White Sox

Shifting strategy: White Sox more dependent upon usage of defensive shifts

Shifting strategy: White Sox more dependent upon usage of defensive shifts

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.”

Avi Garcia's played in fewer than 20 games since April, but could he still attract trade-deadline suitors?

Avi Garcia's played in fewer than 20 games since April, but could he still attract trade-deadline suitors?

Avisail Garcia returned from his latest disabled-list stint with a bang, smacking a three-run home run in the fourth inning Saturday in Seattle.

The White Sox right fielder hasn't even played in 20 games since late April, when he went on his first DL trip, which lasted two months. A second, also featuring an injury to his hamstring, made it two weeks between games.

But when he has been able to step to the plate this summer, Garcia has been tremendously productive. He came into Saturday night with a .333/.347/.783 slash line and a whopping eight home runs in the 17 games he played in between his two DL stays. Then he added that homer Saturday night off longtime Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, giving him nine homers in his last 14 games.

Keeping this up could do an awful lot of things for Garcia: It could make his ice-cold start a distant memory, it could prove that last year's All-Star season might not have been a fluke, and it could keep him entrenched in the conversation about the White Sox outfield of the future, giving the team one of those good problems to have when deciding how he would fit into the puzzle alongside top prospects like Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert.

But here's another possibility: Has Garcia swung a hot enough bat in his limited action that he could be a trade candidate before this month runs out?

The White Sox don't figure to have too many players who are going to get contending teams worked up into a lather. James Shields, Joakim Soria, Luis Avilan, Xavier Cedeno. Those guys could classify as additions that would bolster teams' depth, but they might not be the attractive upgrades the White Sox were able to trade away last summer.

Garcia, though, could be. He might not slide into the middle of the order for too many contenders, but someone looking for a starting corner outfielder might be enticed by the kind of numbers Garcia has put up in June and July, albeit in a small sample size. Teams would also have to consider his health. He's already been to the disabled list twice this season. Teams would certainly have to be confident he wouldn't return in order to make a deal.

On the White Sox end, Garcia would figure to fetch a far more intriguing return package than the aforementioned pitchers, given that he's still pretty young (27) with one more season of team control after this one.

The White Sox have plenty of options when it comes to Garcia. They could deal him now, deal him later or keep as a part of the rebuild, extending him and making him a featured player on the next contending team on the South Side. But with a lot of significant injuries this year perhaps having an effect on when all those highly rated prospects will finally arrive in the majors — not to mention the disappointing win-loss numbers the big league team has put up this season — perhaps it would make more sense to acquire some rebuild-bolstering pieces.

Of course, it all depends on if there are any deals to be made. Do other teams' front offices like what they've seen from Garcia in this short stretch as much as White Sox fans have? We'll know by the time August rolls around.

The White Sox outfield is finally healthy, and it's got a lot to prove in the second half

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USA TODAY

The White Sox outfield is finally healthy, and it's got a lot to prove in the second half

The outfield the White Sox thought they'd have all season long is finally back together.

Avisail Garcia came off the disabled list ahead of Saturday night's game in Seattle, bringing an end to his second DL stint of the campaign, both of which involved hamstring injuries. Garcia's return came a day after the return of Nicky Delmonico, who had been on the DL with a broken hand since mid May.

Here we are 96 games into the season, and Garcia has logged just 35 games, with Delmonico playing in 38. Leury Garcia had his own lengthy DL trip and has played in only 59 games. Daniel Palka, the replacement for any variety of those injured outfielders, has played in 66 games. Adam Engel, the Opening Day center fielder who is once again struggling with the bat (he entered Saturday with a .215 batting average), is the lone outfielder to see action in an overwhelming majority of the team's contests. He's appeared in 86 of them.

At the dawn of the second half, though, everyone's healthy again. But as is the case with most positions on the current big league roster, how long into this rebuilding franchise's future will those players be occupying those spots?

Outfield is one of a couple areas in which the White Sox have incredible depth. Eloy Jimenez is the No. 2 prospect in baseball and gets a deserved amount of attention (he hit two home runs in Friday night's game down at Triple-A Charlotte), with Luis Robert generating plenty of excitement, too, with his high ranking and oft-discussed tool set. But those two headliners are hardly the only guys angling for a spot in the White Sox outfield of the future. There's Micker Adolfo, Blake Rutherford, Luis Alexander Basabe, Luis Gonzalez, Joel Booker and more all developing down in the minor leagues.

Will all those names make the current crop of White Sox outfielders, finally healthy, irrelevant? And if so, how quickly?

Garcia came into the season as the White Sox reigning All-Star representative, but health isn't the only area in which he's had bad luck this season. He had a very slow start at the plate, slashing just .233/.250/.315 with one homer in 18 games before hitting the DL for two months in late April. Of course, after returning from that first layoff, he was excellent. Garcia slashed .333/.347/.783 with eight homers in just 17 games between June 22 and July 8 before hitting the DL again.

Garcia still has plenty to prove if he wants to be a part of the White Sox long-term future, chiefly in the form of consistency. Some of his numbers in 2017 were among the best in the American League, but can he do that again? Injuries have wiped out his ability to show he can do it over the course of another full season, but the remaining two months and change of the 2018 campaign will be the perfect opportunity to show the White Sox, not to mention the rest of the league, that he is a dependable long-term piece. If he can do that, the White Sox could find offseason suitors or interested parties at next year's trade deadline to swap Garcia for a rebuild-improving package. Or they could opt to extend him. His team control runs out after the 2019 season. Remember: He's only 27 years old.

Delmonico was another player embarking on a "prove it" campaign when 2018 began, and the broken hand sure didn't help him out in that department. But he managed to impress enough to get into the long-term conversation in only two months of action last season. Perhaps he could do the same over the final 60-plus games of this season.

If he's going to impress enough to do that, though, he'll have to shake off his own not-so-great beginning to the season, when he slashed .224/.333/.302 with only one homer in 37 games. In Friday's second-half opener, he went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts.

Can any other members of this outfield do enough to keep themselves among the possibilities as the wave of prospects starts washing ashore on the South Side? For has hard as he's hit the ball — his nickname maybe should be "Exit Velocity" — Palka's managed just a .234 batting average and a .280 on-base percentage to go along with his 12 homers and 33 RBIs. Engel has still struggled to show he can do much offensively to complement his great defensive abilities. The player with the best case to stay in the conversation, at this point, might be Leury Garcia. The White Sox love his versatility, his ability to play both infield and outfield, and he's been on an offensive tear since returning from his own month-long layoff, slashing .338/.348/.477 in his last 20 games. Maybe he garners some interest as the trade deadline rapidly approaches?

Jimenez — slashing .319/.373/.594 with five homers in 18 games since being promoted to Triple-A — is coming. If he keeps this pace up, he'd figure to be a lock to play for the White Sox before the end of this season. But Rick Hahn has talked about the importance of Jimenez getting at-bats in Triple-A, and the 30-games-under-.500 White Sox are in no rush to bring up reinforcements before their development dictates it.

So there might be an increasingly limited window in which this crop of outfielders has the opportunity to prove its worth in the White Sox long-term plans. Injuries that have slowed things down for Robert and Adolfo have increased that opportunity for the current big leaguers, too. But as Basabe showed in last weekend's Futures Game, there's no shortage of outfield prospects knocking on the door. So for the Garcias, Delmonico, Engel and Palka, now's the time to impress.