CHICAGO -- It’s no secret Matt Kemp has been the hottest hitter in baseball. If you’re trying to stop Kemp, you might rely on the traditional work-arounds on defense: You might try to pitch around him, and hope he gets frustrated or impatient. You might intentionally walk him, and just give up at the outset. Or you might just take your beatings and pray for the inevitability that eventually even the hottest hitter goes cold.
As gambits go, those are all pretty passive or pathetic as solutions, as opposing teams basically just wait for Kemp to go away. None of those moves address the more basic challenge, the one that every pitcher who faces the Dodgers has to attempt: How do you actually get Kemp out?
Well, increasingly, there’s a tactic teams are turning to: the infield shift. In today’s data-driven decision-making, acting on a wealth of information on where a player hits the ball off what kind of pitch and pitcher, it’s easier than ever to anticipate where any hitter’s batted balls will go, and adjust accordingly. And as Friday’s series opener in Wrigley Field unfolded, it became very clear that Cubs manager Dale Sveum was willing to be very aggressive with his defensive alignments behind lefty Paul Maholm, having his infielders shift around to anticipating right-handed hitters pulling the ball.
The Cubs shifted their infielders against Jerry Hairston Jr., playing him to pull the ball in the infield. They were even ready with a shift against Juan Uribe when the injured infielder came in off the bench to pinch-hit. As Don Mattingly noted after the game, “They were doing it on a lot of our guys. They pretty much played it on a lot of the righties.”
But most of all, the Cubs shifted against Kemp. Not in any particular situation, if there was a double-play opportunity or the like -- no, the Cubs shifted with Kemp up in every situation, starting with the first inning with a man on first base. As Kemp stepped in, the shift was on, with shortstop Starlin Castro moving over into the hole, and second baseman Darwin Barney moving over to the grass behind second base. So when Kemp lined Maholm’s pitch right up the middle, instead of a possible single to advance Mark Ellis, the Cubs snapped off a quick double play. Maybe they’re on to something.
So, the second time up? The shift was on again, with nobody on. What about Kemp’s third time up, with Dee Gordon on second base? The Cubs were shifty. Fourth time up? Both before and after Ellis’ stolen base, the shift was on, but Kemp belted an eighth-inning triple to right field to narrow the Cubs’ in-game lead to two, later scoring on a sac fly.
After the game, Kemp was a little amused by the tactic. “It was a little weird. I haven’t really experienced that until this year. Hey, it’s worked a couple of times, just hit the ball where it’s pitched, and if I hit it right to them I will.”
But is this something he’s seeing a lot of this year? It certainly isn’t something Kemp remembers facing ever before. “I don’t know where they came from. I think I saw it the first time in Milwaukee, the first time, I think it was Milwaukee. This is the first time, this year, they started doing it.”
As Baseball Info Solutions’ latest volume of The Fielding Bible reports, the Brewers were one of the most aggressive shifting teams in the major leagues last season, ranking among the top five. And guess where Sveum coached last year?
Sveum just figures he’s playing the odds. “If you watch enough video, you put a plan together and you play the ‘90 percent rule,’ follow spray charts. Sometimes you will get beat by the 10 percent rule but in the long run you save a lot of outs and a lot of pitches. It’s a luxury you have because of the spray charts and other things like that.”
As a fellow former Brewer, Hairston was surprised, but he wasn’t that surprised. “Dale knows what he’s going to do. He started the shift, that’s the first time I’ve ever been shifted. I’m really just trying to see the ball and put good swings on the ball.” Thinking back on when he was on the Brewers last year, when Sveum was Milwaukee’s hitting coach, “he (Sveum) used to talk about it (the shift). So the first time up, hitting against it, I just started laughing.” But does shifting this much on defense make sense to Hairston? “Hey, you do whatever you can to win. Obviously it tries to get you off-balance (as a hitter).”
Asked if he was going to make any adjustments, or just do what he’s going to do, Kemp doesn’t seem inclined to change a thing. “Yeah, that’s it. [With the triple], if I hit the ball to the outfield, just put the ball somewhere they’re not. It’s not really anything you can really control. Just hit the ball where it’s pitched, and if I hit it right to them, hey, that’s baseball.”
Mattingly noted on seeing the Cubs shift so aggressively, “I think there’s more and more teams using different shifts. Joe Maddon down there in Tampa [with the Rays], they do a lot of different stuff.”
Mattingly observed that all of these in-game machinations may not be that big of a deal when it comes to containing Kemp. “Matty’s usually a right-center guy anyway, when he hits the ball over there, it’s usually in the air,” he said. “Obviously it affects that ball [in the first inning], that he hit up the middle.” But Mattingly’s as philosophical as his slugger is about it: “If he hits a ground-ball single to right, they’re basically giving him that single.”
As far as trying to shift on Kemp, Mattingly could afford to feign sympathy for other managers’ predicament. “They’re going to try and figure out something, try to figure out some way to defend against him.”
Christina Kahrl is an MLB editor for ESPN.com. ESPN Chicago's Bruce Levine contributed to this report.