No shifting behind this Met

Zack Wheeler admits he’s not a fan of the shift

On Saturday morning, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson joined Dan Brooks, Dave Cameron and Ben Lindbergh on a panel moderated by Jonah Keri at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The central topic the panel discussed on day two of the event was the effect the large increase in defensive shifts during recent seasons has had on the game, which prompted this interesting tidbit:

Alderson wouldn’€™t name names when it came to the specific pitcher but on Monday the culprit became apparent. Mike Vorkunov covers the Mets for the Star-Ledger and got starting pitcher Zack Wheeler to open up regarding the shift:

I don’t want to piss anybody off but, honestly, I don’t like it. Teams are starting to be more analytical these days. So I hate to say that numbers don’t lie because I don’t like analytics all that much but I’m not the boss here. I really can’t control it. They know where I stand on that.

Vorkunov writes that Wheeler approached the team’€™s coaching staff last season with a couple concerns about the team deploying the shift behind him. The first was that he felt the shift hindered his ability to bury breaking pitches in the dirt with runners on third base. With the third baseman playing off the line during a shift against a left-hander, a runner would naturally be able to get a larger lead off the bag and would be likelier to score if a ball squibbed away from the catcher. The struggles that Wheeler’s batterymate, Travis d’€™Arnaud, had keeping the ball in front of him last season probably didn’€™t ease Wheeler’€™s peace of mind.

It’€™s a fair point by Wheeler and manager Terry Collins admitted as much. Meeting Wheeler halfway in such a specific situation isn’€™t too much to ask. The bigger potential disconnect between Wheeler and the coaching staff lies with the pitcher’€™s further comments in Vorkunov’€™s article about being frustrated when a would-be routine groundout in a standard alignment goes through for a hit because of the shift. While the Mets didn’€™t completely eliminate shifting behind Wheeler, Collins indicated that they did alter their usage behind the youngster as a result. Interestingly enough, the Mets aren’€™t extreme users of the shift; they ranked 23rd in baseball last season with just 221 total shifts according to the 2015 Bill James Handbook.

Wheeler is by no means the first pitcher to show resistance to the shift. At last year’€™s SABR Seminar, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow recalled similar pushback during his first two seasons with the club. However, Luhnow got the majority of the staff to buy in after carving out an hour during spring training to illustrate the front office’€™s thought process and encouraged questions the players might have.

Alderson wouldn’€™t officially confirm to Vorkunov that Wheeler was the pitcher he was referring to, but he said that generally he is willing to make concessions in situations like this. However, he admitted that doing so could be a failure in communication between the front office and the on-field personnel.

One of the more encouraging steps Wheeler made during his sophomore campaign was a groundball rate that spiked over 10 percentage points to 54 percent, a mark that ranked ninth among qualified starting pitchers. The jump was a product of a slight move away from his four-seam fastball and more sinkers, curves and changeups thrown, naturally resulting in him living more down in the zone. The Mets front office would probably prefer if they could take advantage of all those extra worm killers with what they consider the most optimal infield alignment.

Astros one of several teams implementing shift-specific spring training drills

While shifting made the news for the wrong reasons for the Mets, Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle outlined some additional drills that the Astros are practicing this spring. According to the 2015 Bill James Handbook, the club jumped from 497 shifts in 2013 all the way to the top of the leaderboard at 1,341. That was over 500 more shifts than the next most shift-friendly team.

With so many instances where Houston infielders find themselves out of standard positioning, manager A.J. Hinch says that this spring his staff hast spent "€œa lot of time on a dry-erase board trying to figure out every single play we can think of."€ One example that Hinch gave to Drellich was a stolen base attempt by a runner on first with a full shift deployed against a left-handed hitter. In this scenario, the lone fielder on the left side of the infield might be on the receiving end of a throw from the catcher. If so, the pitcher now has the responsibility of covering third base to avoid plays like this.

The Indians have similarly been trying out extra drills with the shift on, according to Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com. An example that bench coach Brad Mills gave Hoynes was practicing who goes where for cutoffs and who covers what base on an extra-base hit to the outfield in various shift alignments and base situations. Mills added that the club will likely implement shifts during spring training games against batters they wouldn’€™t normally shift against to get more familiar with these unique in-game situations. He did note, however, that they wouldn’€™t use such superfluous shifts if the pitcher on the mound was fighting for a roster spot.

The Red Sox have made a game of beating the shift, as hitting coach Chili Davis created a game called "€œover the line"€ BP, writes Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe. The game goes for about 30 minutes with the position players splitting into teams and trying to accumulate points by beating opposing defensive shifts. David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Hanley Ramirez and Xander Bogaerts are all extremely pull-heavy and the latter three are all likely to see a uptick in shifts this season if the league-wide trend in right-handed shifts continues. Pablo Sandoval and Shane Victorino are also pull-heavy when batting right-handed, with the former likely to see three fielders on the left side of the infield more often this season after making the move to the shift-happy AL East.

It’€™s not just pitchers and fielders adding new fundamental drills to their spring routine. Hinch told Drellich that there would be an emphasis placed on adding the ability to bunt for base hits to the repertoire of several players who could face the shift including Jonathan Singleton, Jason Castro, Colby Rasmus and minor-leaguer Preston Tucker.

The Astros aren’€™t the only team whose left-handed sluggers are practicing bunting to beat the shift. Brandon Belt laid down the most memorable bunt to beat the shift of the year during the World Series, sparking a rally that led to the Giants getting on the board first in a Game 5 win. It was Belt’€™s first bunt hit of his career and the young slugger told Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News on Monday that he plans on utilizing the strategy more this season.

Another left-handed slugger who vowed to bunt against the shift more often this season is Chris Davis, who talked about his frustrations hitting into the shift on a Baltimore radio show last month. Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun caught Davis practicing his bunting during practice last week.

Finally, Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond got some extra reps in practice this week to get accustomed to shifting. Mark Zuckerman of CSN Washington writes that the veteran shortstop took a handful of grounders at second base during practice on Monday to get a feel for playing on the right side of the infield. Such occasions were rare last season, though, given that the Nationals finished second-to-last in shifts.

Chris Mosch is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @chris_mosch 

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