PHOENIX -- When the Los Angeles Dodgers gave Andrew Friedman carte blanche to overhaul their baseball operations department, it should have put baseball traditionalists on alert. They’re still welcome to root for the Dodgers all they want, but this is no longer their team.
Hunches and old baseball proverbs were out the window the minute Friedman boarded a plane from Tampa and the minute Farhan Zaidi crossed the Alameda County line. Everything this team does will be governed by the latest studies and the emerging sciences that guide the league’s most forward-thinking executives and analysts.
For example, these guys couldn’t care less that the game has generally been played with two infielders on one side of the second-base bag and two infielders on the other side of it for about 120 years. The only thing that matters to them is where studies show the next opposing hitter is likely to hit the next pitch one of their guys throws.
Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
It’s just that sometimes it looks like the guys in uniform are scrambling to catch up. The Dodgers had mixed results with their new aggressive shifting Saturday night in Arizona. A.J. Pollock and Mark Trumbo squirted routine ground balls to second base in the first inning, but there was no second baseman.
Howie Kendrick had no chance to make plays because he was shifted dramatically to his left, and those two hits fueled an early rally that seemed to deprive Clayton Kershaw of his normal dominating rhythm.
Afterward, the reigning National League Cy Young and MVP award winner gave a calm, reasoned answer when asked about the Dodgers’ new shifting. Kershaw’s answer seemed to hint at some ambivalence. He looked into the Dodgers’ dugout after Trumbo’s opposite-field single to the vacated second-base hole.
“Well, a lot of people do a lot of research and a lot of homework to put guys where they’re supposed to be and you execute your game plan,” Kershaw said. “The theory is they’ll hit it where they are. Sometimes, that works, sometimes it doesn’t. I guess as a pitcher, it probably shouldn’t change anything. You should just know where they’re at, but you shouldn’t change your game plan at all.”
A shift also helped Kershaw get an inning-ending double play in the third when Aaron Hill bounced one right to Kendrick near the bag.
One uniformed Dodger who seems to have jumped into the analytics revolution gleefully is manager Don Mattingly. With Friedman seated on his office couch about 15 feet from him, Mattingly launched into a spirited defense of the team’s new shifting strategy, even if it appeared as if the Dodgers went with less-aggressive shifts later in the game.
The question was whether hitters were exploiting the shifts by changing their approach.
“Let’s get this straight: These guys aren’t that good as far as being able to hit the ball wherever they want whenever they want. The ball goes in certain places. You’re playing percentages. It’s been going on for a long time. It’s getting more aggressive now. There are going to be times when they the ball where you’re not,” Mattingly said. “If guys were that good, they wouldn’t be striking out in astronomical numbers. They’d be putting the ball in play wherever they wanted to, and the commissioner wouldn’t be talking about banning shifts.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred quickly backtracked off his early suggestion that perhaps the shifts should be legislated against to pump up sagging offense. If you’re hoping the Dodgers will change their reliance on radically moving their infielders, you’ll probably be waiting a long time, at least until the next regime comes in.