Despite being only six games into the season, it’s apparent the Los Angeles Dodgers and traveling down a road where they’ll rely on defensive shifts when stats suggest they do so. However, thus far, the results have been a bag of mixed results.
Clayton Kershaw’s been on the wrong end of the strategy as Matt Kemp’s RBI single in the first inning on Opening Day likely is corralled by Howie Kendrick if he’s stationed where a second baseman usually is. Kershaw again was hurt by a shift, this time in his second start when A.J. Pollock hit a leadoff single in the first and later in the inning and Mark Trubmo’s RBI single went into right field after passing through a vacated area.
While those are three instances where the shift failed the Dodgers, it’s also worked a handful of times, including in the series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Following Saturday’s loss, Kershaw didn’t give his rousing support for shifts but also didn’t completely denounce them, via ESPN’s Mark Saxon:
Well, a lot of people do a lot of research and a lot of homework to put guys where they’re supposed to be and you execute your game plan,” Kershaw said. “The theory is they’ll hit it where they are. Sometimes, that works, sometimes it doesn’t. I guess as a pitcher, it probably shouldn’t change anything. You should just know where they’re at, but you shouldn’t change your game plan at all.”
Whereas Kershaw tip-toed the company line, manager Don Mattingly was more forthright when addressing the issue:
Let’s get this straight: These guys aren’t that good as far as being able to hit the ball wherever they want whenever they want. The ball goes in certain places. You’re playing percentages. It’s been going on for a long time. It’s getting more aggressive now. There are going to be times when they the ball where you’re not,” Mattingly said. “If guys were that good, they wouldn’t be striking out in astronomical numbers. They’d be putting the ball in play wherever they wanted to, and the commissioner wouldn’t be talking about banning shifts.”
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred later clarified that he wasn’t necessarily calling for shifts to be banned, but rather generally speaking on various changes that could be implemented. With a revamped front office that’s relied more heavily on advanced stats with their previous teams than the Dodgers historically have, there’s little reason to believe the club will abandon shifts.
Had Kershaw located better in the first inning, it’s not beyond reason to believe the shifts would’ve worked in their favor. The Dodgers are neither the first team to live and die with a defensive shift, nor will they be the last. As much as fans may want to see a shift always succeed or fail, the percentages aren’t meant to be consumed as black and white.
As Saturday’s game wore on, the Dodgers appeared to be more hesitant to employ a shift, apparently leaning more heavily on the day’s percentages than a batter’s history.
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