New York — When the ball left Teoscar Hernandez’s bat in the bottom of the 11th inning Sunday in Toronto, Shane Greene initially had a sick feeling.
“That’s a knock more often than not,” Greene said. “Even though I made my pitch.”
With the tying run on third, Greene threw a well-located slider on a 2-2 count. But Hernandez stayed back long enough and was able to reach across the plate and line it up the middle. Much to Hernandez’s chagrin, though, the Tigers had deployed second baseman Niko Goodrum in a modified shift against the right-handed hitter.
He was shaded up the middle and was able to run the ball down and end the game.
“I don’t know the exact number, but I am sure we are one of the top teams in the league in terms of being effective (with defensive shifts),” Greene said. “The guys behind the scenes are doing a helluva job, and the pitching staff has been making our pitches.
“So, it works. If we’re not making our pitches, the shift is irrelevant.”
The Tigers analytics team, as well as the pitching staff, had an exceptionally good series in Toronto. In the season opener, middle infielders Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer had six assists between them, and four of those outs came with some form of a defensive shift.
On Sunday, Mercer saved the game in the 10th inning by knocking down what would have been a game-winning single Freddy Galvis deep in the hole. He was able to retrieve the ball on a scramble and from his knees throw out Richard Urena at the plate trying to score from second.
But, if he’s not shaded into the hold, per the club’s reports on Galvis, he doesn’t get a glove on that ball.
“We get reports every day on this stuff, how it works, where we should have been, the whole package,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I don’t know the exact numbers (from the Blue Jays series), but I was right there and I saw we got to a lot of balls we probably shouldn’t have.”
Much was made of Gardenhire’s presumed lack of analytical savvy when the Tigers hired him before last season. But in his first season in Detroit, the club’s use of defensive shifts increased from 478 to 1,174, according to Sports Info Solutions.
While the Tigers were minus-14 in runs saved in non-shifted situations last season, they saved 31 runs in the shift.
“The shift drives me crazy, but it works,” Gardenhire said. “It really does work. Being an old-school guy, I’d like to keep all the infielders on the dirt instead of having a guy out there in short right field. But it’s not going to happen.
“It’s the way it is, and it works. We really improved last year defensively because of that. You grasp it and you use what you can.”
General manager Al Avila has pumped both money and manpower into building the Tigers’ analytics department up to the industry standard, and he’s done so in just three years. There is an analytics team, not just one or two people, that travels and provides a daily stream of data, for shifts, for pitchers and hitters reports and whatever else the coaching staff requires.
“I’ve got a chart on my computer, the grid,” Gardenhire said. “I want to know what we’re talking about with this stuff. I want to know from L.5 to L.7 (positions around the infield), I want to know how far that is, so when we move a guy I know how many feet.
“It surprised me. There was like 18 feet for one point on the grid, all the way around the diamond. That’s a long way. I played shortstop. When they told me to ‘Step pull,’ it was like four or five feet. But not 18 feet. It’s kind of entertaining.”
Managers aren’t the only ones who have to grasp and accept the shifts. Pitchers, once very reluctant, are now almost universally buying in. Greene has pushed back against it at times.
“There are some gray areas,” he said. “Because there are so many numbers available, you just want to make sure — like just because you are a left-handed pitcher doesn’t mean your numbers are going to be the same as Aroldis Chapman. You have to make sure the numbers are comparable.
“And the guys behind the scenes are doing a helluva job making sure of that.”
Again, Greene’s point about pitchers making quality pitches is valid. No data can protect a defense against center-cut fastballs.
“There’s some give and take, but at the same time, you only remember when the shift doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s very easy to forget when it’s working.”
LeMahieu off and running
How might things have gone if DJ LeMahieu opted to sign with the Detroit Tigers when they drafted him out of Birmingham Brother Rice in 2007, instead of the LSU Tigers? Good for the Tigers, no doubt, but it's hard to imagine how things could have worked out any better than they have for LeMahieu.
Nine years into his big-league career, LeMahieu has racked up a National League batting title, two All-Star nods, three Gold Gloves, and is now in the first year of a two-year $24 million contract with the Yankees.
“It’s been great,” he said of his transition from Denver, where he spent seven seasons with the Rockies, to the Big Apple. “It’s a little different but it’s been good.”
LeMahieu, on the surface, wouldn’t seem built for the hubbub of New York. He’s quiet, still makes his offseason home in the Detroit area, doesn’t do much to draw attention to himself, other than with his performance.
But he seems rather comfortable
“I mean, baseball is baseball,” he said. “There are certain adjustments you need to make but once you get between the lines, it’s the same game.”
And at age 30, he’s still playing it exceptionally well. He came into the game Monday with four hits and two walks in nine plate appearances.
“He’s fit in really well,” Yankees coach Aaron Boone said. “The edge he plays with I really like, especially when we get into the heat of the game. He’s as very good player and he’s going to play a big role for us.”
Monday was just the second game LeMahieu has played against his boyhood team. But, since he’s older or the same age as most of the players now, there aren’t many emotions.
“Not really, not at this point,” he said. “Maybe four or five years ago, when I was playing against guys I kind of watched growing up, it was cool. But at this point, it’s just about trying to win ballgames.”
Around the horn
…The Tigers will not have to deal with Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton. He was place on the injured list before the game with a biceps strain.
The Yankees also before the game placed third baseman Miguel Andujar on the injured list (right shoulder strain). He sustained a small labrum tear in his right shoulder sliding headfirst into third base on a bases-loaded pickoff attempt by catcher Pedro Severino in Sunday's game against the Orioles. LeMahieu will start at third with Gleyber Torres moving to second.
Tigers at Yankees
First pitch: 6:35 p.m. Tuesday, Yankee Stadium, New York
TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM
► RHP Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees: The way this usually goes, he mesmerizes the Tigers all spring, then the Tigers hit him reasonably well in the regular season. In six starts against Detroit, Tanaka has allowed 19 runs and six homers in 37.2 innings. The Tigers’ .260 average is fourth highest (Indians, Astros and Rangers) among teams he’s faced at least five times.
► RHP Jordan Zimmermann, Tigers: He’s coming off a beauty, carrying a perfect game for 6.2 innings before allowing an infield hit to Teoscar Hernandez. He’s made two starts at Yankee Stadium and allowed just one earned run with 12 strikeouts.