The Cincinnati Reds plan to be shifty this season, a concept bench coach Jay Bell has hauled with him from Pittsburgh.
Bell was hitting coach last year under manager Clint Hurdle and the Pirates employed a lot of defensive overshifts, using computerized data on where each batter was likely to hit the ball.
“When we hired Jay Bell he talked a lot about the fact that the Pirates really put an emphasis on their defensive alignments and it made a difference for their ball club,” manager Byran Price said.
Price thought it over and checked the data and said, “It just makes good sense. The data suggests that there are reasons for dramatic shifts.
“We have done a lot of research on it. We can access through the compilation of data the highest probability of where a batter is going to hit — in the air, on the ground, against left-handed pitchers, against right-handed pitchers.”
Price, a former pitcher, knows how pitchers think and realizes some don’t like radical shifts going on behind them.
“Yeah, at times certain pitchers get anxious if you overshift on a hitter, but we’re playing the percentages and it is a game of percentages,” said Price. “We’ll be more inclined to set our defense to the areas of the field where the highest percentage of balls are hit by the hitter.”
Price realizes shifts don’t always work, that hitters sometimes make adjustments and sometimes pitchers misplace a pitch and the batter hits it where he might not normally hit it.
“Sure, there will definitely be times when hitters beat the shift,” he said. “But the data is pretty dramatic. If the data says that 70 percent of the time a batter is going to hit the ball between straightaway left field and left center, then you have to cover that area more diligently.
“We will, though, talk about it with each of our pitchers so we don’t come to Opening Day and put the shifts on without telling the starters Starters can be a little bit temperamental with shifts, we know that. We need to know their mental approach to it, too.”
Under manager Dusty Baker, the Reds played straight-up defense and excelled. With a tight team defense that covered a lot of ground, owned good arms and made all the plays, gimmicks weren’t needed.
Are they needed now? Price says it is just a supplement, something to make the defense even better.
“It still becomes a game of percentages and we want our guys in the right position,” said Price. “We have great range, but where we play them will enable us to have great range in the spots where most of the balls will be hit.”
When Kansas City’s Alex Gordon, a left-hander, came to bat in the second inning, shortstop Ramon Santiago played directly behind second base and third baseman Todd Frazier covered the entire left side.
It didn’t matter. Reds starter Johnny Cueto struck him out. Cueto pitched a 1-2-3 bottom of the first and recorded three strikeouts in the second, although Salvador Perez hit a two-out, 3-and-2 home run.
Then came a total unraveling in the third.
The Royals hit for the cycle in the inning and scored five runs, knocking Cueto out of the box with two outs in the third.
His day: 2 ½ innings, six runs, seven hits, no walks, four strikeouts, 58 pitches, 43 strikes.
Cueto said he felt great but he has been flying open in his delivery, stepping too much toward first base. He was working on stepping more toward home plate.
“That third inning, well, I tried to get everybody out but my pitches stayed up,” he said. And of a three-run home run he gave up to Eric Hosmer, he said, “The wind was blowing out. I thought it was a fly ball. But, still, it was a home run.
“Otherwise, I think I pitched good. I threw all the pitches I’d throw in a regular game, but I was trying to land with my front foot differently so I wouldn’t open up toward first base.”
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