LAKELAND, Fla. — No American League team shifted its infielders last year more often than the Tigers, who shifted on 50.5 percent of opposing plate appearances according to Statcast. Don’t expect that to change dramatically under new manager A.J. Hinch, whose Astros led the AL in shifts in each of the previous four seasons.
The way Hinch utilizes those shifts might change.
“I didn’t look at the number of shifts,” Hinch said Wednesday, “because I don’t think that’s relevant in terms of quality of shifts. I’ve looked back at our defense and [I’m] more so interested in spacing and the zone defense that the shift creates, not necessarily the total number.”
Hinch has referred to zone defense multiple times since Spring Training began last week, a phrase more often used in football or basketball. For Hinch, it obviously isn’t about defending players, but defending areas of the field where a batted ball might be likely to go.
“The reality is we don’t know exactly where the ball is going to be hit,” Hinch said. “I mean, we want to believe that we do. When you take three guys over on either side of the infield, it’s about 110-115 feet, I’ve got three dudes to cover it. And when you talk about it in that phrase with zone defense, you’re talking about them having to communicate when balls are hit in between them. That’s what’s really important, where there’s a responsibility. …
“It’s a team over there that’s working together to get every ground ball, and it’s just the way I’ve approached it. We’re trying to cover ground.”
How they do it is up for debate. If a team shifts to the right side of the infield on a left-handed hitter, it can move the third baseman to the other side and leave the shortstop in his traditional spot, or it can shift everyone in their usual order and put the third baseman in charge of the entire left side. That decision last year sometimes changed from the start of an at-bat to a two-strike count.
Another debate Hinch noted is when coaches can see a trend in hitters that isn’t yet reflected in the data, whether to try to get ahead of a trend or react to it.
“The key is to put your players in a position where the ball is going to be hit the most, and do it for the right reasons with the proper spacing,” Hinch said. “That’s going to be the first thing that we talk about here is proper spacing, making sure that we’re communicating and covering the area.”
The other half, of course, is pitching. According to the Bill James Handbook, Matthew Boyd gained five outs from shifts but lost 10, a minus-5 net that tied for the lowest among qualified pitchers in baseball last year. The difference brought his career mark to a minus-1. Hinch welcomes input from pitchers but notes that it’s hard to defend a badly executed pitch.
While some pitchers talk about pitching to the shift, Hinch has argued against it in meetings with them.
“I mean, we’re going where the result is, not necessarily where you’re pitching,” Hinch said. “Generally the guys that we play to pull, they pull the outside pitch all the time, and they pull the ball on the ground. …
“I’ve told our pitchers, ‘We can talk about it, let me know what you’re comfortable with, but you’ve got to have a reason why you want to move the infield, or not just because you’re uncomfortable.’”
Thinking of Tiger
Hinch played college ball at Stanford University in the 1990s, when the school boasted a promising young golfer named Tiger Woods. He has seen Woods at alumni events and at some games over the years. When Hinch saw the footage of Woods’ car following his Tuesday morning accident in California, he said he felt sick to his stomach.
“It’s scary when you see the footage and you see the car and then they recap how they think the accident happened,” Hinch said. “And you immediately go to his family. He’s got young kids. It’s very scary. You pray for him and hope that he gets through all this, these surgeries, and just can get some stability back in his life health-wise.”
• Reliever Gregory Soto took part in Wednesday’s workout after being cleared through intake testing. The left-hander had been delayed due to travel issues. He’ll throw to hitters on Thursday. “He just finished playing [winter ball] a few weeks ago, so congratulations to the hitters that draw him,” Hinch said. “He’s game-ready.”
• Outfielder Daz Cameron stood in the batters’ box against pitchers Wednesday but didn’t swing as he progresses from a right elbow injury that shut him down from winter ball. “He’s increasing his activities,” Hinch said. “We’re hoping to get him on a field to take batting practice on the field in the coming days.”