The Minnesota Twins have learned to love the shift. According to Baseball Info Solutions, Ron Gardenhire‘s club went into the All-Star break having shifted on 251 balls in play, 13th-most in baseball. Last year they shifted just 84 times on balls in play, sixth-fewest in baseball.
Paul Molitor is in charge of Minnesota’s infield defense. The Hall of Famer assumed the role prior to this season, and the modernization of the team’s approach has been in the works since he took over. In January, Molitor told MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger, “The game has changed so much; we’re seeing more overshifts and people not afraid to give up space based on tendencies, so it’s something I’m excited about learning about and applying to the way we play defense.”
When I talked to Molitor last month, it was apparent he’s learned a lot. And while he was clearly still forming opinions on certain specifics, he seemed pleased with the results he’d seen.
“I discussed it with Gardy [manager Ron Gardenhire] before the season and we decided if it would increase our chances of getting outs, we were going to go ahead and try it,” Molitor told me. “Sometimes it’s a little dicey because hitters are smart and some will react to the defense. They have enough confidence and bat control to counteract what you’re doing. But I’d have to say that more times than not, our shifts have worked fairly well. We’ve been burned a few times, as have most teams, but overall it’s been working in our favor.”
Molitor’s mention of confidence prompted me to ask about the psychological aspect. If a hitter is thinking about – and possibly questioning – his approach, has the defense already gained an advantage?
“I think that’s a big element,” agreed Molitor “There’s a mental component involved, but it also depends on the hitter. If pulling is what you do, and you’re continually hitting balls hard and recording outs, it’s going to play games with you. Jason Kubel was shifted consistently in the first couple of months and it really took a toll on him. He was having trouble beating the shift and ultimately wasn’t able to stick around.
“David Ortiz has seen shifts for a long time, and only he knows how he feels on a given day. If he feels he can light it up with a long ball, he’s not going to let the defense influence what he’s trying to do. If he’s not feeling good that day, he might be looking for a base hit to left field. But overall, guys who have been around and have good track records probably won’t be affected [psychologically] as much as young players.”
Xander Bogaerts is one of the young players the Twins have shifted against this season. Notably, the 21-year-old Red Sox infielder swings from the right side. According to Baseball Info Solutions,the Twins were the only team that didn’t have a single shift on a ball in play versus a right-handed hitter last year. This season – again, as of the All-Star break — they’ve shifted right-handed hitters on 80 balls in play, ninth-most in baseball.
“We’ve tried a few things that are a little unorthodox,” Molitor told me during the series in Boston. “We shifted Xander Bogaerts last night, and no team had done that before, at least not that I could find on video. The charts told us it was the right thing to when he faced right-handed pitching, except with two strikes or with runners in scoring position. Sure enough, he hit two balls to the right side of second base, one we made a play on and one we didn’t. I don’t know what he thought the first time, but his second time up it looked like he was trying to inside-out the ball. Are we better off with him trying to hit a single to right or a double off the wall? That’s the type of question you have to ask yourself.”
Another question managers and coaches need to ask when setting their defense is, “Who is on the mound?” If it’s Greg Maddux, positioning for tendencies is pretty straightforward. If it’s Matt Young, it’s not so simple. A coach recently told me he was surprised to see so many extreme shifts when his team played the Astros earlier this season. The young pitchers Houston used in that series lacked command, adding more randomness to where balls would be hit. And tendencies go beyond command. The same hitter might regularly pull a power pitcher, but go to the opposite field gap against a sinker-slider guy.
“We spend a lot of time on the charts and watching video, and naturally I have to consider who’s pitching,” said Molitor. “For instance, I have to compare Phil Hughes and Kevin Correia. They’re both right-handed pitchers, but most likely there’s a little different approach and different results. We print out individual spray charts for opposing teams against that day’s starting pitcher. There might be something a little different from the normal trend.”
Extreme shifts are easy to see. Subtler ones aren’t, but they’re every bit as important. Two steps are often the difference between a hit and an out. Another important question is, “Two steps from where?” Everyone knows the shortstop position is between second base and third base, but it’s more nuanced than that at the big-league level.
“Joe Vavra – he set our defense last year – and I go out early each day at a new ballpark and mark off the spots we feel are straight up,” explained Molitor. “We mark them off so we have a reference point. We have a measuring system for straight up on righties and lefties and will line it up with a spot on the fence or the scoreboard. That’s our starting point, and we shift from there.”
