Extra Baggs: Infield shift, nature of innovation in baseball

Extra Baggs: Infield shift, nature of innovation in baseball
April 28, 2014, 2:00 pm
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For us, we pretty much have the same view we did in the past -- go off the information presented and what the hitters have done against our pitchers.
Ron Wotus

"Before the Sabermetric nightspot became the coolest place to be seen, Joe Maddon had his own seat at the bar with a brass placard." -- Andrew Baggarly (AP)

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Of Giants position players, only Brandon Belt (52) and Pablo Sandoval (28) hit into a shift more than 20 times. (USATI)

Programming note: Padres-Giants coverage starts tonight at 6:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area with Giants Pregame Live (Channel locations)

SAN FRANCISCO – Before Joe Maddon was baseball’s most cerebral manager, with his hoodie and dark-rimmed glasses and wine collection and motorhome straight out of a Steinbeck travelogue, he was a low-profile coach on the staff of the 2000 Anaheim Angels.

He still had the hoodie and the dark-rimmed glasses and the wine. He was more into distance cycling in those days, though.

And he had his spray charts.

My first year covering a full-time, home-and-away major league baseball beat was in 2000 with the Angels. I was a rookie reporter. Mike Scioscia was a rookie manager. I was curious and inexperienced, and so naturally I had loads and loads of stupid questions to ask. Usually, Maddon was the one gracious and patient enough to answer them.

Folks can laugh at the clichés spouted by baseball players and coaches, but they’re often answering clichéd questions. That’s what made Maddon such a resource for me. Even if I didn’t know enough to ask many deep or probing questions, he didn’t warehouse stock answers.

He was the first coach I ever saw with a laptop in the clubhouse. He had binders full of spray charts. (That’s spray charts, Mitt.) Almost daily, he would rush up to me or one of the other beat reporters, excited over some new statistical trend. Before the Sabermetric nightspot became the coolest place to be seen, Maddon had his own seat at the bar with a brass placard.

I remember the first time I saw the five-man infield. The Angels would play it whenever they were tied on the road with the home team in its final at-bat and the winning run at third base. A fly ball hit deeply enough would end the game whether it was caught or not. So why not station one of those outfielders over second base? I saw it work more than once, too.

Scioscia was no Luddite, but without a doubt, that five-man infield was Maddon in his ear. And some years later, the low-profile bench coach became a high-profile manager in St. Petersburg, where the grass is fake but the data is as real as ever.

It is fascinating to watch a systemic change in progress. It goes from a spark of an idea to finding someone bold enough to implement it to the tedium of slow recognition to the downhill, bell-curve rush of universal acceptance.

It's all rushing down the hill now. The sands have shifted, and so have the infields. According to Baseball Info Solutions, teams employed an infield shift, usually stationing three infielders on the right side for a left-handed pull hitter, a total of 8,134 times on balls in play last season – almost four times as often as they did just two years earlier. And early projections have teams shifting more than 13,000 times this year, according to the New York Times.

The data varies depending on who's collecting it, but the Baltimore Orioles led the majors last season by shifting 471 times on balls in play, according to Jeff Zimmerman of Hardball Times. Maddon’s Rays were right behind, at 469. And the Rays, by some models, saved the most runs in the majors by shifting.

The Washington Nationals employed the fewest shifts, 42. But that was under Davey Johnson. Now with Matt Williams running the show, they are one of two teams (along with the Detroit Tigers) that hired a “defensive coordinator,” former Diamondbacks advance scout Mark Weidemaier, on its major league coaching staff. And they’re all about the shift at Nationals Park now.

The Giants only shifted 138 times, eighth fewest in the major leagues, and I know what you might be thinking. Their two World Series titles in the past four years aside, the Giants are often portrayed as a franchise lacking innovation. “Moneyball” happened on the other side of the Bay Bridge, after all. Is it possible the Giants are missing out on the game’s latest, hottest efficiency play? 

