Defensive Shifts Part III: The Blue Jays Use of Brett Lawrie
Toronto manager John Farrell is now in his 2nd season at the helm of a big league team, and has proven to be a very adept and talented manager, particularly when it comes to the deployment of his defense. For most of the season the Blue Jays have ranked in the top 5 as one of the shiftiest teams in baseball. In terms of defensive efficiency, which analyzes the percentage of balls put into play that are converted into outs, the Jays rank 7th in baseball, turning batted balls into outs an excellent 70.3% of the time. In terms of Defensive Runs Saved, which is calculated by the very smart people at Baseball Info Solution and used to determine Baseball-Reference.com’s formula for Wins Above Replacement, the Jays have saved the most runs in baseball and it’s not even close. Toronto is credited with 81 total defensive runs saved, while the two next closest teams, the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, have each been credited with 34 runs saved. Toronto has solid defenders all around the diamond, and John Farrell has been able to accentuate that with his shifts, particularly his use of Brett Lawrie.
Lawrie normally spends most of his nights (or afternoons) in the vicinity of 3rd base, but will generally roam all over the infield and will even make the occasional foray into the outfield. Against multiple left-handed hitting opponents this season, Lawrie has been moved to play in short right field, posing as a 4th outfielder. Here’s a screenshot I captured of Lawrie against the Marlins on, demonstrating position as the pitch is thrown.
I’ve never seen a team play an infielder that deep and that far toward the line, and I can’t find any record of a team ever positioning a player their, so it’s probably a never before used tactic being employed by Farrell. And it has occasionally worked too. Check out this highlight from a May 22nd game with Luke Scott up to bat for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Scott will get a bloop single if he hits that exact same pitch and this shift isn’t being deployed. It may be just one hit, but that could potentially be the difference between a rally-opening single or a 1-2-3 quick inning. This defense works on a hitter with a profile like Luke Scott for a couple of reasons. Scott hits fly balls 37 % of the time he puts the ball in play, he’s very prone to striking out (20% of all plate appearances), and when he does hit the ball he never, ever hits it where a 3rd baseman would normally play, as evidenced by his spray chart:
Farrell has been moving Lawrie over to the right side of the infield, rather than shifting his entire defense, reasoning that he might as well leave the shortstop where he is the most comfortable. This is also intelligent because it keeps 2 of the 4 infielders in their normal positions, cutting down on the potential for confusion, while allowing the shortstop, normally the best fielder on any given team, to be responsible for the largest amount of terrain. It also helps that the Blue Jays have a defensively gifted, rangy shortstop in Yunel Escobar.
The Blue Jays also play Lawrie radically in the traditional Ted Williams/David Ortiz shift. In a series against the Los Angeles Angels earlier this season, Lawrie was able to take a couple of hits away from Kendrys Morales, including this spectacular diving catch in right field. This is normally where most teams move their 2nd baseman when they play this type of shift, but Farrell understands that his two strongest defenders are Escobar and Lawrie, so again he positions them to cover the greatest amount of field. This is very intelligent managing and its a surprise that more managers don’t look to implement such a shift.
This is also causing the good folks over at Baseball-Reference and BIS some issues however, because Lawrie is grading out as the best player in baseball due to his defense. He’s got the best bWAR in baseball at 4.8 due to the 3.5 defensive WAR he has been credited with this season. Baseball-Reference.com head Sean Forman said as much in a post I wrote two weeks ago. They also said they are working on some tweaks to their formula, and we will probably see an update based on Farrell’s use of Lawrie, which is pretty darn cool.