Bruce Chen is willing to throw a fastball down the middle to a certain hitter. That is especially notable for two reasons. The Kansas City Royals lefthander describes the hitter as “very, very good.” The average velocity on Chen’s fastball is 85.9 mph.
Chen obviously can’t live near the heart of the plate. The soft-tossing 37-year-old needs to keep hitters off balance by changing speeds and dotting corners. Opposing teams know that, which is why dead center can actually be a good location for him against the right hitter at the right time. It isn’t a wholly unique theory. Bob Tewksbury – a velocity-challenged All-Star in the early 1990s –employed it against Tony Gwynn.
The subject came up when I talked pitching with Chen at Fenway Park earlier this month. We were discussing tendencies and patterns when I asked, “Have you ever faced a hitter whose weak spot is down the middle?”
“Yes,” responded Chen. “There are maybe a couple, but it’s one guy in particular. I hadn’t had much success against him, so I decided to try it. All of his numbers – in, out, up, down – were good, except for right down the middle. There it was: .140-something.
“I wouldn’t necessarily tell someone, ‘Hey, this guy can’t hit right down the middle, so throw it there.’ But I might say, ‘Hey, I can’t get him out, but he’s hitting .143 right down the middle. See how that goes. He might pop it up. You might be surprised.’ That’s what happened to me. I was like, ‘Do you know what? This is the perfect guy to try that against.’”
Chen wouldn’t say who the hitter is, although educated guesses aren’t too hard to make. Regardless of whom it might be, he can probably turn around a mid-90s fastball. Almost every good hitter can. Does Chen feel 85 down the pipe can be more effective than 95 down the pipe?
“I’ve had a lot of guys tell me that, to ‘keep throwing below hitting speed,’” said Chen. “I have noted the harder I try to throw, the less favorable results I have. Hitters have their timing mechanisms. That’s why radar guns are so important to them. They want to know how hard, so they can time it against, ‘OK, this is what I usually do against a guy who throws this speed.’ And they’re used to more speed than mine.”
Disrupting timing is one thing; location is another. Why does the savvy southpaw think some hitters might have trouble with a pitch they should be expected to hammer?
“When a fastball is right down the middle, sometimes they’re thrown off,” said Chen. “When they see the ball away, they know to stay back. When the pitch is in, they know to pull their hands in. When they see the ball right down the middle, they might get caught in between. They aren’t used to it, so a bad pitch is actually a good pitch.”
Joe Oliver caught over 1,000 big league games, for seven teams, between 1989-2001. Given the number of pitches he received, he seemed an ideal follow-up subject for Chen’s comments. When I asked if he’d experienced anything similar, Oliver said he had. The pitcher in question was not unlike Chen.
“When I was in Seattle, Garret Anderson owned Jamie Moyer,” said Oliver, now the manager of Boston’s short-season affiliate. “The numbers at the time were crazy, something like .600. I asked Jamie, ‘How have you been pitching him?’ He started talking about all the different types of pitches he’d throw, and how he was setting up for the next pitch. He was getting really intricate. I said to him, ‘Well, since that hasn’t worked, how about just throw it down the middle?’ I suggested he just throw four-seams right down the middle. That night, Anderson went 0 for 4 against him. I don’t want to say that was entirely because of my suggestion, but sometimes you can simplify to a hitter. They’re expecting tougher pitches, and can’t always react to ‘a mistake’ the right way.”
Oliver had another example of how simplification can complicate a hitter’s approach. The story is from his days in Cincinnati, where the former backstop played the bulk of his career.
“Hal Morris hit the Phillies really well,” remembered Oliver. “He was going through a series where he’d had a couple of three-hit games, so the next night Darren Daulton decided to tell him what was coming. A lot of times as a hitter, if things get real simple for you – you know what’s coming or he doesn’t make tough pitches – it can actually be harder to hit. Daulton told Jal, ‘I may as well tell you what’s coming, because you don’t know what’s coming and you’re killing us.’ Hal popped up his next two at bats.”
Rusty Kuntz didn’t hit anyone well. A part-time player for the White Sox, Tigers and Twins, from 1979-1985, he put up a .236/.328/.322 slash line. The right-handed-hitting oufielder had more career strikeouts  than hits .
