Teams have been employing shifts more and more as a tactic to manipulate and neutralize certain hitters, especially against lefties. The St. Louis Cardinals have not been one of those teams.
So what can the St. Louis Cardinals take from this? Well, the Cardinals must start by changing their mindset and attempting to dictate certain players tendencies. The Cardinals have always been rather conservative and open spread even when they shift, while there are clear patterns for teams like the Astros.
The first notable difference comes in the outfield, and the variety of range that is covered for each position by Houston. The Cardinals’ defense in the outfield is questionable at the moment, so putting players in positions that leave large gaps in key places, but there is one thing about them that makes shifting seem like an even better idea.
Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler, Harrison Bader, and Tyler O’Neill are all pretty fast, and given the effort (*cough* *cough* Fowler *cough* *cough*), the outfield should have the ability to compensate for any important gaps that a major shift may leave empty.
The next thing is the mobility of the middle infield. Kolten Wong has been the only infielder moved a significant amount to either cover directly behind the pitcher or back and towards the right field foul line to cut off the most extreme pull hitters. The rest of the infielders, including the shortstop, have essentially been tethered to traditional spots against lefties this season. I also suspect Wong is the only one trusted by Mike Matheny and co. to perform well in a shifted position.
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The Astros have a lot more mobility from all of their positions. They also noticeably give up the left field line, which left handed batters hit to significantly less than the right. This allows them to cover a huge range of the field where left handed hitters are comfortable driving the ball.
Because they can put 2 1/2 to 3 infielders on the right field side while giving the third baseman positioning to cover for the shifted shortstop, only very rare and precise hits down the third base line can exploit the hole in the positioning. This gives batters an uncomfortable choice: hit it to where they are comfortable and hope its a hard liner or a homer, or try and adjust their timing to hit towards third.
These shifts must be executed with reason, or they just make things more difficult for yourself. The Royals are a team who shifts a great deal with mixed results. Here’s what their positioning looks like vs lefties this season.
First off, the range of the outfielders isn’t nearly as wide as with the Astros, looking more like a traditional team beyond the dirt. The left fielder remains close to the third base line, while the center fielder occasionally shifts from his position to decrease the size of the whole in right center field slightly. On top of that, the right fielder is tethered to a small range deep towards the corner.
Unlike the Astros, who positioned the weak point of the defense on the third base foul line, the Royals keep the third baseman relatively close to the bag, while occasionally moving him towards the pitcher. There is a small amount of time where the third baseman is covering closer to the shortstop’s spot, but the shortstop doesn’t move nearly as far from his natural spot either.
This third baseman positioning is key. The key to the Astros shift was forcing all of the empty space to as close to the left field foul line as possible, and the extra coverage of the shortstop on the right side of the field. Without the third baseman covering a portion of the shortstop’s range, the weakness of the positioning shifts closer to the middle of the field, which is much more vulnerable.
With the second baseman staying in a similar pull defensive position that the St. Louis Cardinals employ, the middle of the field is where the gap lies, instead of down the foul line. The line acts as a valuable tool for the defense to further limit the field, so shifting the hole to the middle of the field removes that extra protection and makes it that much easier for hits to get through.
If the Cardinals can employ educated shifts, the defense will be improved a great deal. They have seen it stymie a batter first hand in Matt Carpenter, as he continues to pull ball after ball into shifts.
The starting pitching can only take them so far, and the relievers need some help from time to time, so taking every step to ensure fielders are in the best position to perform is critical. Who knows, good shifts might be what the Cardinals need to overcome their starved offense.
What do you think about the changes in fielding position in the majors? Should the Cardinals employ more shifts? Do you have another opinion on the topic? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the description below.