Notice how many of Freddie Freeman’s at-bats this season result in hard-hit line drives, which are then immediately swallowed by the defense for a soul-crushing out? You can almost see the glimmer of hope die in Freddie’s eyes as he turns back towards the dugout with a disappointed head-shake. Why is our reigning NL MVP putting so many balls in play that look great off the bat, but then immediately wilt into unproductive outs? A caught line drive will not advance base runners under any circumstances, and carries a severe risk of a double play, so from a purely tactical perspective it’s worse than a strikeout. Despite Freeman’s impressive average exit velocity of 92 mph, ranked 18th in the MLB, he’s been coming up empty on many of his hardest hit balls.
I think there’s a pretty clear explanation for this phenomenon, and the best piece of evidence is to contrast Freeman’s spray charts for hits between the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Below is the 2020 hits spray chart. Note that this does not show balls-in-play, but just hits:
The distribution clearly shows that in 2020, Freddie got hits all over the ballpark in roughly equal amounts. This does not mean that a batted ball to the right side of the field resulted in a hit as frequently as one batted to the left, because this chart does not indicate the proportions of balls-in-play that turn into hits; rather, the chart only indicates that Freeman had a roughly even scattering of hits. Note the cluster of 4-5 hits that landed in mid-to-shallow right field: that will be important later. On the other hand, shown here is Freddie’s hit spray chart for the 2021 season, through 6/3/21:
Notice how empty the right side of the field is? You can draw a straight line from home plate to the “375” label in right-center, and see only two non-home-run hits to the right of that imaginary line, both of which were right down the foul line. Now there are two possible explanations for the lack of hits in this area: the first is that Freddie is no longer pulling the ball, which is not entirely false. His 2020 pull percentage was 39%, and in 2021 it’s currently 29%; however, the quantity of home runs on the right side of the field indicates that Freddie’s not having too many issues pulling. The other explanation is that Freddie is still cranking the ball all over the field, but the defenses are somehow… better this season. Specifically, more and more defenses are shifting, and the shifts themselves are evolving. In 2020, defenses shifted against Freddy 68.4% of the time, according to https://baseballsavant.mlb.com. In 2021, that number is up to 77.3%. By looking at the spray chart, you can see that these shifts have effectively cut off Freddie’s most powerful ⅓ of the field.
However, teams aren’t just shifting more; they’re also shifting better. What makes a shift better? Well, for as long as the shift has been around, defenses have shifted primarily to account for anticipated batting direction, based on the notion that left-handed hitters tend to pull the ball to the right side of the field. (The default fielding orientation could be considered a “shift” that accounts for the tendencies of right-handed hitters.) However, in very recent years, defenses have also begun shifting for anticipated velocity in addition to expected direction. They specifically do this by placing an infielder in shallow right field rather than somewhere along the edge of the grass between first and second base. As an example, seen here is a 2018 shift used by the Astros, who have long been on the forefront of applying advanced analytics to baseball, before of course venturing into the blatantly illegal area of, shall we say, “real-time film analysis.”
What separates this from a traditional left-handed shift is how far back Correa, the shortstop, is playing. Rather than standing at the edge of the grass somewhere between first and second base, he’s legitimately in shallow right field, prepared to catch any line drives that may come that way. This extra depth in shifts serves to mitigate one of Freddie’s key strengths: exit velocity. The average ball in play that comes off of Freddie’s bat travels at 92 mph, and he often hits line drives at over 100 mph. For a 100 mph line drive, an infielder who is playing 20 feet farther back than normal will gain an extra 0.14 seconds of reaction time due to that distance. While that extra 0.14 seconds won’t do a damn thing to prevent me from pulling my hamstring diving for the ball, to an MLB infielder that amount of time is the difference between catching a line drive in midair and watching it sail over your head for a base hit.
More teams than ever are using analytics and ingenuity to perfectly position their players in custom alignments based on the tendencies of each individual hitter. The more traditionally-coached Braves did not start using shifts this aggressive or unorthodox until this season, in which they’ve often put a third baseman out in shallow right field against high-velocity lefties. Another non-traditional defensive alignment we’ve seen a bit this season is Tampa Bay’s four-outfielder strategy against batters who have a very high fly-ball percentage, or in tight situations where any ball that touches the ground in the outfield would lose the game. The vast majority of teams are no longer afraid to try an unorthodox alignment, because the effectiveness of the velocity-based shifts has been made clear over the past few seasons. Unfortunately, hard-hitting lefties like Freddie are suffering the most from it, because you will not often see an equivalent overcompensation for velocity in the default orientation against right-handed hitters. Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees’ right-handed DH who often tormented the Braves during his stint in Miami, is the hardest-hitting player in the MLB right now, and probably in all of baseball history. (In the Statcast era, 12 balls league-wide have been hit harder than 120 mph, and Stanton has hit 10 of them.) However, you won’t often see a shortstop standing 15 feet deep in the outfield grass when Stanton’s at the plate. Instead, they often play at the edge of the dirt in a fairly normal orientation. While velocity is only one of the variety of hitting tendencies that determine where to position the fielders, meaning it’s not entirely accurate to draw defensive-alignment comparisons between Freeman and Stanton based solely on their exit velocity, it is at least worth noting that many hard-hitting right handers don’t get the same depth treatment as the lefties.
Are these creative, analytics-driven, velocity-mitigating shifts ruining the game of baseball? No. Instead, they’re doing something that hasn’t been done in a long time: making baseball defense interesting. It’s exciting to sometimes see five infielders, or four outfielders, or to see defenses line up in a way that exposes an entire half of the field. The whole point of playing defense is to prevent the other team from scoring in whatever legal way you can. The beauty of this game is that there are only three defensive requirements before any given pitch: one player must have his foot on the pitching rubber, one player must be located in the catcher’s box, and seven other players must be fully within fair territory. That’s it. The majority of baseball’s defensive strategy hinges on a team’s ability to position those 7 players in a way that minimizes the opponent’s ability to score runs. There have been a variety of proposals to reduce the aggressiveness or creativity of shifts, such as requiring four or more fielders to have at least one foot on the infield dirt before every pitch, and I think those proposals frankly make the game of baseball dumber. Any such proposal that seeks to reduce the opportunity for the defense to apply strategic thinking inherently hinders players and coaches from applying their baseball IQ and cognitive abilities. So while eliminating the shift would certainly let us see a lot more of Freddie’s million-dollar smiles, that alone is not worth the cost of making the game of baseball objectively less strategic.
As for Freddie? He’ll be fine. He’s still batting around 0.230 with an OPS of 0.807, but getting out of this recent downward streak might require some tactical adjustments that necessitate sacrificing velocity for direction. While telling left-handed hitters “just learn not to pull the ball” is an oft-overused, oversimplified cliché used by ardent supporters of the shift, it does hold some merit. I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Freddie send a bunt or two towards the entirely open left side of the field, or try for some chip-shot infield hits. While hard-hit line drives can be great, getting runners on base is far more important than exit velocity, and when the defense tries to out-smart you, sometimes you just have to out-smart them right back.