The book: “The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinking”
The author: Russell A. Carleton
How to find it: Triumph Books, 368 pages, $19.95, released March 8.
The links: At Amazon.com, at the publishers website.
A review in 90-feet or less: Last May, former Dodger Gary Sheffield did a piece for The Players’ Tribune entitled “Commissioner for a Day,” in which he expounded on things he would do if he was in charge of the MLB.
On the topic of infield shifts, he went Stephen A. Smith and demanded they be banned.
“This whole thing with people playing out of position is all about the computer geeks. All this shifting comes from computer nerds who don’t play baseball. Teams have hired them because they think these guys understand the game, but they really don’t. They just go by the percentages. They have information on every at bat you’ve ever taken. Every one. Then they have these little printouts and they say, ‘Go stand over there.’
“That’s not baseball. That’s computer-geek ball. You have a position to play. So go play your position. You shouldn’t be allowed to play out of position. There is a reason why we have names for positions: third base, left field, shortstop, and so on. Those positions go way back. Those are real things that have been part of baseball forever.”
Fast forward to last Thursday’s Opening Day, as ESPN is televising the Astros-Rangers game from Arlington, Tex. In the bottom of the first with one out, the Astros defense goes into a version of a “Swan Lake” ballet, and when they’re done, they’ve created a four-man outfield and three-man right-side of the infield as the Rangers’ Joey Gallo comes to the plate (see above). He flies out on the first pitch. The official box score reads: “Gallo popped out to third.” Actually, third baseman Alex Bregman made the putout, playing left field.
“Why doesn’t Gallo bunt!” exclaims ESPN analyst and former Dodgers pitcher Rick Sutcliffe.
“Because he doesn’t bunt,” replies play-by-play partner Jon Sciambi. “It’s something he doesn’t do.”
“But he should!” Sutcliffe insists. “He has to!”
A discussion quickly going no where causes us to flash back to Chapter 5 of “The Shift,” entitled “Why Didn’t David Ortiz Just Bunt?” Between pages 139 and 170, the secret is out as to why Ortiz (or anyone) would or would not bunt if given the entire area of third base. We won’t give it away here, because there is some layers of complexity.
But basically, as Carleton writes:
“The question of why David Ortiz didn’t bunt is a tribute to how a seemingly simple question can sometimes have a very complicated answer. We need to consider both how humans should rationally behave and how humans are particularly averse to behaving rationally. … The shift itself is a lesson in unintended consequences. What started out as a simply ploy to put three defenders on one side of the infield for a couple of specific hitters grew into a movement. The data show that, on the whole, it changed the ways in which pitchers pitched and the effects of that canceled out most or all of the benefit that teams thought they were getting. When you change one part of the system, you change the whole system. There are always side effects.
“The most important lesson though, is that simple answers can sometimes mislead us. In baseball (and in life), there’s no shortage of simple theories about how the world works. Some of them are true, but you have to really dig in to find out which ones are which, and you have to be ready and willing to look at the entire system to figure it out. When you embrace the complexity of it all, you sometimes find out that the answer is now what you think.”
(Pause for one’s head to explode. Then note that a couple days later, Gallo homered to left against the same Astros’ shift.)
Carleton, a Baseball Prospectus contributor who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from DePaul, figures out how to both keep it simple and dive deep into this whole change in thinking baseball presents itself with.
For Dodgers’ fans, the argument against this whole shift thinking goes back to the 2015 NLCS against the New York Mets at Dodger Stadium when Corey Seager was caught out of position, allowing Daniel Murphy to go from second to third base on a walk without a play because everyone was out of position.
For baseball fans, the argument for this shift of thinking will be made clearer by reading Carleton’s approach to it. When you see how his work over the years has been endorsed by writers like Jeff Passan, Keith Law and Sam Miller, it all starts to make sense that he’s a baseball prophet who can dazzle one not just with how the stats support or disprove a theory, but why, after careful consideration, they should be embraced instead of dismissed.
As Carleton backs up the truck on the logical processing of information, we get this framework from Passan, author of the 2016 incredible baseball book called “The Arm,” in his introduction to “The Shift”:
“(Carleton) asks smarter questions than mainstream sportswriters and more empathetic ones than those dabbling in sabermetrics. He’s kind enough to warn readers of an impending dive into wonkiness and talented enough to guide them through without a misstep.”
In Carleton’s own introduction, he notes that baseball is basically “an odd activity when you look at it out of context.” And you can win at by playing by the rulebook, or by reading between the lines.
Starting with this shifty way of thinking.
“The infield shift has never been illegal,” he notes. “As teams began to shift more often, the shift itself became the focus of a moral debate. Was it cheating? If felt a little dirty. It was technically legal, but social norms do not take kindly to the word ‘technically.’ It’s easier to change the written rule than the unwritten ones. … What happens when someone tries to break the rules that aren’t written down or even spoken of? That’s where baseball becomes a thinking game.”
A generation of fans who grew up on video baseball games, where experimentation could be used when playing against the computer, even if they seemed ridiculous. Somehow, the craziness was filtered out and used in real life.
“I argue that baseball is going through its Skinnearian moment. For a long time, the way in which the public learned about baseball was through the news media. While beat writers have written ‘gamers’ recapping the actions of what happened in the game for ages, the game story has always included (and still does!) a quote or two from the game’s hero (or goat) … Baseball journalism may be fun to read, but it should never be mistaken for sound research methodology.”
The simplistic beauty of what Carleton presents here is letting us realize there are imperfections everywhere in life, and in baseball, where we always intend to be as perfect as possible. He says he approaches baseball “through the lens of dispassion. I’m a scientist, not a sportswriter. I’m purposefully short-circuiting the impulse to judge things on anything other than functional grounds. Sabermetrics, as defined by Bill James, the man who coined the term, is the search for objective truth about baseball. Science, by its very nature, has to be fearless. People can be wrong.”
He also notes later that in baseball, “we have to live with the fourth rule of probabilistic thinking. Sometimes you do everything right and it doesn’t work.” He also acknowledges there’s “a false sense of security that comes with ‘doing the numbers’ and maybe even one that can manifest itself as something like religious fervor. Numbers are especially comforting specifically because they place a level of separation between a person and a responsibility of giving bad advice.”
Sorry if we’ve gone heavy on Carleton’s own quotes, instead of our paraphrasing them. He just says it better.
And by the numbers as we see them here, it’s far from bad advice to recommend to everyone from Sheffield to Sutcliffe give this book a slow read. Take a chance. Expand your mind.
After all, the book is already named the No. 1 new release in paperback (and No. 2 in the Kindle edition) in the category of “Medical General Psychology” by Amazon.
Again, if it’s a sportswriter who once caused you to think a certain way, it’s probably time to fix that.
How it goes down in the scorebook: A 7-5-1 around-the-horn double play, as a result of the left fielder taking a grounder at third, throwing to the third baseman covering second, who then throws to the pitcher covering first. It’ll happen someday. Just wait.