Yesterday, Pete Caldera wrote an interesting little article about the Yankees’ plans to employ infield shifts more this year as part of their in-game defensive strategy. They’re one of the teams that hasn’t been as quick to jump on the shift bandwagon as a team like the Rays, and with a very old and very range-limited starting infield this season it makes sense to try to cover some of those infield range holes with a shift in situations that call for it.
What remains to be seen is how successful this strategy will play out with the infielders the Yankees have. Kelly Johnson is the only one with any experience playing in shifts as a former Ray, and he’s spending the bulk of his time learning what is essentially a new position for him at third base. That learning curve hasn’t been a smooth or steady so far for Johnson. He made 2 errors in last night’s game against the Phillies and has 5 total for the spring. And according to Caldera, it will be Johnson shifting over to the right side of the infield in shift situations against left-handed hitters and not Derek Jeter. Jeter is more comfortable playing on the left side, where he has his whole career, and so that’s where he’ll stay. Johnson now gets a lot heaped onto his defensive plate as the new third baseman AND the primary shift guy.
In utilizing the shift this way, the Yankees risk diminishing its effectiveness by leaving Jeter alone to man the whole left side of the infield. Jeter already struggles to cover his area at shortstop. How is he going to cover the whole left side of the infield when Johnson shifts over? Any opposing lefty hitter with half a brain is going to try to exploit that and he’s going to have a lot of room to work with on the left side thanks to Jeter’s poor range.
To that point, one thing that didn’t sit right with me in Caldera’s article was Mark Teixeira‘s statement about how he plans to attack the shift this year. In typical Teix fashion, while acknowledging that the shift has cost him hits over the past few years, he isn’t going to do anything to change his approach:
“I’m trying to hit line drives, hit balls in the alley, hit home runs,” Teixeira said. “When I start trying to hit groundballs the other way, it’s time for me to retire.”
I understand Teix’s job is to hit home runs and drive in runs. I get it. But he’s not the hitter he used to be, it’s more than reasonable to expect he won’t be the power hitter he used to be this year coming off his wrist surgery, and yet he still won’t entertain the idea of changing his hitting approach to combat the shift and give himself a better chance of getting on base. Expanding that logic to the team level, why are the Yankees just now getting into the shift strategy on the defensive side, presumably after seeing how effective it’s been in handcuffing some of their hitters, but not taking any steps to change their offensive strategy against the shift? You know it works, you want to try to see if it will work for you and your weak infield defense, but you’re unwilling to adjust to it to try to attack it better? Makes no sense.
It’s a good thing that the Yankees are going to work the shift in more defensively this year, don’t get me wrong. With some practice and smart situational uses by Joe, it could end up saving them some runs and covering up some of the glaring holes that are already starting to show on the infield. But don’t think this is something that is just going to work perfectly and make everything OK defensively. Guys still have to be able to react and move quickly to where the ball is hit, and being in a better position to get a ball doesn’t make those guys any quicker. The same slowness and lack of range that’s an issue in a normal infield setup can still be an issue in a shift alignment. And if the team is starting to open its eyes to the benefits of the shift from a defensive standpoint, it would be nice to see them do the same with respect to their offensive strategy. Something tells me they aren’t going to be seeing fewer shifts anytime soon.