Shifting is becoming more and more common in baseball today, and rightfully so. Teams, using large amounts of data for each batter, can position their fielders in a spot where the ball is most likely to be hit. The perceived ‘downside’ is that players are not in their normal spots on the field. For example, a third baseman may move behind second base, or a second baseman may move into shallow right field.
And some pitchers, being accustomed to a traditionally set defense, aren’t big fans of that. Clayton Kershaw is one of those pitchers. Here’s what he had to say about it, via Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register:
“I think just mentally for me I can live with a hard-hit ball getting through a hole as opposed to a soft, cheap ground ball that goes through because no one is playing there because of a shift. Mentally, it’s just easier for me to swallow. You start making excuses in your head like, ‘Ah, I made my pitch.’ You just don’t want to have that in the back of your mind. At least I don’t.”
One interesting (and valid) point Kershaw made is that opposing hitters approach him differently than they do other pitchers, making their spray charts less predictive than they would normally be.
“For me, I think you have to weigh in personal history a little more than just how a guy swings and what a guy’s spray chart looks like. That includes probably his career against left-handed pitching or that season or whatever it may be. Guys have different approaches against different guys. For me, personal history weighs in more than an overall spray chart.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said that if Kershaw isn’t comfortable with a shifting defense behind him, then the Dodgers won’t do it when he’s on the mound.
“The starting pitcher is the most important person that day. So if he’s not comfortable – especially a pitcher as accomplished as Clayton is – you’ve gotta have the buy-in. If he’s not comfortable and doesn’t trust what we’re doing behind him, then it doesn’t work…Certain guys that we might shift for a certain pitcher … we might not with Clayton if he doesn’t feel comfortable with it. I just don’t think it’s the manager’s call or the coaches’ call if a certain accomplished pitcher doesn’t feel comfortable.”
It’d hard not to like the approach that Roberts is taking here. Whether you agree that shifting is a good thing or not, it’s important that the starting pitcher is on board with it. The last thing you want is for your starting pitcher to be thinking about anything other than making his pitches, and it’s especially true if that pitcher is Clayton Kershaw, who obviously dominates more times than not.