second season; a pitching coach who was supposed to make huge sweeping changes in terms of getting pitchers to believe in having shifts behind them and pitching to it compared to his predecessor (Derek Lilliquist).


The 2019 Cardinals, when it comes to shifting, are the same old Cardinals.

In 2016, MLB shifted on 13.8% of all plate appearances (PA). That broke down to a shift on just 6.4% of all right-handed hitter (RHH) PAs and 24.2% of the time to left-handed hitters (LHH).


The Matheny and Lilliquist led Cardinals shifted the 6th least often in baseball at just 7.8% of the time. They only shifted on RHH just 2.1% of the time and on LHH 16.1% of the time.


In 2017, MLB shifted 12.1% of the time (a drop!) that broke down as 5.2% to RHH and 22.1% to LHH.


The still Matheny and Lilliquist led Cardinals shifted the 2nd least often in baseball at just 2.9% of the time. They shifted RHH 0.6% of the time and LHH 5.7% of the time.


In 2018, MLB shifted 17.4% of the time (a big rise!) that broke down as 8.9% to RHH and 29.6% to LHH.


The Matheny (+Shildt) and Maddux led Cardinals shifted the 2nd least often in baseball again at just 4.4% of the time. They shifted RHH 1.9% and LHH 6.8%.

So far in 2019 the St. Louis Cardinals, under Shildt and Maddux again, are shifting at a rate much higher than prior seasons. They are shifting 10.1% of the time overall, with RHH only facing a 2.1% shift rate, but with LHH facing a shift 20.0% of the time! That seems like a ginormous change.


When you compare it to the league, however, they are dead last in baseball in shift percentage this season (tied with the Red Sox). MLB has shifted on 24.6% of all plate appearances in 2019. 13.9% of PA to RHH have seen a defensive shift and 40.6% of all PA to LHH have seen one. The league-leading team in shifts is the Houston Astros, with 51.3% of the opposition plate appearances seeing a defensive shift. They've shifted opposing LHH 79.8% of the time.


Now, I'm not going to say that only the good teams are shifting or only the bad teams aren't. The St. Louis Cardinals have been one of the best teams in baseball this season so far. They've had their bad moments in series at Milwaukee and at Chicago this past weekend. The Astros are atop the shifting board with 20 wins and Minnesota is 3rd in shifting with 20 wins and Milwaukee is 4th in shifting with 20 wins already as well. Who is second, though? The Baltimore Orioles. They already have 22 losses. Who else shifts a lot? The Marlins shift the 5th most often (worst record in baseball) and the Royals shift the 7th most often (2nd most losses in baseball).


Part of it has to be knowing how and when to shift. The thing that gets me riled up about all this is that the Cardinals seemingly DO know when and how to shift - and well.


When the Cardinals do not shift in 2019, the opposition has hit .236 (batting average or BA) with a .443 slugging percentage (SLG). Here is how they do with multiple types of shifts (listing BA and SLG):


no shift: .236/.443

ALL shifts: .217/.434

infield shift only: .200/.364

strategic OF shift only: .178/.397


This is NOT a one month blip, either. From 2016-2018, Cardinals pitching allowed an overall .252 batting average against and .397 SLG against. Now take a look at their lines with multiple types of shifts again, remembering that this is a 3-year sample:


no shift: .257/.403

ALL shifts: .234/.371

infield shift only: .218/.374

strategic OF shift only: .202/.327

St. Louis Cardinals front office and on field staff: I know you probably have MUCH better data than I can find on the internet...but moving forward, please just use that data to aid you as often as possible. It doesn't seem that you are - it seems you're falling behind the league quite quickly and quite often in this aspect of in-game strategy.


Thank you to everyone who made it through this very data-driven post. Thank you to Baseball Savant and their wonderful search feature for all of the data above. Thank you to @nchill17 for his work on the cover art.