Technology could lead to more shifting in Minors
Teams do some defensive realignment but are in need of more information
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- As the Florida State League game between the Dunedin Blue Jays and the Clearwater Threshers moved into the bottom of the eighth inning on June 19, Chase Utley strode to the plate for his final at-bat of the night.
The lefty-hitting Phillies star, playing for the Threshers at Bright House Field as part of his recently completed rehab assignment, was standing in the batter's box when the Blue Jays, leading 8-2, stacked the right side of the infield with three defenders, one of whom was essentially playing shallow right field. It was a familiar alignment to anyone who watches many Major League games.
Utley bounced out down the first-base line. When asked about seeing the defensive shift afterward, he laughed and said, "It's not a big deal."
Turns out, it actually was kind of a big deal. For all the shifting going on at the Major League level, one of the game's hottest trends isn't seen all that often in the Minors.
The reason why is obvious. Defensive shifts in the Majors are plotted from the available spray-chart data, which can be seen in some form by just about anyone with Internet access. In the Minors, however, that data isn't compiled as easily or in such an accessible yet detailed format.
That's not to say there are no shifts in the Minors, of course. Dunedin's shift on Utley made sense because the Class A coaching staff -- including manager Mike Redmond, a former big league catcher -- knew where Utley was most likely to hit the ball based on his 4,133 Major League at-bats, so they had a better chance of inducing an out. Even better, it provided a rare, teachable moment for Dunedin's young infielders.
"When you have a hitter like that who you know teams are going to shift against, you can do it and use it as a learning tool," said Doug Davis, Toronto's Minor League field coordinator. "Not that it's going to be utilized a whole lot down here, but now, at least these guys have it in the back of their minds and have some understanding as to why you do it.
"I think the tendency is probably to do it more. It's about trying to find ways to get outs and help your club win games, but I think it's a developmental tool as well."
For a Major League club, the decisions about when to shift are made by the manager and his staff, but the onus of collecting the necessary data isn't on them. While it isn't entirely the responsibility of Minor League coaches either, those clubs do keep spray charts on opposing teams and their hitters, especially players they often see. From there, it's up to the manager and his staff to determine when and how to implement shifts.
Some Minor League teams also benefit from advanced technology in their ballparks, including Pitch f/x and Hit f/x, while others do it the comparatively "old-fashioned" way with their coaches keeping tendency charts or their staff charting on computers and touch pads.
"Certain organizations do it, and others don't," said Nick Capra, the White Sox director of player development. "I could see the others conforming to it some time down the line."
Once that happens, if the technology allows it, there should be an uptick in Minor League defensive shifting. But beyond the question of how Minor League teams shift is perhaps a more important one: Should they?
The first reason is simple: to increase their chances of getting batters out and, therefore, increase their chances of winning games. Perhaps more important, at least for prospects, it will help them prepare for the next level. If big league teams continue to implement more frequent and radical shifts, why not make that another part of the development process?
As Ross Atkins, Cleveland's vice president of player development, put it: "If you're doing something in the Major Leagues, you need to learn how to do it in the Minor Leagues."
There is one exception to that rule, and it's the reason most clubs only use shifts in the Minors' higher levels -- certainly Triple-A and possibly Double-A. Just as there's little sense in rushing a pitching prospect to advanced levels before he's learned how to command his fastball, it would seem unwise to teach a second baseman when, why and how to play shallow right field in a shift if he's not fundamentally sound at his natural position.
But the main thing working against Minor League teams shifting more often remains the relative lack of information.
Baseball Info Solutions recently projected that the Rays, coming off a year in which they led the Majors with 216 shifts, are on pace for 695 this season. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's Minor League managers might move around their infielders only after facing an opposing team several times throughout the course of a season, giving them sufficient time to see enough at-bats and learn their tendencies.
"We do it on the Major League level, and we think it helps our infielders on the Minor League level to get acclimated," said Mitch Lukevics, Tampa Bay's director of Minor League operations. "We just can't do it as often as in the big leagues because we don't have that type of data."
"We don't have the information that certainly all Major League teams have about where every ball is hit. They have a strong database for that, where in the Minor Leagues we don't have that mechanism."
What will happen if and when the day comes when the technology to gather that data is readily available to every Minor League team? Well, maybe Utley will be right then: It won't be a big deal.
"It will be a learning tool for your Minor League players, and according to the information given, it can also help your ballclub by getting an out," Lukevics said. "That's the objective of the game."