CHICAGO (AP) — One or two steps off, and maybe Mets third baseman David Wright is too far away to grab Starlin Castro’s bases-loaded smash in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series.
When Kyle Schwarber hit a liner up the middle for the Chicago Cubs in Game 1, shortstop Wilmer Flores was right there for New York.
Months and sometimes years of data and painstaking work by scouts takes on added importance in the pressure-packed playoffs, when how you line up your defense could be the difference between a trip to the World Series and a winter full of regrets.
“It pays off. All that stuff pays off,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “There is going to be a time, which we’ve had this summer, where a ball was hit where if you were just in the normal — you’d be there. But you’re not. You’re using all of these statistics to say, hey, look, we’ve got to move this guy over four or five feet because that’s the percentages that are in our advantage.”
Led by its outstanding core of young pitchers, New York held Chicago to a .164 team batting average during its sweep of the Cubs in the NLCS. But solid work by third base coach Tim Teufel, who takes a lead role in drafting the Mets’ defensive plans, also helped keep the Cubs off the basepaths.
For coaches like Teufel, who are contemplating such small details as moving their third baseman a bit closer to the line or bringing their right fielder a little closer to the plate, there is more data than ever before to help them with their decision.
“We get all the reports from up top because they track all that, they’ve got guys that do all that stuff with their computers,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “They bring all the information for everybody’s at-bats as far as they go back. And there’s certain guys, it just jumps out at you how often they hit certain balls.”
One of the most noticeable byproducts of the majors’ increasingly detailed scouting reports is the exaggerated shifts so common in today’s game. A left-handed pull hitter comes to the plate, and the third baseman or shortstop moves to the right side of the infield. Sure enough, a bouncer to the right side that was once a base hit is fielded by the second baseman in shallow right, and the throw to first makes it a simple groundout.
But the alignment also opens a giant hole on one side of the field, and watch out for heady baserunners.
“The guys who can handle the bat a little bit, you see them try more and more to beat that,” Gibbons said. “What you really battle is if there’s a guy at second base in scoring position. OK, now I want to do this (shift), this guy can handle the bat, all he’s got to do is hit a 10-hopper and it’s through, now it’s a run. That’s kind of the things you battle. But it’s really taken over the game, everybody uses it, everybody wants you to use it.”
A shift — and a general lack of awareness — hurt the Dodgers in Game 5 of their NL Division Series against the Mets. With one out in the fourth inning and Daniel Murphy on first, Los Angeles moved three infielders to the right side with left-handed hitter Lucas Duda at the plate. When Duda walked on a 3-1 pitch, Murphy jogged to second and suddenly sprinted to an uncovered third.
Murphy scored on a tying sacrifice fly, and the Mets went on to a 3-2 victory.
“Tom Goodwin, our first base coach, is always talking about keeping your head up,” Murphy said. “I’ve never been in the playoffs before, but starting to understand how valuable 90 feet are. It’s absolutely massive.”
While shifts get most of the attention, changes in alignment are usually more subtle, and there are several factors at play. Detailed spray charts on where players hit the ball and the repertoire of the pitcher on the mound are two of the biggest considerations, but the count, score and baserunners also can factor into the equation.
“There’s that big barrel of generic information, and then there is more specific stuff based on your pitcher,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Maybe it’s velocity, maybe it’s movement on his pitch. I’ve always worked from the premise also that if my pitcher does not want something to occur shift-wise, then we call it off.”
Collins said Teufel “spends hours putting together defensive alignment on different guys, depending on who is pitching, depending on situations and what the counts may be.”
“If you’re going to have good pitching, you better catch the baseball,” the manager said before New York’s 8-3 victory over Chicago in Game 4 on Wednesday night. “And our guys have done a good job.”