Defensive shifting is the new eight-man bullpen. What better opportunity for the (over)managers of the world to showcase their considerable baseball intellect than carefully positioning their infielders to maximum affect?

Earlier this week Getting Blanked looked at the shift tendencies of Toronto Blue Jays, using different shift looks against different hitters in the Red Sox lineup. The Rays are well known for their shifting ways, as Rob Neyer of SB Nation highlighted this week.

It looks like the new management team in Chicago is bringing some of this “new school” thinking in an attempt to help the lowly Cubs.

The Chicago Cubs hosted the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday afternoon, a game tabbed a possible pitcher’s duel between Matt Garza and Zack Greinke. While only Garza held up his end of that bargain, the way the Cubs sent out their infielders caught my eye.

In the top of the 5th inning, Alex Gonzalez hit a loopy liner up the middle that Cubbies second baseman Darwin Barney fielded calmly. The positioning of Barney caught my eye, as he seemed to be standing right on second base before the ball even reached him.

Here is a still of the play, showing Barney lined up on the left field side of the second base umpire.

Alex Gonzalez is a known pull hitter so employing a strong shift seems to make sense. But later in the same game, I noticed the Cubs using the identical defensive positioning when Rickie Weeks was at the plate.

Weeks hit a pop up to the pitcher on this play, but you can see Barney dashing in from a very similar position to the viewer’s left of the second base umpire. What makes this unusual is Rickie Weeks is not what I would consider a pull hitter. Like most players, the bulk of his power is to the pull side but he is a good hitter unafraid to use the entire field.

R.Weeks Spray - Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

Is this a one game phenomenon or an example of a new Cubs philosophy in the field? For reference’s sake, look at the way the Brewers defend a right handed hitter with nobody on. Below is a screencap of a Starlin Castro at bat. Castro is a more a “gap to gap” hitter like Weeks FWIW.

A much more traditional alignment, one that —when looking out from behind the plate— appears much more natural to my eyes. The Brewers are known as one of the most shift-happy teams in the big leagues but here are the Cubs, putting on very different defensive looks.

There is a chance the Cubs willingness to shift comes directly from the Brewers ability to stymie the Cubs with their own infield looks. Consider these quotes from early Thursday morning. The DeKalb Chronicle ran a piece entitled “Cubs flustered by defensive adjustment” which leads with a note on the Brewers defense causing big problems for Cubs hitters.

The Cubs had no answer for the defensive shift Milwaukee utilized throughout the game when four hitters – Alfonso Soriano, Ian Stewart, Bryan Lahair and Geovany Soto – batted. The foursome went a combined 2 for 13 which included four groundouts (one double play).

“For right now, they’ve been getting a lot of ground balls up the middle,” Soto said. “It’s just something we need to adjust to and maybe hit the hole to the right side and the lefties try to hit it the other way.”

The Cubs defensive revolution is powered not by reams of information or an astute front office, it is all spite. Anger! Throwing their hands up and trying to beat their opposition at their own game. That has to be it!

Innovative, novel, ineffective or what have you, the Cubs and Brewers need to be careful and judicious when they deploy these shifts. You would never want to run afoul of the game’s true fans and protectors.

Comments (3)

  1. I wonder if it had something to do with the way right-handed hitters traditionally hit groundballs off of Matt Garza. Maybe he induces more pulled groundballs to righties and the sample size is sufficient enough to move infielders.

  2. I was thinking the same as Travis.Could it be that analysis of a certain batter type vs a certain pitcher when pitching a breaking ball produces ground balls at a high rate?
    Maybe a Garza type pitcher throwing a breaking ball to the inside will produce a ground out up the middle 80 % of the time?
    Interesting thoughts Drew.

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