In the next couple of weeks, it will begin.
With the ferocious intensity of an NFL defensive coordinator, Red Sox third base coach and infield instructor Brian Butterfield will station himself in front of a computer hours before dawn in an effort to design the defensive alignments the Red Sox will employ against the Phillies for the first series of the season.
The pursuit is one that Butterfield embraces as a vocation. Growing up in Maine, he took delight in games where offense was at a premium.
“I’ve never been a big fan of the Arena Football League or Arena Baseball League,” said Butterfield. “I like 2-1, I like 17-13 football, I like low-scoring hockey.”
With defensive shifts, most dramatically the deployments where three infield defenders reside on one side of second base, Butterfield feels he has an opportunity to contribute. The possibility of having a small imprint in turning a potential two-run single into a groundout offers ample motivation for the start of a morning shift in darkness.
And so it was that the offseason conversation about whether to regulate shifts made Butterfield queasy. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, in his first interview in his new job, offered a candid, off-the-cuff suggestion that it might be appropriate for his sport to look at whether regulating shifts was an appropriate response to a drastic decline in offense.
Manfred has since backtracked, saying that he was thinking aloud rather than advocating a rules change. On Friday, at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, he noted that Major League Baseball is exploring whether the drop in runs is a new reality or a statistical blip before he considers the possibility of rules changes meant to incite more runs.
“Until we reach a conclusion that it’s a downward trend [in offense],” said Manfred, “we’re probably not going to do anything on this front.”
Still, his mere mention of the possibility of regulating shifts created a swirl of dialogue that proved sufficient to make smoke come out of Butterfield’s ears.
“When I even hear conversations about [getting rid of shifts], I walk away,” said Butterfield. “Whenever I see people talk about pace of play and more points or more runs, it bothers me. I like defense. It bothers me. When they even talk about a possibility of saying you can’t stand in a certain place, I’m not in agreement with that at all. I think it’s up to the offensive player to make the adjustment. It’s up to the hitter to make the adjustment with three men to the pull side.”
But in many instances power hitters are loathe to do that. Their swings are built to drive the ball over the fence to the pull side.
Conceivably, they could diversify and start shooting more singles to the left side, but doing so would come at the expense of their foremost money-making skill. Moreover, the idea of having David Ortiz tearing around the bases after a single has … somewhat more limited value than it might for a player who moves in something other than station-to-station fashion.
“That’ll be like saying, ‘I want to go back to be 20 again.’ Know what I mean? Can’t compete against that,” Ortiz said about adapting his hitting approach to beat the shift. “That’s something that I would worry about eight, nine years ago, but not now. Too old for that [expletive].”
That said, Ortiz has often lamented the volume of hits he’s lost to the shift. Butterfield is mindful of the impact shifts have had on the slugger, even as he cannot quantify it precisely.
“Sometimes I will see paperwork from our people upstairs that will say we’ve taken away a certain amount of hits. I know it’s always been a useful vehicle,” said Butterfield. “I just think of my time in Toronto defensing David Ortiz, one of the greatest hitters of all time. I can tell you for a fact, it’s probably close to triple digits, the number of hits [he’s lost]. If we had two men on the pull side, he would’ve worn us out. He probably would have been close to a .400 hitter.”
Of course, that characterization is something of an exaggeration. Last year, for instance, Ortiz hit .263 in 518 plate appearances; to surpass .400, he would have required 71 additional hits. In 2007 – before shifts had become so commonplace – he hit a career-high .332, and would have needed 37 additional hits to reach .400.
Still, Butterfield isn’t alone in thinking that shifts have removed a certain class of offensive performer from the game.
“I think the shift has killed the 30-home run, .320 lefthanded hitter,” Mets GM Sandy Alderson said at the Sloan Conference.
It is indeed worth noting that no big league hitter since 2011 has combined a .320 average and 30 homers (Jacoby Ellsbury was the last to accomplish that trick). That three-season gap is the longest since a five-year absence of lefthanded, 30-homer, .320 hitters from 1988-92.
But are shifts really the primary agent of suppression? There were 3,615 fewer runs scored last year than in 2004, a drop of 15.5 percent. Of those, John Dewan of Baseball Information Solutions (one of the foremost analysts of defense and shifts) estimated that shifts are responsible for about 195 runs saved per team across baseball – which would represent roughly 5.4 percent of the decline in runs scored over the last decade.
The use of shifts has indeed exploded. Dewan and Baseball Information Solutions charted 13,296 uses of it last year – an increase of 464 percent from just three years earlier.
But for a shift to stop runs from being scored, a ball has to be put into play, it has to be put into play on the ground, and it has to be put into play on the ground in a particular location where a fielder is standing in which he would not have been standing but for the shift. All of those layers water down its impact considerably in comparison to, say, the fact that strikeout rates have shot up by about 17 percent (from 6.6 per nine innings to 7.7 per nine) over the last decade.
Nonetheless, the impact of shifts is real. If teams can prevent, on average, 6.5 runs per year from being scored (topped by the Astros, whose shifts resulted in 27 runs saved, according to Dewan), that might mean an extra one to three wins in a year – potentially marking the difference that can determine making the playoffs or going home.
That is why Butterfield’s alarm clock is about to start going off earlier, in an effort to design the deployments that may prove particularly impactful this year behind a rotation that features five groundball pitchers in Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Joe Kelly, and Justin Masterson. That group gives Butterfield a chance to make an impact in a way that means a great deal to him.
“I love it,” he said of plotting the shifts behind his rotation. “I can’t wait.”