Well, as it so happens, the Giants also have a low-profile bench coach regarded for his intellect and blessed with patience for entry-level questions. So I spent 15 minutes or so talking to Ron Wotus about the Giants’ philosophy behind when they shift and why.

“The information isn’t really different than what we had in the past,” Wotus said. “We’ve always had the information. But it’s accepted more, the shift, and I think that’s why teams are doing it more. And what’s happening is some of the (statistical) services are giving you shift candidates. They’re evaluating it for you. It’s being encouraged in that way.

“For us, we pretty much have the same view we did in the past -- go off the information presented and what the hitters have done against our pitchers.” 

Wotus asked an interesting question. How many teams that shift the most come from the same division? 

After the Orioles and Rays, the next shiftiest teams in 2013 were the Brewers, Pirates, Astros, Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox. The Astros, who are experimenting in all kinds of ways (don’t you dare swing at that 3-2 pitch, son!) are the only team on that top-8 list not in the AL East or NL Central.

Teams in the AL East and NL Central aren’t just shifting on each other to be clever. They’re shifting because there are more left-handed pull hitters within those divisions. Boston’s David Ortiz hit into a shift more times (269) than anyone in the majors. Baltimore’s Chris Davis ranked third.

The highest any NL West hitter appears on the list is 25th, for the Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez, with 77 infield shifts. Of Giants position players, only Brandon Belt (52) and Pablo Sandoval (28) hit into a shift more than 20 times.

So what goes into deciding when to shift, and for whom? Wotus said he goes over the reports prior to each series, he’ll identify shift candidates based on spray charts and hitter type (lefties who pull the outside pitch) and run his plan by pitching coach Dave Righetti. If the starting pitcher isn’t able to establish the fastball away, or isn't keen on employing the shift, then they probably won’t do it. 

“We give them the sheet with how we’re going to start, and I emphasize start,” Wotus said. “Because you can have all the information you want, but once you get on the field, that’s when you have to adjust.”

Here’s the other thing about infield shifts: They are exaggerated, and therefore noticeable and more easily quantifiable. But they don’t tell the whole story. The rest is what infielders have been doing for a century: moving a few steps in or toward the middle, evaluating where a pitcher is hitting spots and where he’s having trouble, reading the swings of a hitter and noticing where they are standing in the box.

Information often will help you win games. Having skilled, intelligent players is what usually does the trick, though. 

“Even when we don’t shift, we may overplay on certain guys," Wotus said. "Take our shortstop, Brandon Crawford. He has a good eye, he knows the league and I rely on him to confirm what we’d like to do with a shift or positioning on a certain player.

"What he's doing might not be the quote-unquote shift, but it still has an impact on the game. That’s why I encourage our infielders to use their instincts. That’s how you play the game. If we overplay on a guy, that’s as good as a shift to me. You’re not in your normal standard position. That’s done routinely throughout baseball but it gets no notice.”

Without a doubt, there will be times this season when a major league coaching staff will put on a shift because they want to look smart. It’s all the rage. It’s the trend. But there is something admirable about intelligent baseball people who are secure enough in themselves that they don’t need to broadcast that intelligence. They won’t shift for the sake of shifting. 

Put another way, truly smart people don’t feel the need to tell you how smart they are. Maddon and Wotus have that in common, too.

Wotus envisions a time coming, and soon, when the sands shift some more. If the field is a chessboard, someone will start playing with three rooks and a bishop. And if the data backs it up, and the backlash isn’t too severe, others will follow. Maybe that five-man infield won’t always be a last-ditch, bottom-of-the-ninth configuration.

When that time comes, Wotus plans to evaluate those innovations through the same lens he's always used.

“It’s a game of percentages,” he said. “That’s the thing. The percentages might (favor) the shift, but using good judgment on how you’re approaching the hitter, sometimes that’s better than going with the percentages.

“All of it, the charts and information, it’s all valuable. But the instinct of the player is still your most tremendous asset when it comes to defending hitters.”

Good players win games, whether it's a cliche or not.

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