In the top of the seventh inning on June 1, Twins reliever Trevor Hildenberger was up 0-2 on Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis. But before Hildenberger delivered the next pitch, third baseman Miguel Sano jogged from the left side of the infield to the right to join his teammates who were shifting against Kipnis.
Hildenberger threw a changeup low and away that Kipnis, a lefthanded hitter, hit at 95 mph, according to Statcast. It went right to Sano, who made the easy play in what became a 7-4 Twins victory.
Sano scooped the grounder from the same spot where second baseman Brian Dozier would normally play — or at least, where Dozier might play if this were 20, 10 or even two years ago. But in 2018, having a third baseman field a ball on the right side of second base qualifies as the new normal. That’s especially true for teams like the analytically driven Twins, who incorporate the shift as a regular part of their defense instead of a one-off gizmo reserved only for the most extreme pull hitters.
“If we’re going to talk about pitching in front of shifts, it’s just called pitching now,” starter Jake Odorizzi said.
“It’s almost abnormal if you have a straight up defense.”
It has changed the way the Twins approach their overall strategy in a game while players have tried not to let it distract them from doing what they do best, whether they are on the mound with a shift at the backs, or at the plate trying to figure out how to beat another team’s shift.
According to data the Major League Baseball recently made available, the Twins employ a shift, which is defined as having three infielders on one side of second base, in 29 percent of all plate appearances. That’s the third-highest rate, with the Astros in first at a whopping 43.2 percent, according to Baseballsavant.com.
It’s also up significantly from the 14.1 percent the Twins shifted hitters in 2017. The Twins’ 14.9 percentage point increase is the second-biggest jump.
This is one area where you see the intersection of analytics and the actual game. Most of these shifts come from data the Twins collect on opposing hitters.
“There is no such thing as straight up anymore,” Dozier said. “Everything is based on spray charts and that kind of stuff. If you look at a guy’s spray chart, straight up is not anywhere close to that.”
Dozier even said that there was one instance against the Royals where the Twins shaded a hitter one day and used an “extreme shift” the next because of how the hitter might hit the particular pitch mix of that day’s starter. That’s how intricate the shifts have become.
“You factor in who’s on the mound, the count and the game,” Dozier said.
That’s why Sano shifted over to the right side against Kipnis with an 0-2 count. There was no threat Kipnis was going to lay down a bunt, so the Twins could shift even more.
Does it work?
Odorizzi thought “double play” all the way. In the top of the sixth Wednesday, he had forced White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu to hit a weak grounder up the middle, a ball that in a standard infield would be an easy 6-4-3 double play.
Except, it became an infield hit because shortstop Ehire Adrianza was playing deep in the hole at short, where Abreu tends to hit a lot of his grounders. Instead of Odorizzi getting two outs with nobody on, the White Sox had two on with nobody out. He exited the game and the White Sox went on to score four runs in what became a 5-2 Twins loss.
Odorizzi expressed frustration with the move — which wasn’t technically a shift, but certainly a repositioning — saying, “in that situation, there just has to be a double play.”
Odorizzi’s frustration was not directed at Adrianza, who simply followed his coaching, but at that particular positioning how it might not have accounted for Abreu adjusting to a two-strike count.
Not every shift is going to be perfect. The Twins just hope over the totality of the season it works more often than not.
“When you first [pitch with the shift], you think you might give up a hit on a certain ball and you turn around and there’s a guy standing right there,” Odorizzi said. “Some of those are happy surprises when you see a guy take away a hit, but then you get the frustrating ones where it’s a ground ball where a guy should be playing traditionally and it’s a hit even if it’s a 20-hopper and not a lot of high velocity off the bat.”
Over the long haul, does the shift actually work? The answer is not clear cut, but the numbers suggest it is working more than it isn’t.
Baseball Prospectus’ analysis recently showed that pitchers’ walk rates go up significantly when throwing in front of a shift. One theory is that pitchers might not feel entirely comfortable throwing in front of a shift. Multiple Twins pitchers, however, said they don’t feel any discomfort.
“I don’t do anything different,” reliever Addison Reed said. “I’m willing to attack the hitter. … If my strength is a down-and-away fastball … the shift is on because even if you throw them a low and away heater, they’re still going to try and pull it and roll it over.”
Kyle Gibson said he can’t afford to tweak his pitch mix because of shifting.
“I’ve got to still pitch to my strengths, and it’s our coaches’ job to make sure they’re shifting to how I’m going to pitch with my strengths,” he said.
The numbers say the Twins are not immune to higher walk rates, which increase from 7.9 percent in front of standard alignment to 10.8 percent in front of the shift, according to Statcast.
But overall, the shift appears to be working for the Twins. Opponents’ on-base percentage (. 326 vs. .303) and slugging percentage (. 415 vs. .379) are both lower against the shift than standard alignments — although Gibson said it could be hard to measure a shift’s effectiveness with precision.
“It’s always interesting to sit in the dugout and look and say, ‘Well yeah, the shift caught that ball, but that’s exactly where he’d be playing.’ And then there are balls that wouldn’t get caught,” Gibson said. “That’s how it goes.”
Facing the shift
No Twins hitter stares out at a shift more than Logan Morrison — 65.3 percent of his plate appearances, the 21st-highest rate in baseball of those with at least 50 plate appearances.
The first baseman/designated hitter said bunting against a shift or trying to poke the ball the other way isn’t as easy as it sounds, so his approach doesn’t change.
“There’s not a team that doesn’t shift me,” Morrison said. “My mental thing is to not hit a ground ball. Get the ball in the air. That’s all. … It just made my at-bats worse trying to manipulate the ball, hit the ball the other way, trying to hit it where they weren’t vs. just trying to hit the ball hard.”
Morrison tries to use shifting to his advantage, as a clue into what type of pitches might becoming.
“There are teams that I can go up there and have a good idea I’ll get this pitch at some point during the at-bat,” he said. “But at other times, depending on the pitcher, the team, sometimes you just don’t have that feel.”
Dozier faces shifts 41.3 percent of the time. He said he’s mindful of the situation when he sees a shift.
“It goes more in depth than ‘just block it out’ or ‘change your approach,’ ” Dozier said. “If we need a baserunner, I’m going to try and bunt or get on. … But if it’s two outs in the situation, a single is not anywhere close to as good as a double off the wall or even a homer with two outs. That’s just how the game is nowadays.
“Whether that’s good or bad for the game, that’s for you guys to debate.”
When he’s on the other side of the shift, Dozier doesn’t want to lose the essence of being fielder — the feel of where to play someone, the instincts to shade him one way or another.
“That feel that I know what this guy is trying to do,” Dozier said. “I can see him flying open or I could see him trying to stay closed — that kind of stuff that is a lost art in the game because there is so much information. You don’t want to take away people having accountability on the field, which I think is a must.”
Dozier recognizes that shifting, for better or for worse, is now an integral part of the game. Just like the pitchers who pitch with it and the hitters who hit into it.
“We had this idea that the infielders should be here and outfielders should be here,” Gibson said. “That’s just where they started. That doesn’t mean it’s the best spot to play.”
Added Morrison: “I don’t even think it’s a shift anymore. It’s just how they play you, right?”
Maybe at some point the shift will just be called defense.