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Rick Renteria’s enthusiasm extends to shifts

The White Sox nearly doubled their unusual defensive alignments, even as the league backed off

Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Managers are often hired as a direct reaction to the last one. Ozzie Guillen replaced Jerry Manuel in an attempt to light a fire under the team. Robin Ventura followed Ozzie Guillen to put a professional who prioritized the White Sox back at the helm after a messy divorce.

What Rick Renteria brought in Ventura’s absence can most easily be summed up “experience.” That’s a little imprecise given that Ventura had five years of his own history, but all experience isn’t created equal. Ventura didn’t have the instructions while trying to build his legacy. Five years in, he had parts left over, some drawers didn’t close, and under no circumstances should you put any weight on it.

With Renteria, the Sox installed a manager who had a better sense of how to install something, and with maybe a little more gusto. That’s not a guarantee Renteria would survive three seasons, but thanks to the tortured endings of the previous two administrations, I’d call the hiring a success if they could decide to move on at an appropriate time.

Beyond a more defined sense of authority, Renteria did have a detectable, countable impact in some areas of the White Sox. I’m waiting on some data before a full-fledged dissection of his first season, but FanGraphs tipped off one of the ways Renteria made his presence known in a post this morning.

Renteria had the White Sox shifting as much as anybody in 2017. His team deployed 1,490 shifts, which was only behind the Brewers, Astros and Rays. It was a 90-percent increase from the previous season.

Oddly, though, Ventura could once be credited with the same development. Going back through the Bill James Handbooks from the Ventura era, the Sox shifted with varying frequency:

  • 2017: 1,490 (third in AL)
  • 2016: 781 (11th in AL)
  • 2015: 389 (14th in AL)
  • 2014: 534 (seventh in AL)
  • 2013: 72 (last in AL)

Maybe Renteria’s shifting will be here to stay, but as Travis Sawchik noted in his FanGraphs post, it seems just as likely to fluctuate over time. Even with the White Sox damn near doubling their amount of shifts, the league as a whole saw a 5 percent drop in the practice.

Part of the reason is that hitters who see shifts are trying to beat them through the air as part of a larger dependency on fly balls.

But against shifts? Batters are evolving to pull fewer balls that are put in the air. While it’s tough to hit a ground ball to the opposite field, it’s easier to drive one there in the air. [...]

Hitters operate a little differently in the air versus shifts, more often getting balls in the air when the defense is realigned. It’s one motivation behind the Air-Ball Revolution. Consider that, in 2011, hitters posted a 1.9 GB/FB ratio against shifts. This past season? A 1.3 mark.

Moreover, the number of shifts themselves probably don’t carry a whole lot of weight. Sure, the Astros won the World Series in a season where they were second in shifts, but the Cubs shifted less than any other team in baseball the year before.

We may see some refinement in this regard from Renteria going forward, especially if Sox starters lean on high fastballs or have other characteristics that make grounders into the pull side less likely. All we can say after one year is that Renteria has shown a willingness to incorporate data into at least some of his strategy, which makes it easier to believe other areas can be adjusted as the in-game decisions start mattering more.