Less shifty thinking when it comes to Dodgers' defense

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Los Angeles Dodgers seem to have a shift in thinking when it comes to overloading certain sides of the infield for various batters.

Using defensive shifts is an aspect of the game that has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade. The Dodgers under manager Dave Roberts, though, seem to be trending away from exaggerated defensive positioning, ranking in the bottom third of major league clubs.

So is it a team philosophy that has them using fewer defensive shifts, or do their pitchers prefer a more straight-up alignment?

“I think it probably speaks to the data, because I know our players are open to it, our coaches are, I am, our front office is,” Roberts said.

Roberts admitted that he did not know the Dodgers' 244 defensive shifts are the eighth-lowest in baseball. It nearly puts the Dodgers in the bottom fourth of teams using overloaded positioning on the infield.

Roberts insists, though, that the lower shift numbers are not a rejection of analytics. Another aspect of their defense is actually at play.

With some veterans like Chase Utley and Adrian Gonzalez on defense, the Dodgers don’t necessarily rate as one of the best teams when it comes to defensive range. They even have an infielder getting significant playing time in the outfield, as Howie Kendrick was making his 16th start in left field Sunday.

Where they do rate high, though, is with soft hands. The Dodgers rank second in defensive efficiency, according to Baseball-Reference.com, a stat that measures the ability to turn balls into play into outs.

“So whatever we’re doing, I think we’re doing (well),” Roberts said. “I just don’t think that we need to be too aggressive. So we are doing what we think is best, when the ball is in play, to be there.”

There are dangers to being aggressive with shifts, of course. The San Francisco Giants, the team the Dodgers faced this weekend, have employed 379 shifts, 11th most in baseball. But teams are batting .271 on ground balls and line drives against their shifts, fourth highest in baseball.

And the Dodgers don’t have to look much further than Gonzalez to see how a player can expose shifts. When teams play Gonzalez straight up defensively, he is batting just .143 on ground balls and line drives.

The Dodgers might have things to worry about, but defense is not one of them. Their 29 errors were tied for third fewest of any team in baseball at the start of play Sunday. Only the Chicago White Sox (25) and Washington Nationals (22) had fewer errors.

They could shift more often to chase even more outs, but Roberts insists the club isn’t taking a pass on chances to move their defense.

So are they reading the data different than other teams?

“I think we might be,” Roberts said. “I think we have certain people, and a system in place, that we trust. But every team has their own system. I do believe that it is pitcher-specific. I trust it.”