Two things happened in last night’s Astros game that hadn’t happened in a while. One — the Astros won. Two — with Lucas Harrell on the mound the Astros did not employ any extreme defensive shifts. Are those two things related? Would the Astros win more games if they stuck with traditional defensive positioning? Much like the shift itself, we’re going to need more data to answer those questions.
Prior to last night’s game, the Astros had employed the ‘three infielders on one side of the diamond’ defensive shift more than any team in the majors. But starting pitcher Lucas Harrell is not a fan of such an alignment. As a pitcher who relies on cutting and sinking the ball in an effort to induce weak grounders, Harrell feels as though traditional defensive positioning better serves his approach to the game.
Harrell, who has been burned by the shift on a couple of occasions earlier in the season, went to Bench Coach Eduardo Perez yesterday and asked him to scrap the shift while he was on the mound. Perez complied with Harrell’s wish and the results were outstanding. Harrell was a ground ball machine. The Yankees didn’t hit a ball in the air against him until Brett Gardner lined a single into leftfield with one out in the sixth inning.
The Yankees managed a couple more line drives in the seventh inning as Harrell began to tire. But Lucas had already done his job, keeping the Yankees at bay for 6 & 1/3 innings while the Astros offense piled up nine runs. The ground ball specialist coaxed three double-play balls while he was in the game.
Would all of those grounders have been met with the same results if the Astros were employing their typical shift-happy defensive style? Probably not.
Will the Astros continue to employ a more traditional defensive alignment when Harrell pitches in the future? Probably so.
Will other pitchers follow Harrell’s lead and ask Perez to scrap the shift? I would think so.
Data suggests that employing the shift should significantly reduce the batting average of certain players. But if the players don’t believe in it, or haven’t had numerous practice reps implementing it, will it actually work? Players are not dots on a computer screen. They are human beings and the human factor has to be taken into consideration.
The fact that defensive players are forced to position themselves in unfamiliar territory most likely has a negative effect on them psychologically. It also produces a new set of parameters that they must deal with physically. Not many third-basemen are adept at being the pivot man on a double-play, and I don’t think any second-basemen spend a lot of time practicing throwing runners out at first base from medium depth rightfield.
Although it makes sense on paper, the shift may not actually produce positive results when implemented on the field of play. More data is needed. The Astros seem committed to gathering that data… but not while Lucas Harrell is on the mound.