Data-driven Brewers 'shifting' in high gear
First-base coach Subero also directs defensive positioning
CHICAGO -- When they don't work, infield shifts infuriate a pitcher.
When they do work, you get games like Monday's 3-2 Brewers win over the Cubs, in which Milwaukee's ever-moving shifts may have been the difference between a win and a loss. It should surprise no one that the data-driven Brewers, who lead the National League in balls in play against infield shifts, keep stats on this sort of thing. They remain as convinced as ever that their aggressive positioning has been a net positive this season.
"We are dramatically ahead of the break-even point," general manager David Stearns said.
Monday's game was good for that ratio. The most critical play came in the fifth inning after the Cubs tied the game, when a shifted second baseman Jonathan Schoop gobbled up Anthony Rizzo's ground ball in right field, twirled and threw to first for an inning-ending out.
Schoop, acquired from the Orioles on July 31, has had to make a quick adjustment to the Brewers' aggressive positioning. Only the Astros and Rays have shifted on more batters this season than the Brewers, according to Fangraphs. The Orioles are in the bottom third of baseball.
"Yeah, we shifted, but not like this," Schoop said. "That was the first time I went deep at second base. They have some reasons, and it worked. That's why you have to get your work in so when the plays happen in the game, you've worked on it."
Pitchers, too, have had to adjust.
"Since I got here in '16, I've tried to recognize it when it happens," said Chase Anderson, who starts Wednesday's series finale at Wrigley Field. "I tell myself, 'Hey, that was a big play and the guy was positioned perfectly.' I try to appreciate it more."
It's hard to miss when a play like that happens these days. Whenever the shift produces an out, Anderson, said, players cry out in unison in the dugout.
The team behind it is the Brewers' advance information group, which includes manager of advance scouting Brian Powalish, coordinator of advance scouting Walker McKinven and Major League video coordinator August Sandri, all of whom travel with the team, plus other staffers back at Miller Park. They compile detailed scouting reports for Brewers first-base coach and infield coordinator Carlos Subero, who is interested not only in the spray charts that have long been part of scouting, but the exit velocity of those balls in play. When a "bucket" of balls in play are hit to an area at 90-plus mph, they are marked in red, and you can bet someone will be shifted to that spot.
The reports make positioning recommendations, which are tweaked by Subero, manager Craig Counsell and the rest of the staff. Decisions are influenced by myriad factors, down to the pitcher on the mound and how often he hits his spot, the number of outs and runners on base, the count, and the score of the game.
"Carlos Subero is the guy making the final decision in real time on the field," Stearns said.
The Brewers attempt to qualify a sort of "plus/minus" of their shifts, but it's an inherently subjective task to determine whether a shift helped, hurt or was neutral. To account for that bias, the Brewers get a separate analysis from a third-party vendor.
"We feel very good," Subero said. "This year of all three [the current coaching staff has been together] has been the best. We have gotten our infielders to understand that the pitcher is on the mound is [driving decisions]. The hitter is important, but who's pitching?
"This year, we've finally been able to sync it in. Year two was a transition of where we started being more aggressive with it, but this year from the get-go, we've been able to do that."
Said Stearns: "I think what's happened is that veteran guys have seen it enough and have enough of a personal sample with it that they believe in it. Younger guys, that's all they know in baseball. We do it in the Minor Leagues. Coming up, they're seeing it."