Tigers shift starting to lose teeth as banged-up pitching staff scuffles

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — The question was about Josh Harrison and whether he’s lost a step defensively at second base.

It quickly became an entirely different conversation.

Tigers second baseman Josh Harrison has dealt with the unintended consequences of the shift.

“I think Harry’s moving really well,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Remember, we are putting him in places and the balls have been shooting the other way. They’re beating our shift.”

In the first three weeks of the season, the Tigers were drawing national raves for the effectiveness of their shifts. They were among the league leaders in defensive runs saved with the shift. But now they are giving up more runs against the shift (minus-3) than they’re saving.

“I am not worried about Harry, he’s moving good,” Gardenhire said. “I mean, how far do you have to run for a ground ball? We put you at R5 (a defensive position more toward first base) and they hit it (up the middle), that’s a long way.”

It’s not a coincidence the Tigers’ shift lost some of its teeth after Matt Moore, Jordan Zimmermann and Tyson Ross were injured. The positioning of the fielders is based, in part, on the pitch plan the Tigers’ devise for each hitter.

“We are playing according to a pitch plan and we’re missing pitches,” Gardenhire said. “And their guys (the Athletics hitters) did a real nice job of shooting balls the other way.”

Matt Olson, Khris Davis and Stephen Piscotty especially vexed the Tigers' defensive positioning Friday night against left-hander Daniel Norris, which shed light on the on-going push-and-pull between analytics and in-game management.

Norris’ unconventional pitching motion — he has a slow setup with a quick-arm delivery — throws off the data.

“He’s one of those quick-arm guys,” Gardenhire explained. “He comes out real slow and then, boom, he explodes on you. That causes the hitters to be late on pitches they normally wouldn’t be late on, and they shoot the ball the other way. It’s not about his velocity, but his fastball surprises hitters.

“So, analytically, can we make an adjustment with a guy like that?”

Davis singled to right-center field to start a three-run rally in the sixth off Norris. The Tigers were shifting him, as most teams do, to pull — positioning Harrison on the left side of second base and shortstop Ronny Rodriguez in the hole.

He hit the ball to the right side of second base. 

“We were talking in the dugout that we needed to adjust how we were playing him,” Gardenhire said. “We need to play him more (straight-up) because they were all late on Norris’ fastball.”

As Gardenhire was explaining this in his pregame press briefing, quality control coach Joe Vavra was meeting with the analytics team in the coach’s meeting room.

“That should make a difference in how we shift people,” Gardenhire said. “Steve (Liddle, bench coach) was saying during the game that we need to make an adjustment. That stuff blows the analytics' minds apart because it’s not in the computer. You can’t print it out.

“It’s actually a guy pitching a little differently than everybody else. It’s the human factor. We don’t fight it, but we throw it back on their shoulders to figure out how do we adjust. We have to figure out how to cover some of these holes.”


Twitter: @cmccosky