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.”

White Sox Talk Podcast: Bob Nightengale shares his thoughts on what starting pitcher is right fit for White Sox

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: Bob Nightengale shares his thoughts on what starting pitcher is right fit for White Sox

It's Day 2 of the Winter Meetings. USA Today's Bob Nightengale joins Chuck Garfien, Ryan McGuffey and Vinnie Duber.

Nightengale shares his thoughts on what starting pitcher is the right fit (2:00), the message the Grandal signing sends to the rest of the league (6:00), predictions for who the White Sox will sign this week (12:00) and when the Sox window is open (13:30).

Plus, he shares some memories of past Winter Meetings including his favorite cocktail napkin trade and the best late-night stories from past years (16:00).

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

White Sox Talk Podcast

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If the White Sox are looking for a trade, how about Starling Marte?

If the White Sox are looking for a trade, how about Starling Marte?

SAN DIEGO — Rick Hahn said Monday night that his front office spent more time talking trades than it did free-agent signings during the first day of the Winter Meetings.

That doesn't mean anything is imminent — with Hahn adding that the White Sox felt "no urgency" to get any specific moves done during this four-day excursion to Southern California — but it means the South Siders are exploring the trade market with some level of gusto.

Well, given the White Sox need in the outfield, how about this trade candidate: Starling Marte. Who knows if the White Sox have any interest, but they seem to line up as potential fit for his services.

According to MLB Network's Jon Heyman, the Pittsburgh Pirates are looking for a "young, controllable catcher" in exchange for the 31-year-old outfielder. The White Sox just happen to have one of those in Zack Collins, who currently sits third on the catching depth chart behind the recently signed Yasmani Grandal and James McCann, both of whom were All Stars in 2019.

Now, the White Sox have been strong in their belief that Collins can help the team into the far future. They spent a top-10 draft pick on him back in 2016, and he's put up some promising numbers in the minor leagues. He got his first taste of big league action in 2019, slashing .186/.307/.349 in 102 at-bats, a pretty small sample size. The numbers that still provide the most hope came after he was sent back to Triple-A in July, when he hit .323/.441/.631 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs in 38 games.

The White Sox want to get his bat in the lineup more often. Problem is, they just went out and gave the bulk of the catching duties to Grandal, with another All Star ready to soak up the majority of the backup opportunities behind him. Major league rosters will expand to 26 players in 2019, and there's a good deal of belief that many clubs will use that extra spot to carry a third catcher. Collins has also been mentioned as part of a potential rotation at DH, and he's been working defensively at first base, as well.

Of course, there are also the defensive questions that have hounded Collins since he was drafted. Talk of DH and first base didn't just pop up once the White Sox got Grandal. They were viewed as a potential necessity in case Collins struggled defensively as a big league catcher. Certainly the sample size to this point is nowhere near big enough to determine how he'll fare behind the plate in the long term. But it's a mystery, nonetheless, and something other teams probably know about, too.

As for what kind of fit Marte would be, he posted a career-high .845 OPS in 2019 to go along with a career-high 23 home runs and a career-high 82 RBIs. He was a Gold Glove left fielder when Andrew McCutchen still roamed center field for the Pirates but played center field exclusively the last two seasons, with less-than-ideal production: He had minus-nine Defensive Runs Saved in center in 2019. Of course, the White Sox don't really need a center fielder, with Luis Robert figures to man that position for the bulk of 2020 and beyond, and maybe Marte could be a solution in right field, where they have a pressing need. Marte, though, has never played right field in the major leagues.

The White Sox could use some hitters with better on-base skills, and Marte does not walk, doing so just 25 times in 2019. But he did reach base at a .342 clip, his highest mark since his All-Star season in 2016.

Marte would be an obvious upgrade, but he doesn't have a ton of team control left, which could make the White Sox hesitant to move a top-ranked prospect like Collins in such a deal. Marte is under club control for 2020 and has a team option for 2021. Hahn talked about the front office's lack of desire to move the prospects they've accumulated Monday night.

“There’s been, obviously, the pains and suffering that comes along with the early stages of a rebuild. We endured all that so we would be able to be in a position of building something that was going to be able to win on an annual basis, that was going to have some success for an extended period of time,” Hahn said. “Right now, we are in a bit of an interesting spot.

“Fundamentally, as a fan that has dealt with the hardships over the last three years, you want that benefit, that promised-land side of things to come more quickly. At the same time, we have to keep in mind why we started this and that was to build something sustainable. You don’t want to do anything short-sighted that’s just going to, trade wise, give us a quick bump next year but compromise the extended window we foresee coming when this all comes together.

“You need to be cognizant of that temptation to try to accelerate things. We want to get this to where it needs to be as quickly as possible. We don’t want to do that at the expense of shortening the window or making the window more difficult when it does open, whether that’s in the next few months or it takes a little longer.

“If we are trading a premium type prospect, it’s going to be for someone who will be here for a while.“

So it depends on how "premium" the White Sox believe Collins to be. What's true is that he plays a position that the White Sox now have in surplus, and that's the kind of thing that was supposed to create trade possibilities for this rebuilding organization. That hasn't materialized in many spots, thanks to injuries and under-performance throughout the minor leagues in 2019. But it has materialized at catcher, creating the conditions for a potential deal.

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