KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The White Sox are shifting their defense more than ever this season and have had great success with it so far.
Entering Wednesday, the club ranks third in the majors with 312 shifts implemented and is on pace for more than 2,000, according to Fangraphs.com. The increase in shifts would almost double the number the White Sox used last season (1,079) and represents an increase of nearly 4,300 percent from the 46 put on in 2012.
While general manager Rick Hahn suggested in October that manager Rick Renteria’s staff would be more analytically inclined, the White Sox have used a blend spray charts and video scouting to their advantage. The club entered Wednesday with a .210 opponents’ average against on ground balls, which is tied for third-best in the majors, according to MLB.com’s Statcast database.
“It’s just a lot of information, watching a lot of video” bench coach Joe McEwing said. “There’s a lot of factors to determine who we’re going to shift. Breaking down video on each hitter — against a righty, against a lefty, against our guys, against velocity, against pitch type, against runners in scoring position, against runners on first pitch.
“It’s a long process of breaking down a hitter and breaking down video, and watching so many clips and so many ground balls and what pitch type or what location will induce that ground ball.”
The preparation that goes into determining which players to shift and which not to takes about 3-to-3 1/2 hours per series, McEwing said. Poring over spray charts is only the start of the process for McEwing, who proceeds to then watch every ground ball an opposing player has hit dating back to April 1 of last year. McEwing said he not only considers the outcome but also the velocity of the pitch, pitch location, how the batter hits with runners in scoring position or a man on first base and other factors to determine the best way to attack.
The White Sox are very comfortable with the shift as their 312 times used has only been bested by the Tampa Bay Rays (353) and Milwaukee Brewers (329) this season.
“We have to stay ahead of the curve,” Renteria said. “There’s more to it than the spray charts. We are actually trying to follow their in-game thinking a little bit. Those are things that we take into account, factors we use to determine what we do and the modifications we make.”
“We are catching a lot of balls.”
James Shields has more experience than most when it comes to pitching into the shift.
He played six seasons for Joe Maddon, who is almost single-handedly responsible for baseball’s fascination with creating a defensive advantage by stacking one side of the infield with three defenders. According to Fangraphs, Shields is the second-most shifted pitcher in baseball since 2010 with 695, which is as far back as the stat was recorded.
The Rays were the first team in baseball history to use some form of the shift more than 150 times in a season, Shields said. They believed the endeavor to be successful if they recorded an out 75 percent of the time.
“Did I agree with it?” Shields said. “I definitely agree with the shift, but sometimes they work and sometimes they work against you. And these hitters are good enough to make an adjustment and hit the ball the other way. But then again, you get hitters that might be changing their approaches at the plate. There’s a lot of different intangibles that go with it.”
One variable that has led to such a significant increase in shifts is that the 2017 White Sox possess more players who pitch to contact. Dylan Covey, Jose Quintana and Miguel Gonzalez all rank among the top 16 pitchers with shifts utilized and Shields still ranks 46th even though he hasn’t pitched in two weeks.
Last season, Chris Sale only had 105 shifts used behind him because he’s more of a power pitcher. Gonzalez on the other hand already has 58 shifts used, which ranks second in baseball.
Another factor is that the White Sox are comfortable trusting their infielders to make the plays behind their pitchers. On more than a half dozen occasions Wednesday, the shift left Todd Frazier playing in at shortstop while Tim Anderson stood about 10 feet on the second base side of the bag and Yolmer Sanchez stood in shallow right field.
“So many things have to go right for it all to work,” McEwing said. “You have to have the athletes, execution of a pitch in a certain spot. There are certain areas in the strike zone or out of the zone that will allow a hitter to beat the shift. We talk about how we’re going to pitch them early, pitch them late, how we’re going to finish them.”
Pitch execution is by far the most critical element. When the Detroit Tigers’ Victor Martinez beat a White Sox shift last week with a single through the spot where Anderson is normally located, it was a missed location, McEwing said.
“(McEwing) has so much information for us and it helps so much,” Gonzalez said. “All we have to do is execute the pitch.”
Shields trusts the information, but he also does his own homework. He wants to see how batters have fared against similar pitchers in the past as well as against himself. The veteran then works with the coaching staff’s information and together they determine a plan for how to attack hitters.
“I do my own research on top of theirs and we combine them and make the best judgment,” Shields said.
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McEwing said the same scenario plays out with each pitcher and the strategy isn’t implemented unless the pitcher is comfortable. Last season, Zach Duke wasn’t comfortable pitching in front of the shift and the White Sox limited their usage.
On the defensive side, infielder Tyler Saladino said he’s learned to trust the gameplan, even if he first found it to be awkward. Saladino remembers the first time he stood in a shift as a shortstop playing on the right field side of second base. Left-handed hitter Jason Giambi singled through the left side and Saladino forgot to cover second base, watching the play instead.
But after several years of experience, Saladino and his teammates are comfortable with the shift, which is directly tied to the preparation of the coaching staff.
“Nothing is too weird because you’re there for a reason,” Saladino said. “That’s why you’ve got to trust what they say. ‘What about the whole other side of the field?’ You’re in a shift and its three of us on one side. Well, you’re there for a reason.”
Though he’s only in his first season as bench coach, McEwing has helped the White Sox slowly implement the shift. The White Sox increased shift usage from 46 in 2012 to 102 in 2013 before a sharp jump to 588 in 2014. The club used some form of a shift 616 times in 2015 before jumping to 1,079 last season.
McEwing said he doesn’t have a percentage that the club has to reach to consider the shift successful — it’s all about the end result.
“Really all I care about is wins and if that helps us create an out where it gives us a better chance to win than yeah, it’s satisfaction,” McEwing said. “All I know is we try to prepare the best we possibly can to put them in position to win.”