Rays redefining defense with the shift
Tampa Bay repositioning more frequently, frustrating opponents
ST. PETERSBURG -- Every so often, Rays utility man Ben Zobrist and his teammates will pull index cards out of their back pockets, studying them closely before they leave the dugout and sometimes even sneaking a peek on the field.
Written on those cards are short scouting reports on opposing hitters, including basic information about where they tend to put the ball in play and how the Rays should line up against them. For many teams, that information might not be all that in-depth or particularly important to check so frequently. But it's critical for Tampa Bay, which led the Major Leagues in defensive shifts last season and has implemented them even more frequently this season.
According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Rays used defensive shifts 216 times last year and saved 85 runs, the most in the Majors. The Brewers implemented the second-most shifts with 170, followed by the Indians (148) and Blue Jays (117), then a significant drop-off as three teams tied with 75.
Tampa Bay has taken its shifting to the next level, moving around its defenders more aggressively and more often.
"We talked about some things in Spring Training where the shift is becoming a little bit more unique to each player. Each shift is unique in its own way," Zobrist said. "It just varies depending on what they see on the spray charts with where these guys generally hit the ball."
Of course, there's more to it than just spray charts -- "the computer stuff," as Alex Rodriguez called it after the Yankees were frustrated by the shifts in their season-opening series at Tampa Bay.
"If you looked at it and just drew lines, you would just see a bunch of lines. You would have no idea what you wanted to do," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We have ways of breaking that down. ... There's a lot going on. It's really interesting stuff. It's very useful. It's very helpful."
There are more generic versions, like the famous "Ted Williams shift" that's been used since at least 1946. Clubs employ that nearly ubiquitous shift against left-handed pull hitters like Boston's David Ortiz, putting three players on the right side of the infield. The same strategy has been adopted against right-handed pull hitters as well.
But the Rays have taken it a few steps further, Maddon explained, breaking down the basic lefty-righty shifts to be more specific to each hitter. They'll also shift differently based on which pitcher is on the mound, whether he's a right-hander or left-hander, and how an opposing hitter has performed over his previous 30 or 40 at-bats.
|"Righties, lefties, it doesn't really matter. It feels like there's 15 guys on the right side of the infield or the left side of the infield."|
-- Yankees right fielder|
"I just think it becomes more and more a game of who can make the adjustment first," Zobrist said. "We're trying to make the adjustment out in the field before they even hit the ball, because we know how we're going to pitch them, we know how they're generally going to hit the ball, and if we put ourselves in the right spot, we're going to catch a lot of line drives and balls that are normally hits for these guys."
Other teams have noticed. Just ask Albert Pujols, who hit a few balls right at the Rays this week. Or outfielder Nick Swisher, who faced a particularly bewildering alignment when the Rays swept the Yankees.
"That's the first time I've seen a shift like that," Swisher said during that series. "Righties, lefties, it doesn't really matter. It feels like there's 15 guys on the right side of the infield or the left side of the infield."
The Rays shifted against nearly half of the Yankees lineup, and the Bombers have committed to shifting more often this year as well. Manager Joe Girardi said he thought the uptick in shifts over the past few years has been a result of players getting comfortable with the idea.
"I don't think it's a reaction to what happened to us," Girardi added. "I think it's actually kind of to all the data that's being put out now that we're all seeing. Some of it is the kinds of pitchers we have, too, and how they'll affect it with how they pitch."
Zobrist said he never studied scouting reports until he reached the Majors, and even if he had, they wouldn't have been nearly as comprehensive as they are now.
"I knew certain players would usually pull it through the hole, so I'm going to take a few steps to my right as a shortstop. That was it," Zobrist said. "Now, it's like, 'On this guy, we're going to take five steps to your right; second baseman's going to be two steps to the left of the pitcher; first baseman's going to be in and way over halfway to second base as far as he can go over and in to still get back to first base.' Everybody's got their own positioning."
Some pitchers even call their own shifts. Rays starter James Shields, for example, often tells his infielders to forget the scouting reports in certain situations. If he knows one of his pitches will result in a certain kind of contact from a hitter with whom he's familiar, Shields will tell them where to expect the ball to be put in play.
With all the information, Zobrist admitted there have been times when he and his teammates have found themselves with no idea where they should be lined up. He's felt out of place when he was actually in the right spot, and he's felt fine when he was five steps out of place. Fortunately, he laughed, the Rays' coaching staff has "pretty loud whistles" when it comes to correcting a player's positioning.
But for all the data and strategy involved in determining the shifts, there is still some responsibility on the players' parts. They can't be glued to the scouting reports and index cards in their back pockets, unable to react and adjust when the moment calls for it.
"They want us to still think," Zobrist said. "It's not totally computer baseball."