The defensive gambit paid off in the bottom of the third inning, the result of a simple positioning shift on Friday night at Safeco Field.
Mariners right fielder Seth Smith smashed a baseball to right field off Royals starter Kris Medlen, its exit velocity registering in the triple digits, the ball seemingly destined to be a hit. But Royals second baseman Omar Infante was not in his normal spot on the infield dirt. He was positioned out in shallow right field, just 30 feet to the left of shortstop Alcides Escobar, who was shifted around to the right-field side of second base.
With his deeper positioning offering more time, Infante moved to his right and made a terrific backhanded stop, throwing out Smith at first base by a step. The Royals had used an aggressive shift to gain a defensive edge. It was a rare occurrence, at least according to the numbers.
As infield shifting has percolated throughout the game, gaining in both popularity and acceptance, the Royals have remained relatively conservative in their defensive adjustments. Entering this week, the Royals ranked 25th in the majors in infield shifts, according to numbers compiles by STATS. The numbers defined a “shift” as a team putting three infielders on one side of the diamond.
The Royals had placed three infielders on one side of the field for just 63 plate appearances — or 0.93 percent of opponent plate appearances.
“If if warrants a shift,” Royals manager Ned Yost said, “we shift.”
The Royals’ infield alignments are designed by third base coach Mike Jirschele. In the days before a new series, Jirschele says, he’ll pore over hours of video clips, study spray charts and receive additional numbers from the Royals’ analytics department. Specifically, he likes to study the last 25 to 30 ground balls from each opposing hitter, taking note of the exit velocity, the pitch and the count.
Jirschele said the statistics may not truly represent the Royals’ true number of shifts for two reasons. The Royals sometimes wait to move until later in a count, when a pitcher may find himself having to throw a certain pitch. In addition, Jirschele likes to think of Escobar as his “rover” in the middle of the field. Sometimes, Escobar will move up the middle, shifting more toward the second-base bag, but not all the way to the other side.
“We’ll get Omar over in the four-hole and put him out in the grass,” Jirschele said. “And Esky is pretty much my rover in the middle. He does a great job at moving; when counts change, he’ll move.”
Compared to some teams, though, the Royals’ shifting barely registers a blip in the numbers. According to the statistics from STATS, the Houston Astros lead all of baseball, shifting more than 40 percent of the time. The Brewers, Rockies and Rays all have shifted more than 30 percent this season. Six other teams were shifting in at least 20 percent of all opponent plate appearances.
“That’s there deal,” Yost said.
The extreme increase in shifting over the last five years has sparked an occasional contentious debate in baseball circles — at least from time to time. The latest came last week, when Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he would ban shifting if he were in charge of baseball.
“It is an illegal defense, like basketball,” Girardi told reporters during a series in Arlington, Texas.
Girardi was referencing illegal zone defenses in the NBA.
“Guard your man, guard your spot,” Girardi said. “If I were commissioner, they would be illegal.”
For the moment, the art of shifting does not appear to be going anywhere. The rules of baseball feature no specifics on where infielders or outfielders must be stationed. And inside the Royals clubhouse, Yost believes his club has found the right formula.
As of Saturday, the Royals once again ranked among the best defenses in baseball, according to advanced metrics. They ranked second in FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Above Average statistic. They ranked tied for sixth in Defensive Runs saved. Both statistics, of course, include outfield defense, and the Royals led both categories by significant margins last season. But for now, the sample size is small. And Yost believes his defense is well positioned to keep improving during the second month of the season.
“Jirsch spends three hours a day on that video, going over every ground ball that these guys hit,” Yost said, before adding “We’ll shift, but it’s only on guys that Jirsch thinks we need to shift.”