Lindbergh: Learning to beat the big, bad shift

From SABR member Ben Lindbergh at on March 12, 2014:

Kirt Manwaring, the San Francisco Giants’ former Gold Glove catcher and current catching coordinator, told me last year that baseball clubs are copycats. “That’s the way the game is,” Manwaring said. “Once somebody does something, once somebody’s successful at something, then they want to try to find the method behind the madness.”

Manwaring was talking about pitch framing, the art of catching a pitch in such a way that it’s more likely to be called a strike. Thanks to the advent of precise pitch-tracking technology, that art has recently become much more of a science, but its impact is still easy to overlook if you’re not running (or reading) the right studies. The difference in appearance between smooth and stiff receivers is subtle from a center-field camera feed and all but invisible from other perspectives. And the difference in results is even easier to dismiss, since the umpire’s presence gives batters (and benches) a convenient scapegoat for any borderline call that goes against them.

It’s much more difficult to overlook an infield shift. A batter might miss what a catcher is doing behind his back, but he can’t help but pay attention to the infielders in front of his face. And when a shortstop slides to the right of second base or a third baseman relocates to right field and gloves a ground ball that would have snuck through a standard defense, it’s impossible for teams that don’t shift not to notice and wonder whether they’re missing out.

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Originally published: March 13, 2014. Last Updated: March 13, 2014.