BOSTON – Gerrit Cole made a comment last night about the pitch sequence being an issue in his at-bat against Andrew Benintendi. He threw a fastball inside for a swinging strike on a 1-1 count, then went for the same thing on a 2-2 pitch. Benintendi launched it over the right field wall for a three run homer, breaking open the five run fifth inning.
Francisco Cervelli was asked about the sequencing of pitches, and took the blame. He said that the calls were on him, and he shouldn’t have called that pitch in hindsight, even though it worked so well just a moment before.
I thought this was big of Cervelli, but at the same time, kind of harsh. Home runs will happen. As I’m writing this, I’m watching Jose Quintana allowing two home runs in a five run second inning. The pitch they attempted worked earlier. It might have worked again, but obviously didn’t. It might work in the future. A bad outcome shouldn’t dictate a future approach, since that one bad outcome is too small of a sample size.
But I don’t feel I need to preach this to anyone following baseball. It’s universally accepted that pitchers will make a pitch they’d like to have back. It’s a decision that is a result of analytics which break down a hitter’s zone, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
The same is true of defensive shifts. They’re driven by analytics, breaking down where a hitter usually hits the ball, and sometimes they just don’t work out. Except the shifts aren’t universally accepted as a normal decision in the game. They’re seen as something extra where a team tries to get cute with numbers, rather than using the numbers to define a normal strategy.
Because of this view, defensive shifts are ignored when they work, and criticized heavily when they don’t work. When David Freese got Mitch Moreland in shallow right field on a ground out to start the fifth inning, no one said a word. It was an extreme shift, and it was viewed as the right call because it worked. When Sandy Leon beat the same shift later in the inning with two outs and a runner on first, it was seen as the wrong call because it didn’t work.
You can’t say that a successful shift was the right call and that an unsuccessful shift was the wrong call after the fact. You need to make the evaluations on the idea and approach, and less on the outcomes. The outcomes will determine whether the strategy is a good one, but you need a hell of a lot more than one or two examples to get a good sample size. Otherwise, you can tear any strategy down with a sample size of one or two.
Defensive shifts are just like every other approach in baseball which is based on analytics. They should be evaluated in the same way as a normal strategy, just like pitch selection, stolen base attempts, or other normal approaches.
When a pitcher throws a pitch, the analytics help determine what pitch to throw and where to throw it, based on the trends for the pitcher and for the hitter.
When a runner attempts a steal, he does so based on the pitcher’s time to the plate, the catcher’s pop time (from the moment it hits the glove to the moment it reaches the second baseman’s glove) and the base runner’s usual speed to second. If the runner is faster or has a good chance of beating the combined delivery and pop time, they attempt a steal.
When a runner on a base tags up to advance on a fly ball, they do so based on data on the outfielder’s arm.
When a third baseman starts creeping in toward the plate with runners at first and second and less than two outs, he’s doing so because the numbers say there might be a bunt coming.
Wait a minute. That last one was a defensive shift. It’s just that is one of the acceptable defensive shifts, to the point where it isn’t even considered a shift. Just like the outfielders playing deep for a power hitter, the infielders fading left or right, and the infielders going to double play depth. If the third baseman creeps in to field a bunt and the opposing hitter draws back and rips a line drive right past him, you’d never hear calls for infielders to avoid creeping in to field a bunt. It would just be a good play by the hitter.
The Sandy Leon bunt was a good play by Leon. It takes a perfect bunt in that situation to beat the shift, which is why it’s much easier said than done. The question about shifts wonders why opposing hitters don’t lay down a bunt like that. The answer is because it doesn’t turn out that way often. If Leon bunts that harder, Jordy Mercer has a play. If he bunts it softer, Cervelli or Cole could play it. If he tries to bunt a little harder, the ball might get pushed to the left into foul territory. If the misses to the right, it’s an easy play for Cole. But he got it in the perfect spot where there was no margin for error, and where Cole had to rush to make a play, which led to him fumbling the ball and Leon reaching base.
You don’t question the shifts because Leon made a great play. Just like you don’t question the pitch to Benintendi because it worked once and didn’t work the second time. If these lead to bad outcomes often and over a large sample, then you start to question the approach. But no matter how much strategy is incorporated, you’re going to have bad outcomes. Hopefully we’ll one day get to a point where the more extreme defensive shifts are just seen as normal strategy, and the bad results are chalked up as just that.
**Pittsburgh Pirates 2017 Minor League Rosters and Playing Time Analysis. A breakdown of each roster for the full season teams, along with analysis of the playing time.
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Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.