Brewers' new approach may shift opinions about defensive strategy
WASHINGTON -- Second baseman Rickie Weeks' pre-game routine includes all the usual activities: He reads scouting reports, hits off a tee, stretches and takes his turn with a group of teammates in the batting cage.
But there's a new wrinkle: After taking grounders at his normal position, Weeks moves to the left side of second base and takes another 20 grounders.
"It's a brand-new angle that I need to get used to,'' Weeks says. "I'm fine with it. It's no problem because in the heat of a game, your natural instincts take over. But, it doesn't hurt to practice and get a feel for the throw [from the left side of second base].
The Milwaukee Brewers have a new manager, Ron Roenicke, and a new way of positioning their infield defense that has observers wondering if the Brewers are trying to re-invent a segment of the game.
The Brewers use spray charts to set their defense, and in many cases, that means defensive shifts that put infielders in odd places. It's common for most teams to position three infielders on the right side to play defense against power-hitting lefties such as David Ortiz, Adam Dunn or Jim Thome.
But thanks to information in spray charts that indicate where a batter is likely to hit a ground ball, the Brewers are taking infield shifts to a different level, sometimes to the extreme. For example, the Brewers' infield shifted against the Nationals' right-handed batters Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, rookie catcher Wilson Ramos and Rick Ankiel, a lefty.
"We look at the spray charts and see where the opposing batter is likely to hit the ball,'' Roenicke says. "We think it is a good idea to play the percentages.
"It's always bothered me when, say, a right-handed batter hits one ground ball to the right side and he hits 60 ground balls to the left side, why are we playing two guys on the right side? It doesn't make any sense to me.''
Roenicke, 54, a former outfielder who played for the San Diego Padres in the 1984 World Series, has been brewing up this defensive philosophy for years, first as an outfield coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers and then as a coach who compiled spray-chart information as coach for 11 seasons with the Los Angeles Angels.
When the Brewers hired him Nov. 4 to succeed Ken Macha, Roenicke discussed the defensive shifting with general manager Doug Melvin and his coaching staff. They agreed it was a good idea and they started preparing the players in spring training.
It wasn't hard to sell the players.
"Once they take some hits away, they like it,'' Roenicke says.
"You're going to get burned once in a while, but overall, if you play the percentages, you're going to take away a lot of hits from the opposition,'' infield coach Garth Iorg says. "I'm not sure why more teams don't do it. We take the approach, 'Why not?'''
Melvin, the Brewers' general manager since 2002, says the shifting has cut down on the Brewers' errors and made the defense stronger because they are making more plays from the natural position. The Brewers had seven errors entering play on Tuesday night, tied with the Phillies for the fewest in the National League and the second fewest in all of baseball.
"Our club doesn't have a lot of plus-defensive players, not a lot of Gold Glovers,'' he says. "Our shifting has improved our defense. You always have a better chance to making a player from a natural position as opposed to taking three, four or five steps to field a ball and throw it.''
Melvin says the toughest part of the shift is making the double-play pivot. But he likes that balls that normally roll up the middle are now turned into routine outs by either Weeks or shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.
Case in point came in a game in Milwaukee's Miller Park. The Brewers shifted their infield defense to the left with a runner on second and the Chicago Cubs' catcher, Geovany Soto, a right-handed batter, at the plate. Soto hit grounder that, in a normal defensive alignment, would have bounced through the hole between third baseman Casey McGehee and Betancourt. Instead, Betancourt fielded the ball in routine fashion and threw to first to save a run.
"I would say 100 times out of a 100, on a ball hit that hard, it would have been a hit, but Yuny was right there,'' McGehee says. "He made the play with ease. You can't defend everywhere, but we are going to do what we can to defend what our scouts and coaches tell us happens most of the time.''
Shifts don't always work. In their 4-3 10-inning loss to Washington last Friday night, the Brewers' shift cost them three runs in the second inning.
The Nationals' Adam LaRoche started the inning with a walk, and then the Brewers' infield shifted to the left for Ramos and Morse. Ramos bounced a single to the right side in a play that likely would have been a 4-6-3 double play if Weeks had been stationed in his normal position. Throw in an Ian Desmond strikeout and the Brewers could have been out of the inning without giving up a run.
Instead, Morse singled to the right side to load the bases, and Brewers starter Chris Narveson issued two bases-loaded walks.
"When I got up to the plate, I saw the shift and it surprised me,'' Ramos says. "I have never had that happen to me before. I can hit the ball to the right side, so I tried to do that. I like to try to use all of the field, especially in that situation.''
In the 10th inning, with Werth on second, and the Brewers' infield shifting right, they had no one near third base. So, Werth took off and stole third base. Then, after a healthy lead at third, he scored the game-winning run on LaRoche's grounder to first baseman Prince Fielder.
"There are going to be situations where we don't want to over-shift,'' Roenicke says.
But overall, the Brewers are confident their shifting is going to be a plus. Melvin said that defensive shifting was a key for them in 2008, the year they won the NL's wild card spot.
"We did it quite a bit in 2008 and we had success, give our defense credit for winning 90 ball games,'' Melvin says. "I'm OK with it. I'm leaving it up to the staff. I think it has made our pitching better. There's more information than ever before out there. Sometimes it is too much, but we have a lot of good baseball minds making these decisions.''