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Defensive shifts big component of runs saved

Defensive runs saved as applied to individual fielders is designed to be a zero-sum game.

The baseline for an average fielder is zero, above-average play is offset by below-average play and the total of positive and negative runs saved nearly will balance each other out.

Shifts are another matter. They’re compared to average outcomes with a standard defensive alignment, and Baseball Info Solutions data tell us shifts have saved far more runs than they’ve cost.

In Chicago, we have two teams at opposite ends of the defensive spectrum. The Cubs, with an elite defense, rank third in the majors with 44 runs saved — 39 by fielders and five via shifts.

The White Sox rank 26th. They are at minus-37 runs saved by fielders and are another minus-1 through shifts.

They’re also opposites in shift usage. According to StatCast data at baseballsavant.com, the Sox rank fifth in the majors with shifts on 26.8 percent of plate appearances, well above the major-league average of 17.2 percent. The Cubs, at 3.8 percent, shift less than any team but the Angels.

It’s not just a matter of teams with strong defenses seeing less of a need to shift. There are teams with different defensive capabilities with similar shift tendencies.

The Astros, the American League leaders with 25 runs saved by individuals, add 13 runs saved by shifts. They shift more than any team in baseball at 41.9 percent of plate appearances.

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On the other hand, the Tigers, with minus-18 runs saved by fielders, have shifted sparingly but effectively. They shift only 11.4 percent of the time but have saved 12 runs via shifts.

The Mets also are a low-shift team at 12.7 percent, but they have 13 shift runs saved to help mitigate the effects of their awful minus-50 by fielders.

Combining shift runs saved by all teams suggests about 230 fewer runs have been scored this season than would have been scored against traditional defensive alignments. The Diamondbacks, Yankees, Rays and Royals lead the majors with 17 shift runs saved.

Only three teams are in negative numbers through shifts: the White Sox at minus-1, the Pirates at minus-2 and the Phillies at minus-10. When Jake Arrieta complained about non-support from shifts June 3, there’s little doubt he was accurate. Of course, the Phillies have struggled to minus-56 runs saved without the shift, too.

Baseballsavant.com also gives us shift percentages against individual hitters. The Chicago player who has faced shifts most often is the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber, but he has made defenses pay with a .381 weighted on-base average in the 68.8 percent of plate appearances when a shift is on, compared with .314 with no shift.

The Sox’ Daniel Palka has faced shifts in 53.3 percent of his plate appearances and has a .367 wOBA, compared with only .260 in non-shift plate appearances.

Shifts will give to players who can go to the opposite field or who can launch the ball over the defense. Overall, however, they’ve taken away more than they’ve given.