Royals

Royals hope to make most of versatile infielders with shifts such a big part of defense

Dozier ready to build off strong end to Royals 2018 season

After finishing the 2018 season on a positive note, Royals third baseman Hunter Dozier is excited to build off that finish in 2019.
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After finishing the 2018 season on a positive note, Royals third baseman Hunter Dozier is excited to build off that finish in 2019.

The Royals could almost put the same group of infielders on the field for an entire series and rotate them daily without becoming overly vulnerable. Versatility, particularly positional versatility, has been a buzzword this offseason and early in spring training.

Whit Merrifield played every infield spot last season, and free-agent signing Chris Owings appears slated for a role in which he’ll play nearly every day despite not having a set position.

Defending out of the shift might be where that versatility shows up most. The Royals, a team entering the season with a stated goal of being elite defensively, shifted infielders the fifth-most of any team in the majors last season (27.5 percent), according to MLB.com.

Defending out of non-traditional alignments has been a focus this week in camp, and the Royals have already adjusted their thinking from the recent past in regard to who will move when they shift against a left-handed hitter (they shifted 39.7 percent of the time against lefties in 2018).

“We’ve always had the third baseman stay on the left side, but we’re leaving (shortstop Adalberto Mondesi) on the left side,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “The third baseman will go to second base. That’s different this year.

“When you see (Hunter) Dozier and (Cheslor) Cuthbert and those guys taking more grounders at second, it’s with the shift in mind. They’re not taking grounders at second. They’re taking grounders as a shifted third baseman. So yeah, we’re doing things differently.”

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In the past, all of the relay throws and assignments as far as who backs up throws and covers bases were based out of playing the traditional alignment. The volume of shifting has added a dimension defensively because teams are frequently lined up with three defenders on one side of the infield as opposed two on each side.

The Royals spent portions of this week reviewing and walking through the various responsibilities and scenarios in the shift because of what Yost described as “confusion” earlier in camp.

“The cut-offs and stuff, yeah, it’s different having to adjust,” Merrifield said. “You’re at a different spot. It’s more than just fielding it and throwing to first. If a ball is hit in the left-center gap, OK we’re all sort of out of position here. What happens?”

Merrifield and Owings have played all over the infield in their careers. Owings has played more games at shortstop (233) than any other position.

For roster builders like Royals general manager Dayton Moore, the ability to play both sides of the diamond has become much more of a requirement than a luxury.

A second baseman may play behind the base up the middle of the field or out in short right field. The position already asked to handle the ball and make throws from various angles and footwork.

“It’s even more so now. You’ve got to almost be able to play shortstop because you’re throwing from way over there or you’re way over in right field,” Moore said. “You need more athleticism out of your second baseman maybe. … You need a little more range out of him now and a little more arm than once was accepted if you’re going to win a championship.”

Third base is the other position the shift affects most. With the new approach to shifting left-handed hitters this season, 6-foot-4, 220-pound Hunter Dozier will be asked to turn double plays.

Merrifield downplayed the idea that moving a corner guy to the middle of the infield would be an issue. He also pointed out that Dozier played shortstop up until he entered professional baseball.

“We were turning double plays (the other day) and, like I said, Dozier is a great athlete, he was turning double plays from second like it was nothing,” Merrifield said. “He looked like Jeff Kent out there, a big boy playing second base.

“We’ve got a great group of athletes. We’ve got guys that know how to play baseball, and we’re pretty well-equipped to move around as far as shifting goes.”

While he estimated that he hadn’t turned a double play in a game since 2013 or 2014, Dozier said with game reps and work on the practice field he was sure he’d get comfortable playing more in the middle of the field.

In the past versions of the shift — last year as well as coming up through the minors — Dozier had been asked to slide into a traditional shortstop position. He thinks the new look may actually be easier on him.

“When you play the shift, there’s still a lot of balls that go into the shortstop area,” Dozier said. “Being able to leave Mondie there, who has a ton of range, I think will help cover that a little better. Balls that he’s going to have to come get, he could probably get too a little quicker than I could’ve. I think it gives him more range over there.

“Where I’m at, it’s kind of like I only have a little area I have to cover because I’ve got Whit right over there and Mondie has got most stuff to his left. I think (Mondie) will just probably see more action over there and that’s why we’re doing it.”

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.
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