Ever-changing defensive alignment is key strategy for Pirates

Ever-changing defensive alignment is key strategy for Pirates

jlembo@bradenton.comMarch 25, 2014 

BRADENTON -- He's not a sabermetrician and he doesn't analyze stats.

Instead, Clint Barmes plays shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But he knows this much -- the Pirates employed a lot of defensive shifts last season and won 94 games.

"I didn't see all the numbers, but our defense was solid and our pitching was outstanding," Barmes said. "I definitely think that played a pretty big part."

The Pirates used 423 shifts last season, according to Hardball Times, ranking them fourth in baseball and second in the National League to the Milwaukee Brewers (426).

Shifts are used to defend against dead pull hitters, such as Philadelphia's Ryan Howard or Boston's David Ortiz, and happen when a team puts three infielders on the first-base side of second base while leaving one player to defend the left side.

Once considered radical, shifts are on the rise. The 2011 Tampa Bay Rays employed 216 shifts in 2011, according to baseball analyst Bill James, which led all of baseball. In 2013, that would have been good enough for 18th.

Last year's Rays had 469 different shifts, second in baseball to only the Baltimore Orioles with 471.

"(Rays manager) Joe Maddon said it best -- 'I liked it better when we were the only stupid ones in the game,'" said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "He goes, 'What's kind of crazy now is we might not be as stupid as some other people.'"

Stupid served the Pirates well last season -- they were third in baseball in defensive runs saved with 68 despite finishing 13th in defensive WAR (wins above replacement) at 10.9.

Shifts are rarely called by the field manager. Instead, they are a product of a team's analytical department, who study spray charts and other data to deduce where a batter is going to hit the ball a majority of the time.

In Pittsburgh, that role is served by Dan Fox, who has worked as the team's director of baseball systems development since 2008. According to the Pirates' media guide, Fox and his team are in charge of the "architecture, development and dissemination of information systems and quantitative analytics."

In other words, it's because of guys like Fox that Ortiz hit into a major shift 269 times last year.

"It depends on your program, it depends on the statistical analysis staff," Hurdle said. "So our guys continue to try and evolve."

As Barmes alluded to earlier, the use of major shifts

had a positive spin on the Pirates' pitchers, who limited hitters to a .285 average on balls in play, third-best in the National League.

Some chalk BABIP up to luck. But it may not be coincidence that a team that employed over 450 defensive shifts had some of the best success when opponents made contact.

"I don't turn around and check out where the defense is playing because I'm assuming they're running the shift off of analysis, and I don't think they'd want me to tailor my game toward the shift," said Pirates starter Charlie Morton, who led all starters last year with a groundball rate of 62.9 percent. "I like the fact that they're putting the time in and due diligence to find out how they can make the team better, how they can make the defense more effective and make the pitchers more effective on the mound. ... I love it when the guy hits a groundball up the middle, and I turn around and the second baseman is shifted middle. Balls are going to get through, that's just the name of the game. But it's about percentages, and if we can get to 5 percent more balls ... that's an improvement."

Barmes agreed.

"I'm all for playing the percentages and standing where they're going to hit the ball to me," he said. "If the pitcher's hitting his spots, yeah, it seems to work pretty well."

The shift has its share of critics. James wrote on his website how the shift not only leaves large portions of the field undefended, but it puts players into positions they're not accustomed to. An example of that played out Saturday when the Pirates employed a shift against Howard and put third baseman Pedro Alvarez where the second baseman usually players. The second baseman that day, Michael Martinez, moved back into short right field.

Howard beat the shift by homering into the Pirates' bullpen.

And players who see the most shifts may consider bunting to the vacant side of the field, including Oakland first baseman and former Pirate Brandon Moss, who hit into 96 different shifts last season.

"A lot of guys might look at it as, 'If I bunt, I'm not giving myself a chance to drive the ball,'" Moss told MLB.com in February. "You're just giving yourself an opportunity to get on base for your team."

But shifting worked out well for the Pirates last season, and they don't plan to stop using it anytime soon.

"We're not worried about teams catching up to us -- we're worried about taking care of ourselves," Hurdle said. "We're looking at some defense options now for our outfield, and we've definitely got one in play that we've already started to look at. ... You're always looking to evolve, be creative and get better."

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service