Shift in strategy pays off for Cubs' defense

Starlin Castro and the Cubs have been in the right positions defensively this season. Jerry Lai/US Presswire

CHICAGO -- Simply scouting an opponent and watching a little video seems downright amateur when compared to how the Cubs are doing things these days.

The club is taking defensive positioning to a science and it was instrumental in a victory Wednesday.

It might not have been a coincidence that Chipper Jones was the Atlanta Braves batter burned most by the Cubs' quirky infield alignments. The veteran has the most video available on him of any of the Braves batters and the Cubs used it against him Wednesday.

Third-base and infield coach Pat Listach has a backlog of video that can not only give him a player's last 100 ground balls, he can break it down in to where the hard-hit grounders are going as opposed to the soft ones.

So with the switch-hitting Jones batting against left-hander Paul Maholm, both shortstop Starlin Castro and second baseman Darwin Barney cheated a up the middle.

“I'm sure that I think Chipper probably thought he was going to be 3-for-3 and Starlin and Barney made some great plays,” Maholm said. “The whole infield has been picking me up for the last four games.”

No defensive shift against Jones was bigger than in the sixth inning when the Braves had runners on first and third with two outs in a scoreless game. Jones crushed a comebacker just past Maholm's head only for Barney to snag it while standing nearly behind the second-base bag.

Manager Dale Sveum has likened the positioning a little to blackjack. If the dealer is showing a six, why not double down with a 10 or 11?

“Through technology, through video, when a guy is going to hit a ball 90 percent of the time in one specific area you're going to play there," Sveum said. “If you're going to get beat 10 percent of the time, I can live with that. When the data says play here, you play there.

“Sometimes the starting pitcher has his own spray chart as well where he just never gives up the ball in a certain area, the way he pitches the way he sinks the ball. I've always had a gambler type attitude and to me, you're gambling but all it is is doing something different than it's been in the history of baseball.”

The infield shifts on a left-handed batter have been around for a long time. It's extreme shifts on right-handed hitters that is breaking new ground as well as the fact that the Cubs will shift on everybody, not just the power hitters.

When the club was in Philadelphia on the last road trip, the Phillies' radio announcers were trying to figure out if the Cubs had played anybody, other than pitchers, straight up the entire series.

“Pat's been doing a great job positioning the guys and doing his work and the guys have bought into it,” Sveum said. “They bought into it in spring training to understand depth and positioning. You see a lot of times it gets the pitcher an extra out when a lot of times it'll be a base hit and an extra 10 or 15 pitches the guy had to throw because of it.”

In a recent game, Listach got a feel for something and moved Barney during the middle of an at-bat. After the ball was hit directly at the Cubs' second baseman, Barney gave his coach a thumbs up from the field.

Sure the shifts sometimes leave massive holes in the defense, but if a batter wants to start aiming for those holes it could get him out of his mechanics.

“We want to defend against the hard-hit ground balls and Listach has been doing a really good job of that,” Barney said. “We've been on top of that. I'm looking in there every pitch in case he senses something. If I move, I'll tell him I'm moving. I think it's paying off.”