clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Washington Nationals' defense shifts into gear: Nats shifting more under Dusty Baker regime

The Washington Nationals have used the shift more often than ever this year. And it's helped.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Over two years ago, we looked at a pretty limited example of how the Washington Nationals shifted on defense, and what the implications could be for the 2014 season. To summarize the terrifically boring article, here's what I wrote:

Ultimately, I don't think there's a prime takeaway in the sense of, "how much better the team could have been in 2013 if they shifted more" or "how much better they will be in 2014 when they do," but instead my goal was to illustrate how both shifting more and shifting successfully (so to speak) can help.

One of the reasons for this lukewarm take was that shift data wasn't really publicly available, so much of the article was equal parts speculation and mathematical guesswork--just the sort of thing that lights up the page views.

Thankfully, though, the team at FanGraphs has published shift data going back to 2010. It's cool stuff, and helps show how far the team's defense has come over the past couple years.

Backing up a moment: It's well known to fans around here that, in past seasons, the Nationals haven't set the world on fire defensively.

And while the Washington defense has never kept them from achieving regular season success, it's easy to imagine better performance adding up to a few more outs (and wins) throughout the year.

Some national news writers noticed earlier this year that the Nats' D was fueling the team's hot start.

As Eddie Matz wrote for ESPN just about a month ago, "there’s something to be said for playing mistake-free baseball and catching the ones you’re supposed to catch." Washington skipper Dusty Baker chimed in, telling Matz:

"I’m surprised when they don’t catch the ball . . . . Because these guys work at it. These guys really, really work. My teams catch the ball."

Of course, it's a heck of a lot easier to catch the ball when you're in position to field it. That brings us to the shift.

Below, I've listed the percentage of overall at-bats where the Nats shifted for the last 4 seasons, followed by how hitters fared against the shift. Check it out:

% shifted

So, yea--through the first part of the year, the Nationals are on pace to shift far more often than they ever have in the past. In 2013, the team faced 75 batters while shifted.

In 2014, the number rose to 243, and last season, the number topped out at 416. Yet, less than 2 months this season, the Nationals have already shifted on 275 hitters. They'll likely eclipse their 2015 season high by mid-June!

Shifting is one thing, of course, but you and I could shift all day and still not turn batted balls into outs. How have the Nationals done with the shift? Pretty well.

The following table shows batting average against for all MLB teams when the shift is used this season. Note the Nats' placement (denoted with BA against/above their value):

MLB BA shift

Washington ranks 7th in baseball by batting average against the shift, and if wOBA is your thing, they are a spot better, placing 6th in the bigs.

Interestingly, their fiercest competitors in the NL East are also making outs better than league average when shifting, as the Mets rank 3rd and the Phillies 5th by batting average against.

Taking a broader view of the team's defensive performance, I put together a comparison of defensive efficiency, fielding percentage, and total batters shifted each year since 2013.

As a refresher, defensive efficiency measures the percentage of balls in play converted into outs, and fielding percentage shows how often the team makes an error.

There's a clear line of improvement since 2013 that has helped D.C. turn more batted balls into outs, which in turn puts them in better position to win:

Def. Eff. Rating

Field %

Shift Batters Faced


.691 (18)

.982 (24)



.691 (14)

.984 (15)



.685 (21)

.985 (16)



.707 (7)

.990 (1)


There are all kinds of defensive numbers, to be sure, but most of those seem to agree that D.C. is playing above average with the glove (on the advanced side, the team is sporting the 7th best UZR/150).

Here's an in-game example of what we're talking about. Traditionally, MLB clubs have shifted lumbering, power-hitting lefties (Ryan Howard, for example).

But as unique defensive alignments become more commonplace, even right-handed hitters are facing special positioning.

Here, against the Cubs and Kris Bryant earlier this month, the Nationals shaded Daniel Murphy further up the middle than usual, knowing Bryant goes pull side or up the middle over 80% of the time this year. It paid off:

bryant shift

In fact, this actually ended up saving a run, as Tommy LaStella was stranded on third base when Anthony Rizzo popped out the next at-bat.

When we look back on a (hopefully) successful season, this is an example of one of those "little things" that add up to runs saved and wins chalked up.

It's not just the players executing, though.

Washington's defensive success this year is an organization-wide synergy.

In a great piece by James Wagner (also on April 26), the WaPo writer quotes assistant general manager of player personnel Doug Harris discussing how the overhauled defensive approach goes from the front office to the minor league system.

"The thing that we’re proudest about: This effort was really a combination of our analytics department as well as our player development and major league staff all coming together and putting this plan in together . . . . We went layer by layer. A few of us had it early on and whittled it down. It was a group of men in a room and we sorted the information and there were certain things that were important to us. [Minor League field coordinator] Jeff [Garber] ultimately drew up the blueprint, and it’s what’s being used across the board in the organization."

To be sure, the NL East promises to be a season-long fight. But the Nationals have come equipped to maximize their odds of success by picking it as well as they ever have.