Kuntz – currently the Royals first base coach – did have one solid season. Playing in a career high 84 games for the 1984 Tigers, he batted .286 and earned a World Series ring for his efforts. According to Kuntz, one his contributions that year was a well-orchestrated punch out.
“Sparky [Anderson] was the manager and we were playing at home one day,” explained Kuntz. “We had a lead and a storm was coming. We needed to get five innings in, because it was going to last all night. We had two outs and Johnny Grubb was due up. Sparky looked over and said, ‘Rusty, grab a bat. We need an out.’ I went up to the plate and struck out. When I came in, he patted me on the ass and said, ‘Hey, you did exactly what we needed.’ Sparky was probably worried Grubb was going to get a hit and extend the inning. He knew what I was going to do.”
Another of his memorable at bats came in a White Sox uniform. This time it wasn’t the weather at work. His teammates rained runs, resulting in an early trip to the showers for an eager rookie.
“In 1980, I made the team and was all pumped up. Early in the season we played at Fenway Park. I’d never been there. Bruce Hurst was pitching against us and I was given the start in right field. I was kind of in a platoon with Harold Baines, who’d been the first pick in the entire draft three years earlier. I was so excited about getting the start I could hardly feel myself. I was even leading off. I was pumped up, excited. Everything was working out great.
“I figured the first pitch of the game was going to be a fastball, and I was going to be ready for it. Here it comes, and Boom! I hit a line drive right at Marty Barrett at second base for an out. I was like, “gol-ly!” I go sit down, and we proceed to score a bunch of runs. I’m anxious to get up there again, but then Boston brings in [Steve Renko] to replace Hurst. Tony LaRussa is our manager, and he pinch hits for me. I got one at bat and hit a line drive, and now because they brought in a righty, Baines is batting and my day is done at Fenway Park.”
Joe Oliver gets double-billing in this week’s edition of Sunday Notes. Everyone likes a good story – and the former catcher likes to tell them — so I asked if he was ever ejected from a game during his playing days. He said it happened twice, including once when he was with Triple-A Pawtucket at the tail end of his career.
“I didn’t agree with the way the home plate umpire was calling the game,” remembered Oliver. “So on every foul ball, or on every ball in the dirt, I refused to throw it back [to the pitcher]. That was kind of my protest. He got a little upset with me and told me if I didn’t throw the next ball back, he was going to throw me out of the game. Well, you’ve got to what you’ve got to do. Next foul ball comes and I won’t throw it back, so he throws me out. I went off. I went over to the dugout, and there was the ball bag, just sitting there. It was unzipped, and I grabbed it and flung it right out to home plate. When it hit, it looked like a fountain, with balls just exploding out of it. Baseballs went everywhere.”
RANDOM FACTS AND OPINIONS
Fifty-two years ago today — July 27, 1962 – the Washington Senators swept a double-header from the Red Sox, winning 11-2 and 14-1. In Game 2, Boston starter Galen Cisco allowed 16 hits and 13 runs in five-and-a-third innings. A day earlier, Gene Conley and Pumpsie Green – reportedly under the influence of drink – disappeared from the Red Sox team bus following a 13-3 loss at Yankee Stadium. Conley was found trying to board a flight to Israel.
Fifty years ago today, Urban “Red” Faber and Burleigh Grimes were among seven players inducted into the Hall of Fame. Grandfathered to continue using it when the pitch was outlawed in 1920, they are the last two pitchers to legally throw a spitball. Faber, who played through 1933, won 254 games with a 119 adjusted ERA. Grimes, who played through 1934, won 270 games with a 108 adjusted ERA [Jim Kaat, who won 283 games, also had a 108 adjusted ERA].
The new rule that keeps Hall-of-Fame-eligible players on the ballot for just 10 years means I will not have an opportunity to vote for Tim Raines. He will be gone from the ballot before I’ve reached the requisite 10 years of BBWAA membership to have the honor of voting. In my opinion, Raines is a no-doubt Hall of Famer. Two others I feel are deserving – and they should go in together – are Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. Look up the numbers.
From recent off-the-record conversations, I am becoming more and more convinced the ban on amphetamines has had a major impact on home runs and on run production overall. While many point to steroids and [are they serious?] defensive shifts, insiders I’ve talked to feel “no-greenies’ gives pitchers – who are throwing harder than ever – a distinct advantage. Hitting a baseball is easier at peak mental acuity, and starting pitchers work every five days while for hitters it is an everyday grind.
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