As usual, Joe Maddon is the talk of baseball.
This time, of course, his newfound predilection to shift against every single hitter has become the talk of the game. Opposing hitters are commenting about it. Writers from Rob Neyer to Bill James are discussing whether or not it works (James, for what it’s worth, has determined that the shift doesn’t work against David Ortiz…seriously). And opposing managers are certainly considering it.
But, it looks to me like all the analysis of Maddon’s new strategy misses the point. This isn’t just some refined version of the Lou Boudreau shift. Maddon isn’t just rearranging the number of players on either side of second base. This is a full-on defensive scheme. Joe isn’t shifting. He’s repositioning all 7 position players based upon a hitter’s spray chart.
How do we know that? Elliot Johnson showed us yesterday when he made his first appearance of the season in Centerfield:
(Big thanks to Cork Gaines for posting in-game pictures/videos on Twitter. If you aren’t following @CorkGaines, you’re missing out).
There is no way that sheet says “two steps to the left of second” or “shade towards right.” Outfielders can remember those kind of instructions. Even if they can’t, the outfield coach can stand on the top step of the dugout and move them around accordingly. That is how every Major League team has arranged defensive alignment for 100 years (in fact, I am not sure you are permitted to be a defensive coach if you can’t whistle with fingers in your mouth).
Johnson’s possession of, and referral to, that sheet can only be explained by a specific defensive alignment. Right? It is a play sheet.
So, I have to know, how many sheets are there? Is there a hitter-by-hitter alignment? If there is, how do the other players remember them all? I am fascinated, again.
Regardless, Joe has reinvented the game again. This isn’t a shift and it cannot be judged by statistical evaluation of past shifts. This is refined. This is responsive. This might just work.
(In related news, I cannot wait to see how the Rays line up against Ortiz).