Cleveland — For as much as it’s debated within the organization, heatedly at times, as much time and manpower is spent on it, as much analytical data is generated for it, the Tigers don’t overshift on defense all that much.
According Statcast and FanGraphs, the Tigers use a shifted defense 11.5 percent of the time — 325 total shifts going into Friday's game against the Indians at Progressive Field. That ranks 24th in the Major Leagues. The vast majority of those shifts are against left-handed hitters.
And, it’s been relatively successful. Opponents’ slash-line against the Tigers’ shift is .269/.269/.341 (on ground balls). That’s the sixth-lowest batting average against the shift in baseball.
They have a middle-of-the-pack shifted runs saved mark of plus-10, which is ninth in the American League.
But it does cause consternation within the ranks.
“I don’t like shifting a whole lot because the numbers say nothing changes,” starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann said. “The only time I like to shift is when it’s on an extreme, extreme, pull guy. That’s really the only time.
“If it’s big-time pull lefty, move the guy over.”
But if it’s a right-handed hitter, Zimmermann wants the defense straight-up.
“We’ve been getting hurt by that a little bit,” he said. “They get two strikes and instead of us shifting back (second baseman on the right side of second), we’re still hanging over there. And with two strikes, the hitter is just trying to stay inside the baseball and pop it through the hole.”
Starting pitchers do have veto power over the shift. Quality control coach Joe Vavra and pitching coach Chris Bosio crunch all the numbers, determine the tendencies of the hitters and rough out the positioning charts for each hitter.
But before they are deployed, they are submitted to the starting pitcher for approval.
“Most of us, with a righty up, want to move the third baseman over a step toward the line and take away all the doubles down the line,” Zimmermann said. “With the lefties, move the first baseman a step toward the first base line. So if I give up a hit it’s going to be a single, not a double.
“Other than that, play straight up. Because I can live with myself if I give up a base hit when they are playing where they’re supposed to. But I have a hard time going to sleep at night knowing I made my pitch, got the ground ball right to where the defender is supposed to be and we’ve got him shifted.”
Shifting with nobody on base is a more cut-and-dry proposition. The complications come when there are runners on base. The Tigers got burned on that in a 4-2 loss in Kansas City on May 6. The Tigers gave up two uncontested bases, and both ended up scoring.
Shortstop Jose Iglesias was shifted to the second base side against pull lefty Mike Moustaskas. Third baseman Niko Goodrum was the only defender on the left side. He drifted too far from third base and Whit Merrifield stole third without a throw.
A pitch later, Matthew Boyd had Jorge Soler picked off at first, but neither middle infielder covered second base and he strolled in safely. Moustakas doubled them both home.
Iglesias complained about the shifts afterward and said the coaches needed to alter how they shifted in those situations. It led to several conversations between manager Ron Gardenhire and Iglesias, and a much better understanding of how to play in those situations.
But make no mistake, Gardenhire is not a fan of shifting when a double play may be in order. The analytics say the smarter play is to take away a base hit with the shift, even if you have to sacrifice a possible double play.
“We get ourselves in situations where I worry about that stuff,” Gardenhire said. “Pitchers get more frustrated by this than anybody. When they get that ground ball that should be two to get out of the inning and we're playing the shift — it’s like, ‘What happened?’
“That used to be the way you got out of it. You make a pitch down in the zone and you get a ground ball.”
A lot of times now, the analytics show the better percentage play is to have three infielders on the right side of the infield (against a left-handed hitter) and leave the third baseman alone on the left side of the infield. But it creates a situation where it’s difficult for anybody to cover second base on a ground ball.
“You have to give up something to get something,” Gardenhire said. “We have talked with our pitchers and they are complaining about it. We’re going with what we get, with all the information we get and how we’re supposed to play it.
“We make adjustments, but it’s frustrating for me. I see a ball hit and I’m like, ‘What just happened? Why didn’t we just get two outs?’”
The Tigers have made rapid advancement in their analytical systems in the last two years, but they are still years behind teams like the Astros. And Gardenhire is doing his diligence, trying to use all the data he’s given. But compromises are made.
“We try to do what we’re asked,” he said. “My big thing is, even if we’re playing shifts, get close enough to second base so that if the ball is hit to second, you can get there. That’s asking a lot. You’re putting players out of position — there’s a lot of detail you have to pay attention to.
“It seems like we’re making it harder. But everything tells you it’s working out pretty good, so we’re staying with it.”