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Shift in strategy for Red Sox
Will Middlebrooks hit .288 for the Boston Red Sox last season. If it hadn’t been for his current manager, he could have batted .300.
You see, John Farrell was with the Toronto Blue Jays last year. Among big-league managers, Farrell is one of the strongest believers in shifting infielders based on the batter’s spray chart. The concept isn’t new, especially with left-handed power hitters. But Farrell and his third base/infield coach, Brian Butterfield, aren’t afraid to use the tactic against right-handed batters like Middlebrooks.
“The Blue Jays got me a lot,” Middlebrooks said recently. “They would put a guy right up the middle. They took three or four hits away from me in two or three games.”
Middlebrooks had 77 hits in 267 at-bats. With three more hits in the same number of at-bats, Middlebrooks would have finished at .2996 — which rounds up to an even .300.
But now that Farrell and Butterfield have the same jobs in Boston, Middlebrooks can become a hit-stealing rover for the Red Sox and deprive someone else of rightful statistics.
Amid the spring discussion of how the Red Sox have changed their culture — and they have — Boston players (and fans) haven’t realized yet how much Farrell and Butterfield will transform the way they play. This isn’t a matter of shading a few steps in one direction or another when Mark Teixeira steps into the left-handed batter’s box. This is an entirely different way of conceptualizing run prevention in baseball.
Butterfield told me a few days ago that he will begin instructing Red Sox players next week on the terminology he uses and types of over-shifts they will deploy during the year. Butterfield said he actually stands in front of a dry-erase board to go over Xs and Os of the finer points, channeling the men who coach his favorite football teams — the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick and University of Michigan’s Brady Hoke.
“And it feels good,” Butterfield said with a smile.
Middlebrooks, as the regular third baseman, might be the most important player in Boston’s new defensive schemes.
Here’s why: Last year, the Blue Jays benefited from the versatility of their third baseman, Brett Lawrie. Because of Lawrie’s overall athleticism and experience at second base, Farrell dispatched him to short right field against some left-handed pull hitters. (In that instance, the goal of a shift is to have three infielders on the right side of second base.) That allowed Toronto’s shortstop and second baseman — usually Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson — to remain at effectively normal positions, where they were most comfortable.
Lawrie’s skill set meant that only one player — rather than three — was at an unfamiliar position on the diamond.
“We’re still trying to see the personnel and what we can do here, what would be best,” Butterfield said. “(Lawrie) made it easier on the rotation just because the only thing Yunel would end up doing differently was that he would have to (cover) third base (on doubles hit to the outfield).”
Middlebrooks, 24, has never played a position other than third base in a regular-season professional game. But he’s prepared to expand his defensive capabilities if asked by Farrell and Butterfield.
“They’re smart,” Middlebrooks said. “They play the spreadsheets. They know where everyone’s hitting the ball.
“I might be playing some right. We’ll see. We did it a little bit last year, with (Josh) Hamilton and (Matt) Wieters, but I haven’t done it a whole lot.”
The strategy has been known colloquially as the “Ted Williams Shift,” because of its use against the Hall of Famer during his career with the Red Sox. The tactic regained popularity as more left-handed power hitters entered the game in the 1990s. Butterfield was among the first to revive the over-shift while serving on the coaching staffs of Buck Showalter with the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks, against the likes of Mo Vaughn and Barry Bonds.
“When you’re confronting a great hitter with nobody on, you have an opportunity to mess with him a little bit,” Butterfield said. “With Albert Pujols early last year, we over-shifted. He was going through a struggling phase, anyway. Some of these guys, if they beat you in the opposite direction, it’s no harm done.
“One thing you get concerned about is when there are runners in scoring position. With a great hitter like David Ortiz, we got out of the shift with a runner at second base a long time ago because he’s so good. He can manipulate the bat. He just wants his RBI, where he’ll stay inside the ball and hit a ground ball to the (third-base) hole for an RBI. In a lot of cases, a (run producer thinks), ‘I’ve got an RBI shot. That’s where I get paid.’
“But with a man on first or nobody on, with those real good hitters, let’s go. Let’s roll the dice. We’re trying to defend well-executed pitches and balls hit firmly off the bat. So, you reinforce to your players, ‘Look, that was a ball off the end of the bat, a fisted ball that beat us. That’s OK. Don’t worry about it.’ We have a game plan on where we want to throw to him.”
Of course, it doesn’t always work. Bunts, stolen bases and unexpected line drives to the opposite field can cause havoc. Pitchers play a key role, too, because infielders are usually positioned in accordance with where, say, an inside fastball is supposed to be thrown. They also have the responsibility to cover third base.
“It’s a lot more complex once the ball’s put in play,” Butterfield said. “A pitcher’s concentrating on getting people out. You can tell them until you’re blue in the face, ‘Look, you’ve only got one guy on the left side. If he goes to steal second base, there’s nobody covering third. Instead of spectating, you’ve got to move over there.’ And catchers have got to have the wherewithal: If he doesn’t go, I’ve got to go. You don’t want to get embarrassed with a guy running by you.
“There’s so much that goes into it. We feel like we’ve got to start rehearsing, to give them a feel.”
Look out, Belichick: Another New England coach is getting ready to prepare his team with a defensive chalk talk.
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