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.”

Ozzie Guillén hates Nick Swisher, with his whole heart

Ozzie Guillén hates Nick Swisher, with his whole heart

If you didn't know, Ozzie Guillén has strong opinions and that includes former players he dealt with.

On the White Sox post-game show, host Chuck Garfien asked Guillén who he disliked more, Carlos Gomez or Nick Swisher.

"Oh my God, nobody can compare that with Nick Swisher," Guillén responded. "I hate Nick Swisher with my heart."

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Guillén declined to elaborate, but then added: "I think he hates me back, there's nothing wrong with that."

And finally Ozzie gave some kind of reason.

"I never talked to him, I was managing him, but I don't like the way his attitude was all fake. And I don't like fake people."

Then Chuck pointed out Swisher was only with the White Sox for one year and Guillén had thoughts about that to.

"It was one year too long," Guillén said.

Guillén doubled down and said he thinks others players would agree if they were honest, while clarifying he didn't hate him as a person and thought he was a good player.

The White Sox way wasn't the Swisher way, and there was friction.

Ozzie also admitted he might of misused Swisher.

"I played him center field and batting first or second, that guy has to be in right field batting tenth."


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White Sox end streak, stay confident: 'We are going to do the pushing around'

White Sox end streak, stay confident: 'We are going to do the pushing around'

The White Sox winning streak is over.

So why was Danny Mendick so chipper after a 1-0 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday night?

His three hits might have had something to do with it. He was just about the only offense the White Sox mustered against Adrian Houser and a pair of relievers.

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But it seemed to stem more from the different feeling surrounding this year's White Sox team.

Mendick got a taste, however small, of the rebuilding years at the tail end of the 2019 season. After Yoán Moncada and Tim Anderson and Lucas Giolito and Eloy Jiménez broke out the way they did during that campaign, Rick Hahn's front office complemented them with a host of impact veteran additions during the offseason. Throw it all together, and these White Sox have the look of a potential contender, something backed up by the way they played during their six-game win streak.

That's over now, though Wednesday's game had the same kind of playoff feel that the first two games against the Brewers did on Monday and Tuesday nights. The White Sox might not have played any games that felt like these in the last three years. Now there have been three in three nights.

So yeah, something's changed.

"I’ll tell you what, just the energy in the clubhouse," Mendick said Wednesday, asked about the difference between 2019 and 2020. "When we show up to the field, there’s more confidence.

"It’s not like we are going to get pushed around. It’s more like we are going to do the pushing around.

"Everyone is just prepared. Everyone shows up to the field ready. They know the opponent. We know what they are going to bring. I feel there’s just more, how do I say this, more education. We have more veterans. We have guys who are really focused on baseball, and it brings a lot to everybody."

RELATED: White Sox manager Rick Renteria finally has talent — and knows what to do with it

The six-game win streak turned the White Sox slow 1-4 start around in a hurry. In this shortened, 60-game season, every game means so much and even modest winning or losing streaks could tug the entire season in one direction or the other. The White Sox went from getting their brains beat in by the class of the AL Central to the third best record in the American League as of Wednesday morning.

They've showed what they're capable of, too. They blew out the Kansas City Royals, scoring a combined 20 runs and knocking out a total of 35 hits in back-to-back wins last weekend. Then they went to Milwaukee and won a pair of nail-biters, getting clutch hits from José Abreu and Jiménez to back strong efforts by the bullpen Monday and Giolito on Tuesday.

Wednesday, it was one of those newly arrived veterans, Dallas Keuchel, who shone. He logged seven one-run innings, the first White Sox starter to pitch in the seventh inning this season. If it weren't for the unusually cool conditions on the South Side, the outcome might have been different. Luis Robert and Moncada dialed up back-to-back deep fly balls in the eighth inning that both could have easily gone as go-ahead homers on a normal summer night.

The clutch hits could have kept on coming. And the knowledge of being competitive — the "belief," as Giolito keeps putting it — prevented the White Sox from feeling down after another fine effort Wednesday. It will likely do so every night for the remainder of this short season.

"The thing that probably has impressed me the most is the resiliency of the club," Hahn said Wednesday. "Obviously, those of us who have watched this team over the last several years, and certainly in the early phase of the rebuild, knew that feeling that you would get early or midway through games where you would feel the lead was perhaps insurmountable. I think looking at this club through the first 10 or 11 games so far, it feels like we're not out of any ballgame, regardless of what the deficit may be.

"I think that's a great testament to not just the veterans that have been brought in, but the growth of the young guys and the mentality I'm sure you've all picked up on going back to (spring training in) Glendale."

Part of the reason additions like Keuchel, Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnación looked so good during the winter was the playoff experience these guys have. While the White Sox core doesn't know what it's like to win at the big league level — not even Abreu does, who played for six losing White Sox teams before signing a new multi-year deal in the offseason — these guys do. They're all veterans of pennant races and playoff runs that go all the way to the end of October. Keuchel's got a World Series ring on his resume.

Experience with the highs and lows of a winning season might not be quite as valuable in this most unusual of seasons. But before the White Sox can be championship contenders, they actually need to do some winning. After a combined 284 losses in the last three seasons, even a six-game winning streak can mean a lot.

But whether they won or lost Wednesday, it didn't seem like the result was going to sway their belief. These White Sox are here to compete and live up to the high expectations they set for themselves dating all the way back to the end of an 89-loss season in 2019.

"We've been hot, and eventually it's going to come to an end. But man, we were right in the ballgame. That's all we can ask for," Keuchel said. "Game in, game out, we know that we're going to be in those contests.

"If we can win series, that's a playoff recipe."


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