Shift trouble stings Braves: 'It's baseball'

October 28th, 2021

HOUSTON -- It was in mid-May that the Braves learned to love the infield shift. Veteran manager Brian Snitker bought in. So did third-base coach and infield guru Ron Washington. The infielders embraced it. Critically, Braves pitchers bought in, too.

And for the next five months, the Braves’ transformation from one of the least “shifty” teams in baseball to one of the most was a net positive by every measure, including their ascent up the National League East standings.

Of course, something that works most of the time by definition does not work all of the time, and a shift worked against the Braves at a critical moment of a nightmare inning in a 7-2 loss to the Astros in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday at Minute Maid Park.

“It's baseball,” said Braves left-hander , the pitcher in the middle of it all. “Sometimes the ball gets hit and goes right to a guy. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it finds a hole.”

Here’s the setup: It was a 1-1 game and Fried, pitching with extra weight on his shoulders after the Braves lost injured Game 1 starter Charlie Morton for whatever baseball remains, had an out on the board in the second inning via his first strikeout victim of the night, Houston shortstop Carlos Correa.

Coming into the game, that was the type of matchup to watch: Fried, the left-handed ace who can thrive against right-handed hitters when he pitches effectively inside, against the Astros’ stable of excellent right-handed hitters, many of whom happen to thrive on inside pitching.

With one out, left-handed-hitting Kyle Tucker singled to right field, and up stepped Yuli Gurriel, Houston’s right-handed-hitting first baseman and the 2021 American League batting champion.

It’s true to say that Gurriel almost never beats the shift -- he had two opposite-field hits against the shift all season, both in the same game against the Blue Jays in May -- but that’s only because he is so good at hitting to all fields that teams almost never shift him. During the regular season, defenses shifted for only 3 percent of Gurriel’s balls in play. He was 8-for-16 in those at-bats.

But in this instance, with a runner at first and one out, the Braves made the fateful decision to join the 3 percent club. Second baseman shifted all the way over to the shortstop side of second base.

Up in the FOX broadcast booth, Hall of Famer John Smoltz shifted in his seat.

“A wide-open second base would make me nervous,” Smoltz said on the air as Gurriel dug in.

Fried, however, appeared in control when he threw a pair of fastballs on the inner half for strikes, one up in the zone and one down. Catcher set up way down and in for the 0-2 pitch, another fastball that went to the same spot as the pitch before.

This time, rather than looking at it, Gurriel shot it through the open right side of the infield, a modest 84.2 mph off the bat according to Statcast. Instead of a double-play ball right to the second baseman, it was a base hit that pushed Tucker to third and opened the floodgates for all the trouble that followed.

• Jose Siri’s run-scoring infield bouncer that was too softly hit (51.5 mph) to produce any outs, but did produce a 2-1 Astros lead.

• Martín Maldonado’s single through the left side, a rare base hit for a catcher who was 2-for-31 in the postseason going into that at-bat. It produced not one run, but two, when no Braves defenders were at third base for ’s throw there, allowing Siri to scamper home for a 4-1 lead and allowing Maldonado to take second base.

• Fried’s wild pitch on a slider that skipped past d’Arnaud and allowed Maldonado to rumble to third.

• Michael Brantley’s two-out hit for another run on the Astros’ fifth single in a span of six batters. At 101.3 mph off the bat, it was the only ball in play of the inning that exceeded 95 mph to qualify as “hard hit.”

All of that started with Gurriel’s grounder through an open infield.

“It’s actually pretty easy to do with the style of hitting he has,” Smoltz said on FOX. “That’s a freebie. That’s like giving him a layup. And that’s how you take advantage of the shift.”

“In those moments,” Fried said, “you try to just slow the game down to be able to try to get out of it. You know that, obviously, it's a momentum play, and you want to be able to slow things down, maybe shift the momentum at all. … For me, at the end of the day, it's kind of what I've said before: If I'm leaving the game and we're winning, I did my job. Today, I didn't do that.”

Snitker noted the “weird” things that happened to Fried in that eventful second inning and said, “I'm having a hard time convincing myself that he struggled.”

The Braves will continue to shift because the numbers and their own experience say it benefited them in situations they believed shifts were right. Twice when Gurriel batted with first base occupied on Wednesday -- against Fried in the decisive second inning and against in the sixth -- the Braves positioned Albies on the shortstop side of second base. When Gurriel led off the fourth inning against Fried, Albies was on his usual side of second base. All three times, Gurriel put the ball in play, but only in the second inning did he hit it to the opposite field.

As data guru Mike Petriello wrote earlier this month, this was all the result of an abrupt change for the Braves, who employed the fewest shifts in baseball over the previous two seasons. That trend continued through the first month of 2021; no team shifted less often in April.

But then, from May 1 through the end of this year’s regular season, only two teams (the Dodgers and Mets) shifted more than the Braves. It happened fast, as Petriello noted. On May 19, a 5-4 win over the Mets in Atlanta, they shifted on just 6 percent of pitches. The next day against the Pirates, the Braves shifted 10 times as often (64 percent). The next day, 60 percent. The day after that, 68 percent.

It has continued into the postseason.

“At the end of the day,” Braves third baseman said on the eve of the World Series, “I think the goal is to make sure that the pitchers are comfortable with their arsenal when they're throwing their pitches that we're in the right place. It was a little back and forth earlier in the year of shifting a lot, not shifting enough. [Pitchers] have every right -- when we're in the shift, if they don't like it, they can move us.”

In this instance, Fried tipped his cap to Gurriel for beating the shift in a big spot.

“He did a really good job of seeing where we were positioned and staying inside of [the ball] and being able to beat it,” Fried said.