A shift in strategy for Phils on defense

Darin Ruf grimaces in pain while sliding into third base after being hit with a throw in the Phillies' Grapefruit League game against Atlanta.
Darin Ruf grimaces in pain while sliding into third base after being hit with a throw in the Phillies' Grapefruit League game against Atlanta. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 07, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Freddie Freeman walked to home plate Wednesday with two outs in the third inning. Reid Brignac, the Phillies third baseman, jogged to the opposite side of the field. He positioned himself between second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who occupied the center of the diamond.

The Phillies employed a defensive shift, and Freeman responded by slapping a pitch to left field for a single. This was not a momentous occasion, although manager Ryne Sandberg later revealed that his team would adopt a practice common elsewhere in baseball.

"It's something that's grown, and the information is there," Sandberg said. "Teams have had some success doing that, so that's something to think about and apply."

The Phillies shifted fewer times than 28 other teams in baseball last season, according to Baseball Info Solutions data. They were the worst defensive team, as measured by the same company's metrics. They will employ three infielders 34 or older in 2014, and their range has diminished.

That prompted change.

"We are going to do more moving as far as that goes," Sandberg said. "We'll be smart with it and do what makes sense."

Sandberg will rely on data from video and spray charts. Front-office staffers will compile the numbers and present them to the on-field coaches. Bench coach Larry Bowa will oversee most of the positioning.

The shift option will be provided to the day's starting pitcher, Sandberg said, and there will be constant coordination. Positioning strategy will depend on the situation.

Either way, the Phillies will utilize more than the 45 shifts they used in 2013, according to Baseball Info Solutions data. They ranked dead last in baseball with minus-102 defensive runs saved. (The next closest National League East team was Washington at minus-16 defensive runs saved.) The theory behind shifting is that it offers more chances for fielders.

The metric defensive runs saved measures the number of runs a player saved or cost relative to an average player at his position. Higher ratings go to players who turn a higher percentage of batted balls into outs than their peers.

Defensive shifts are seen most nights at Citizens Bank Park whenever Ryan Howard bats. The models for regular shifting are found with Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. The Rays, under Joe Maddon, introduced the idea. But the Pirates' sudden fielding improvement in 2013 popularized the movement.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said last week "it paid dividends" in his team's success last season. The transition was not simple.

"It takes a lot of people willing to get a little bit uncomfortable," Huntington said. "We had a group that was willing to do that. We'll continue to push that until we find the edge of that comfort zone. It takes a massive team effort. The computer doesn't spit it out and we stand them in the spots. It's the computer data, it's our advance scouts, it's our coaches and our pitchers and our catchers."

Huntington said there are three components to his team's strategy: the objective computer data such as spray charts, subjective information on certain players from advance scouts, and the subjectivity of his coaches and players.

He expected Pittsburgh, which employed the most defensive shifts (more than 400) according to the data, to follow the same trend in 2014.

"We evolved into it," Huntington said. "We're always looking for ways we can continue to enhance it. Is it a fad or is it here to stay? I think it'll be a lot of fun to see how it plays out."

Even so, Huntington admitted, "There is a conventional position for a reason." The Phillies have a veteran infield and pitching staff, which could stall drastic changes.

Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle broke into the game in 1978 as a utility man for Kansas City. He managed 10 seasons in the majors before accepting the idea of constant shifts.

"I know our positioning helped us dramatically close the gap from where we used to be and where we are now defensively," Hurdle said. "It gives players more opportunities. Our third baseman had a hundred more chances last year than he had the year before."

Sandberg is open to ideas. He twice shifted Wednesday for Freeman. The single to left, he said, was an example of the strategy's benefits.

"We're happy with him trying to take a stroke the other way," Sandberg said. "It changes his approach at the plate with two outs."


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb www.inquirer.com/phillies

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