Judging the Royals

The Royals and the shift: A couple reasons teams don’t shift all the time

Former Royals pitcher Danny Jackson
Former Royals pitcher Danny Jackson Kansas City Star

Over the weekend I read an interesting article by Star beat writer Rustin Dodd.

Rustin wrote about infield shifts and pointed out that the Royals rank 25th in baseball when it comes to the number of times they employ defensive alignments that put three infielders on one side of the diamond; the Houston Astros shift more than anyone.

But before anyone jumps to a conclusion and decides smart teams shift and dumb ones don’t, I’ve got a story to tell you.

Before I took on this job covering the Royals, I managed a men’s senior-league baseball team.

A lot of my guys were ex-college players, and a couple of them, Russ Morman and Danny Jackson, had played in the big leagues. Morman won a World Series ring with the Marlins, and Jackson had two: one with the Royals and another with the Reds.

So when those guys talked, I listened.

When Jackson (a left-handed pitcher) joined our team, I asked him how he wanted his outfield defense positioned. Jackson said: “Put ‘em in the bare spots ... they’re there for a reason.”

After I quit laughing, I asked Jackson why ... and the answer was interesting.

Jackson said just about every pitch he threw was based on the previous pitch. The hitter’s reaction to the previous pitch told him what to throw next. And if the previous pitch told Jackson to bust a guy inside, but we had the defense set up to the opposite field, he was limited in what he could throw; Jackson couldn’t throw the pitch he wanted because nobody would be there to catch the ball if the hitter put it in play.

So there’s one reason you might not want to shift, and here’s another:

Big-league coaches are not in the habit of throwing big-league players under the bus; that’s an excellent way to become an ex-big league coach.

If a pitcher can’t hit the mitt, if the catcher sets up outside and the pitch has a habit of winding up inside, teams have a hard time shifting and coaches can’t say much about it.

“We’d like to shift more often, but the guy we had on the mound doesn’t know where the ball’s going,” is not something a coach is likely to say to a reporter.

But even if a coach won’t tell you which pitchers have erratic control within the strike zone, fans can spot them.

If you’re watching a game on TV, focus on the catcher’s mitt; if it moves a lot, the pitcher has control problems even if the pitch is a strike.

If you’re watching a game live, focus on the outfield. If those guys are lined straight up – standing in the bare spots – it might indicate a pitcher is having trouble putting the ball where he wants to within the strike zone. (Be aware that an outfield coach might play his guys straight up to start a game and then, if the pitcher is hitting his spots that night, start shifting.)

And then there’s what a shift tells a hitter.

Despite showing a willingness to hit the ball to the left side of the field, Mike Moustakas is still seeing some dramatic shifts. Moustakas knows he’s going to see a lot of off-speed stuff and any fastball is supposed to be middle in; the pitcher needs Moustakas to pull the ball into the shift, and that simplifies Moustakas’ thought process.

If Moustakas gets an elevated pitch and thinks he can hit it over the shift; he might give that a shot. But if the pitcher leaves a fastball middle-away, that’s a pitch Moustakas can drive through the empty side of the infield.

When you see the Royals third baseman face a shift and hit a fastball to left, you probably just saw a pitcher miss the mitt.

So depending on the circumstances, a shift might be a bad idea, but an infield coach that uses shifts can still cover his rear end. The shift might have been foolish, considering the guy at the plate and the guy on the mound, but if the hitter beats the shift, the pitcher is the one who looks bad.

And there’s a whole lot more rear-end-covering going on in the big leagues than most people realize.

A bad infield coach might decide to use a shift because he doesn’t want to look like he’s behind the times. In that sense, fans might want to give some credit to Royals infield coach Mike Jirschele. He’s not using shifts mindlessly.

The Royals are shifting when they think it makes sense, and they still have one of the best defenses in the big leagues.

I could keep writing about shifts for a while; we’ve barely scratched the surface (which batters handle the bat too well to be shifted; do you shift in some counts and play straight up in others; how do you define a shift in the first place; and so on).

But none of that answers the main question that came to mind when I read Rustin’s story on how often the Royals use defensive shifts: Who's the unlucky SOB who has to count this stuff?

Royals pitcher Chris Young strikes out 10. Mike Moustakas homers as the Royals beat the Orioles 4-2