By Steve Kallas
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Joe Maddon, one of baseball’s best managers, is far ahead of the curve when it comes to playing the game of baseball. This weekend, however, in his Tampa Bay Rays’ sweep of the Yankees, seems to have been the coming out-party for his revolutionary defensive schemes.
You see, Tampa Bay has been playing this individual shift for numerous players in the opposing lineup for at least the last two years. It became a recognizable and talked-about defense this past weekend for a number of reasons: 1) They did it against the New York Yankees on the first weekend of the season; and 2) It worked to perfection, taking numerous hits away from a number of Yankee hitters.
WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED?
Well, it’s common knowledge that the Rays are a progressive organization, with a thinking man’s manager who paid his dues for about 30 years in the Angels organization. Maddon is smarter than most, as hard-working as all and, simply, thinks outside the box.
So, for example, when Curtis Granderson bats in the first inning of the first game of the season and hits a rocket up the middle with Derek Jeter on first, you know it’s going to be at least first and second. Except, shortstop Sean Rodriguez is playing on the first base side of second, fields the ball cleanly, steps on second and throws to first for an easy double play.
That play changes the whole tenor of the inning and, arguably, the game.
And that was the first of many over the weekend.
Absolutely. It happened twice to Granderson in Game 1. It happened multiple times to Mark Teixeira over the three-game series (that rocket line drive to short right in the eighth inning of game 2 that was turned into a double play by the Rays, for example). It also happened a couple of times to A-Rod (hard smash up the middle in the fourth inning of game 2 fielded on the first-base side of second base by the shortstop, for example).
A-Rod might have said after the series that the shift has no effect on him and he’s just trying to hit the ball hard, but the point of the individual shift was proven this week: in the computer age in which we live, the Rays are the best team at using a hitter’s tendencies (along with their own pitcher’s ability) to predict (this past weekend, with incredible accuracy) where the ball will be hit.
WHERE’S EVERYBODY ELSE?
In the copycat world of professional sports, it’s shocking that, after doing this for at least two years, many other teams have not followed suit. But any team studying what Tampa Bay did to the Yankees (defensively) this past weekend will now start to institute (or at least try to institute) what the Rays did on the field.
The fact that this has not become commonplace is just more evidence of how far the Rays are ahead of the rest of baseball. It’s amazing how, with respect to the Moneyball mentality, most teams have adapted to the OBP system (for lack of a better description). Yet, virtually nobody has adapted to the Rays system of having some kind of defensive shift for virtually every hitter.
It says here that this lack of copying will change drastically in the next year or two, especially after word gets out on what Tampa Bay did defensively against the Yankees this past weekend.
HERE TO STAY?
Of course. It is interesting that, before Game 3 on the Yankee telecast, Michael Kay actually asked David Cone whether or not this alignment (different for virtually every hitter) is a gimmick or is it the “wave of the future.” Clearly, Cone understands that it’s the wave of the future, especially given modern-day technology.
Well, the future is now. It’s only a matter of time before virtually everybody copies (or tries to copy) what the Rays are doing.
Meanwhile, the Rays have a huge advantage in games like the past three. Everybody could see it because it worked so often against the Yankees.
Interestingly, when David Cone spoke about Jeremy Hellickson, who led the majors in lowest batting average allowed with respect to balls put in play, he talked about the “luck” that was involved in that stat and how, from year to year , it could go up or down based on luck.
Well, Cone is right, but only up to a point. This system put in place by Tampa Bay attempts to limit the “luck” factor. Again, Granderson’s two rockets up the middle, as well as A-Rod’s and a number of balls hit by Teixeira, are part of the reason that the luck factor is lessened and the intelligence factor is raised to help the Rays.
In a year or two, when virtually every team will have copied the Rays, this past weekend will be looked at as the changing of the views of a number of teams from old school to modern-day defense.
Maybe it will be called “defensive Moneyball”; that is, do more with less on the defensive side of the game.
PART ART, PART SCIENCE
If you think playing this way defensively is either an art or a science, think again. It’s really a little bit of both. For example, against Curtis Granderson, when a righty was pitching (James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson), the Rays played three infielders on the right side of the infield. When a hard-throwing lefty (David Price) was pitching, their alignment for Granderson was pretty much straightaway. Yet Granderson, in his three at-bats against Price, pulled the ball twice (grounder to second, single close to the right-field line), proving that it’s not so easy to predict where the ball will be hit.
So, clearly, it’s a little bit of a “feel” thing, coupled with computerized research to determine where a ball would most likely be hit.
And the Rays have used it to their benefit.
DID ANYONE SEE THE REVOLUTION?
Well, the (defensive) revolution has been televised for at least two years.
But it seems that this weekend, at least in New York, was the first time it was actually seen.
Watch the changes over the next few weeks, months and years.
How would you combat the Maddon shift? Sound off in the comments below…