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The Big Shift: Infields spin in response to data explosion

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Twentysomethings sit in rows inside a two-story, red brick building in an Allentown suburb that Norman Rockwell could have painted. Using a keyboard and a pair of screens each, the video scouts note every one of the 700,000 pitches and 130,000 batted balls in the major leagues each year, night after night after night.

Hundreds and thousands of miles away, infielders shift from left to right and back on big league diamonds, swaying like metronomes marking time in a Beethoven symphony, moving to locations personalized for each batter.

All this re-aligning is designed to drive hitters, well, batty. And it’s working: The big-league batting average is at its lowest level since 1972.

Players no longer are told to do everything the way Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth and Christy Mathewson did. The Big Shift is on, and long-held beliefs have burst in this post-steroids era, where hits and runs have become as precious as rare gems.

“This is something that has changed in baseball over the last two, three years, and it’s completely different,” said Jed Lowrie, the shortstop of the Houston Astros, easily the shiftiest team in the major leagues last year.

Baseball Info Solutions, a high-tech company founded in 2002, provided data to 21 of the 30 major league clubs last year, each craving an advantage. Digital innovations are touted with the intensity of agents trumpeting players.

No shift is too radical, no idea too goofy to try if the microcircuits propose it. They don’t always work, but the odds of success precipitated swift adoption.

“It may look a little bit funny for people that have been watching baseball through the decades,” said Scott Spatt, a BIS research and development analyst.

Last April, the St. Louis Cardinals put all four infielders on the right side for the New York Mets’ Lucas Duda when he got to two strikes. He hit a two-hopper to second baseman Mark Ellis — who was perfectly positioned about 15 feet into right field and threw to first for the easy out. Duda estimates shifts sliced his average about 20 points last season.

Shifts may have even changed the World Series. Data from BIS helped persuade San Francisco to position Juan Perez near the left-field line and shallow in Game 7 against Kansas City’s Nori Aoki, a left-handed spray hitter. A ball off the end of Aoki’s bat that at first seemed headed to the corner for a tying fifth-inning double instead became an out. Madison Bumgarner found his dominating form, and the Giants held their 3-2 lead to win their third title in five seasons.

“One play, right there — one play is the difference between winning and losing the World Series, because that would have tied the game,” BIS President Ben Jedlovec said. “They might still be playing, for all we know, with how competitive that series was.”

Back in 2011, when a large portion of the sport lingered in a Data Dark Age, teams shifted 2,357 times on balls hit in play, according to BIS. Shifts nearly doubled to 4,577 the following year, rose to 8,180 in 2013 and to 13,296 last season.

BIS goes through each big league game three times to capture everything in the company’s database: once live, then twice more the next day. Teams can buy customized reports or the raw data to format themselves. And this winter, the company renovated its first floor to add nodes and plans to expand its analysis to the minor leagues with Triple-A games.

“There’s no such thing as a groundball hit for a left-handed pull hitter now,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. “It just doesn’t happen. Everybody’s over there.”

With all the moving around, fielders have to get their bearings in atypical locales. Pedro Alvarez, Evan Longoria and Josh Donaldson were among the third basemen who had to turn double plays at second last season.

“It’s never really that unusual anymore. It’s kind of becoming a pretty big part of the game,” said Alvarez, who made the pivot for a 4-5-3 double play on Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce last April 21.

But for some managers, the statistical shakeup must be measured along with evidence collected the old-fashioned way: through one’s own eyes.

“Some of that stuff would tell you to pinch hit for Babe Ruth if you really went by strictly the numbers,” retired great Jim Leyland said. “And obviously you’d be making a fool of yourself.”

Shifts have been around since the sport’s early years. The Hall of Fame’s Giamatti Research Center has a New York Clipper article of June 25, 1870, referring to a June 14 game between the Brooklyn Atlantics and Cincinnati Red Stockings, that praises “the style in which the Cincinnati fielders moved about in the field, according as the different batsmen came to the bat, being a model display.” Peter Morris’ “A Game of Inches” refers to a Louisville Courier Journal article describing how Hartford manager Bob Ferguson would move his second baseman to the left side of the infield in 1877, the National League’s second year.

Shifts for many years were used primarily for left-handed power hitters — nine of the 10 players shifted on most often last year were lefties, led by David Ortiz (505 plate appearances), Ryan Howard (453) and Chris Davis (400).

“If we can force David Ortiz to just hit the ball the other way or even try to bunt for a hit, I think that’s a win for the defense,” Lowrie said.

Sluggers reject suggestions they should bunt or try to hit to the opposite field. Baseball culture still is of the mindset of the famous 1998 Nike advertisement with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, titled “Chicks Dig the Long Ball.”

“My swing is my swing and I try to not change my swing,” said Albert Pujols, the most-shifted righty batter at 279 plate appearances. “They think they’re forcing you to think about the shift and actually it’s teaching you how they’re going to pitch to you. That helps me out, too, over the long run.”

Which leaves teams searching for the next shift. Because as it has for nearly a century and a half, the pendulum in baseball eventually swings the other way as batters and pitchers adjust to innovation.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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