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D-backs: Right conditions for LeMahieu shift

With high-velocity righty on mound, batting champ's spray charts backed idea
MLB.com

DENVER -- The wildly unconventional right-leaning outfield shift the D-backs deployed against DJ LeMahieu on Friday proved to be the latest attempt to thwart the reigning National League batting champion.

Concocted and executed with calculation, the shift limited LeMahieu to a 1-for-5 night in the Rockies' 9-5 loss, with all of his sprays spreading to the opposite field in trademark fashion.

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DENVER -- The wildly unconventional right-leaning outfield shift the D-backs deployed against DJ LeMahieu on Friday proved to be the latest attempt to thwart the reigning National League batting champion.

Concocted and executed with calculation, the shift limited LeMahieu to a 1-for-5 night in the Rockies' 9-5 loss, with all of his sprays spreading to the opposite field in trademark fashion.

Full Game Coverage

The only hit LeMahieu had was a down-the-line double to right in his first at-bat, during which he said he didn't identify the D-backs' defensive strategy. In fact, LeMahieu said he didn't notice until he lined out in the fifth to Arizona center fielder A.J. Pollock, who was well into right field, sprinting. 

Tweet from @DKramer_: A.J. Pollock's catch on DJ LeMahieu's lineout in 5th inning last night. Almost certainly wouldn't have made w/o shift. pic.twitter.com/BoxpAeUUqC

"I mean, I don't blame them," LeMahieu said. "I hit a lot of balls that way, but at the same time, if I hit a ground ball, it's a triple to the left side. I'm not really going to change my approach. I hit plenty of balls to the left, enough balls to the left that if they keep playing me like that, I'll burn them a couple times, at least."

The D-backs discussed the tactic for roughly 30 minutes on Friday before informing their defense, chiefly starting pitcher Taijuan Walker, whose high-velocity, command-driven ability to stay out over the plate played well against LeMahieu, whose 28.7 percent line-drive rate is third highest in MLB, according to Statcast™ (min. 400 batted ball events).

The brains behind the operation? D-backs first-base coach Dave McKay, who took precise notice by examining LeMahieu's spray charts and tendencies against high-velocity righties. 

Tweet from @DKramer_: D-backs 1B coach Dave McKay, who pitched idea to shift vs. DJ LeMahieu, examined LeMahieu's FB/LD spray heatmaps. Below is DJ's since '15: pic.twitter.com/jF4bhp0jE1

"It doesn't work with every player," McKay said. "If [Walker] starts being cute and trying to throw an inside curveball, all [LeMahieu] has to do is yank it down the third-base line and we're in trouble."

It was a risk manager Torey Lovullo was willing to take.

"Look, [LaMahieu] is an incredible hitter," Lovullo said. "He's a batting champion. We've got to figure out some way to create some effectiveness to get him out. We felt like this was a pretty good way."

The Padres are the only other team to execute such a shift against LeMahieu, first doing so in mid-April, though San Diego's wasn't as drastically right-leaning. LeMahieu acknowledged the effect it had Friday but insisted defensive alterations won't prompt him to alter his opposite-field approach.

Lovullo said the D-backs will flatten out their outfield against LeMahieu on Saturday behind Patrick Corbin, who, as a lefty, would be more susceptible to pull hits, though Lovullo did say he wouldn't shy from employing the tactic again. Should he do so, Pollock, who possess the best speed and range, would remain the far-left outfielder, while David Peralta and J.D. Martinez, natural right fielders, would man right-center and right field, respectively.

Since June 20, the two clubs have occupied both NL Wild Card spots. In a possible one-game postseason scenario, would Lovullo take such a radical, unconventional attempt to halt an opposite-field specialist, potentially risking runs with the entire season in the balance?

"Stay tuned," he said.

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies