Astros' 'shifting' philosophy paying dividends
Club using analytics to institute sweeping changes in infield alignments
HOUSTON -- With his powerful left-handed swing, Rangers slugger Prince Fielder hits a blistering line drive like he's done so many times in his career. The ball is already in right field when, seemingly out of the blue, Astros second baseman Jose Altuve reaches up to grab it out of the air.
Standing about 20 yards beyond the infield and in an area few second basemen typically venture, Altuve seemed to know exactly where Fielder was going to hit the ball in the sixth inning Sunday in Arlington. Well, that's because he pretty much did.
The Astros haven't been shy about repositioning their infielders via defensive shifts through the first two weeks of the season. It hasn't been uncommon to see the shortstop lined up to the right side of second base, or the second baseman lined up on the left side of second base -- or even in shallow right field.
Fielder was probably robbed of at least three hits last weekend because Altuve was playing him in shallow right field.
Thanks to advance scouting reports, the Astros' analytics crew and the homework put in by third-base coach Pat Listach, Houston's philosophy is simple, though somewhat unconventional -- put the defenders into position to field the ball where there's a high chance it's going to be hit.
"I'm a firm believer that you defend the portion of the field where the hitter has the greater probability of hitting the ball," manager Bo Porter said.
While other teams have been at the forefront of defensive shifts the last couple of years, the Astros are doing more of it with the addition of Listach to the staff and an increased amount of information readily available about the offensive tendencies of players.
For years, teams have been using the infield shift against power-hitting left-handed hitters like Fielder, David Ortiz, Adam Dunn, Carlos Gonzalez and Nick Swisher, but Houston is taking it a step further by even shifting against nondescript players like Texas' Kevin Kouzmanoff.
"We do believe that our shifting allowed us to make more outs than had we not shifted last year," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "I think the evidence is pretty compelling when you look across baseball at the amount of increased outs due to the shift. I think the evidence is there. You have to be flexible, because some hitters are going to figure out a way to adjust to it, and some aren't. You have to continue to learn, but we do feel like it's been a benefit to us and will continue to be a benefit."
According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Astros have dramatically escalated their use of shifts, with 137 already this year on balls in play. That puts them on pace for about 1,700 shifts on balls in play, which would shatter the record of 595 set by the Orioles last year. Houston had 496 shifts on balls in play last year, which ranked fifth in baseball.
Against left-handed pull hitters like Fielder, the Astros are willing to surrender the left side of the field to move the infield heavily toward first base. It could be tempting for a guy like Fielder to try to go the other way and hit a ball where no one is playing, but that would mean he would sacrifice his power. Houston would be OK with that.
When the Astros used a shift against Angels star Mike Trout earlier this season, moving Altuve to the left side of the bag, Trout said he liked it. In the same series, teammate Raul Ibanez tried to bunt toward third base to beat the shift, but he was thrown out by pitcher Scott Feldman.
"If the hitter looks out there and goes, 'OK, I'm not going to hit the ball there, I'm going to try to hit the ball someplace else,' that's a check in our box," Porter said.
Listach, who's in charge of infield defense, uses analytical information and watches videos of ground balls to put his infielders in the best position to be successful. He speaks with advance scout Tom Koch-Weser frequently and meets with the staff and the infielders prior to each series to talk about their positioning.
"If a guy had a tendency to hit the ball to a certain place on the field, we're going to try to cover that place where he hits the ball, where he's most likely to hit the ball," Listach said. "We try to take out the little nubbers and the dribblers and broken-bat ground balls. We try to take all those out. And when a guy hits the ball on the ground, where does he hit most of the time?"
Listach was a proponent of the shift while he was the bench coach with the Cubs, which is one of the reasons the Astros are being more aggressive with it. The team also went out and signed pitchers Feldman, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers, all of whom boast high ground-ball rates. So they may shift more with Feldman on the mound than, say, Jarred Cosart.
"It's definitely something different and something that seems to be working," Listach said. "If we can continue to get outs on ground balls, we're happy. We've got some ground-ball pitchers in there now, with Albers and Qualls and Feldman. We get a lot of ground balls and they have to be outs, so we have to have them at the right place."
Of course, getting the players on board with this literal shift in thinking could present a unique challenge. Having a third baseman standing in the area where the shortstop usually plays could mess with their instincts. Houston third baseman Matt Dominguez said it can be uneasy, but he's bought into it.
"I like it," he said. "I don't know if everybody likes it, but it doesn't bother me."
Getting the pitchers to buy into it can be another story. Last year, Astros pitchers Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell both publicly expressed displeasure with the defensive shifts, which is why Houston increased its communication with the pitchers this spring.
"I think it's natural and human nature when you turn around and you see a ball go through a spot where all your life you've seen an infielder there, you're going to feel like something's wrong," Luhnow said. "When you turn around and you see an infielder catch a ball where in the past it wouldn't have been a catch, you're happy, but you don't really give it the same amount of credit as you deduct credit for the one that goes through.
"It's human nature. We all do it. I just think it's part of it. We're going to have some players that are going to resist it, and we're just going to have work through it."
Information on where batters are most likely to hit the ball is available to the team at the click of a mouse via Ground Control, the Astros' online private database created by senior technical architect Ryan Hallahan, analyst Mike Fast and director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal, among others.
"Our analytical department, they do a great job of sending the information," Porter said. "And together, we all decipher through it and we give it to the players on a need-to basis, and they go out and they execute."
The Astros can immediately generate information on where Fielder, for example, hits balls against Houston pitcher Brett Oberholtzer, taking into considering the count, runners on base and other game situations. If the sample size is too small, it can be adjusted to show Fielder facing any left-handed pitcher.
The more specific and granular you make it, Luhnow said, the less data there is to support where you should position the infielders.
"That's usually enough data where we can start to look at, 'OK, this is his distribution of ground balls, and here's where we should put our guys,'" Luhnow said. "We have the tools to cut it, slice it and dice it however we want."
Luhnow has been pleased with the success rate of the infield defensive shift so far. He said as long as the players believe in the value of shifting, there isn't a down side -- especially when the results have been positive, like they've been for the Astros during the first two weeks.
"Anything that's different and unusual is going to be met with a little bit of skepticism early on, but if you can prove that it works, it will be fine," Luhnow said.