The Rays-Rangers portion of the American League playoffs is set to kickoff Wednesday. Michael Young might be the Rangers’ fifth or sixth best hitter depending on the day (and Lupe Fiasco’s favorite baseball player) but do not be surprised if he becomes a person of interest during the series, and not necessarily because of his performance either.
The Rays are notorious for taking advantage of every possible benefit – some would call it The Extra 2% — which includes shifting just about any batter they can. Teams usually only employ shifts against pull-heavy batters like J.D. Drew, David Ortiz, and Travis Hafner, but the Rays even shifted for Derek Jeter earlier this season.
Young and Jeter share many attributes, most notably as offensive-minded infielders with histories of defensive mockery. Both bat right-handed as well, but tend to go the other way and up the middle more than most. Since 2008, 73% of Young’s batted balls have ended up in center or right field. When Young does pull the ball it’s been of the groundball variety- roughly 70% of the time. He tends to hit the ball on the ground up the middle and in the air to right.
What that means for a potential shift is intuitive. The Rays would shift their outfield toward the right field foul line, perhaps placing their right fielder a couple of steps from the line. Their infield could remain in the same position, or they could slide toward right field as well. Evan Longoria would become responsible for the left side of the infield while Jason Bartlett played up the middle and Ben Zobrist moved a few steps to his left.
By playing the percentages, the Rays leave Young a tantalizing amount of open space on the left side of the field. All he has to do is pull or tap a ball in that direction and he could have a double, or who knows, maybe a triple. To assume Young’s swing is the only thing changing would be an oversimplification as his mindset has to alter too. If the Rays are aligned with the eggs in the basket of him going the other way then they are probably pitching him away, away, and away, right? But what if the Rays anticipate Young thinking that and bust him inside to catch him off guard?
It is hard to quantify exactly how much that game theory matters (if it matters at all), and further complicates a basic defensive philosophy. The only thing we know for sure is that Young facing the Rays’ shifted defense will be a battle of wits and god-given ability on one of baseball’s grandest stages.