Twins reliever Casey Fien was on the mound earlier this month against the Brewers when Aramis Ramirez came to the plate. Fien turned to second baseman Brian Dozier with some advice.
“I told Dozier, ‘I’m going to throw them all outside, so move over’ ” into the hole between first and second, Fien said. He started Ramirez with an outside cutter for a strike, and walked back up the mound. “I look at Dozier, and he’s standing behind second base,” about 40 feet from where the pitcher wanted. “I go, ‘What are you doing?’ And Dozier says, ‘It was either you or Mollie.’ ”
Yes, these days, the Twins defense could be anywhere, and the alignment changes from pitch to pitch. Mollie — Twins manager Paul Molitor — pores over defensive charts with coaches before each series, and they decide the optimum spot to place each defender against every batter. Sometimes the alignment is even count-specific, with fielders moving several steps to their left or right as the plate appearance continues.
Does it work? It did against Ramirez. “Sure enough, he rolls over on a cutter and hits it right to the shortstop,” Dozier said of that June 5 at-bat, which he and Fien still joke about. “Casey was like, ‘My fault, man. I shouldn’t have said anything.’ ”
Most Twins don’t have anything negative to say about all the defensive shifting, one of Molitor’s biggest priorities as a manager.
“I think it’s awesome,” Dozier said. “It’s good for the game, We’re making more high-percentage plays. I love doing it.”
That’s not always the case. Twins analyst Bert Blyleven has said several times that he was annoyed during his pitching days when defenders would move around behind him, because he tended to remember balls that should have been routine outs but weren’t, more than grounders gobbled up by infielders who had moved to an unusual spot.
Molitor is aware of that tendency, but he says his pitching staff, and the entire team, seem to support his initiative.
“I haven’t heard a lot of complaining. You sense frustration sometimes when [pitchers] make what they think is a good pitch and [batters] hit a ball weakly and there’s nobody there,” the first-year manager said. “I haven’t had any cases where I’ve felt like I had to let a guy know, ‘Hey, remember the last time you were out there and we saved you this run.’ I think they get it.”
Over the winter, Molitor studied how teams such as the Pirates had implemented shifting over the past couple of years. The Twins’ analytics department supplies breakdowns on each hitter’s tendencies, including spray charts and statistical information for various situations. Some of it is subtle, Dozier said, like “moving three steps toward pull for some guys, or backing up a step or two for a guy who hit a lot of line drives.”
Some is much more obvious, as when third baseman Trevor Plouffe moves to the right side of second base, enabling Dozier to play shallow right field for an extreme pull hitter such as David Ortiz. Or, as the Twins have learned to their own frustration, when an opposing team swings its outfield defense toward left field, negating Joe Mauer’s tendency to slice fastballs toward the left-center gap.
“Kansas City shifts Mauer perfectly. How many hits do [the Royals] take away from Joe?” Fien said. “But that’s what we’re trying to do do other teams now.”
It’s too early to try to quantify how much of an effect all the movement is having on the Twins defense, but Molitor is convinced the effect is more than worth the effort.
“I think we’ve been rewarded a lot. When you get beat on it, when the adverse result happens, it’s easy to say, ‘Man, I could have done this differently,’ ” Molitor said. “I’’m not going to stop doing it when I feel like it’s right.”
Even if the shift doesn’t always have a physical effect, Molitor believes there’s a mental advantage, too, in forcing hitters to confront a stacked defense. “I’ve noticed a lot of people we’re playing against who try to swing differently when we shift,” he said.
That doesn’t make it much less frustrating, though, when Jose Abreu defies a severe-pull shift and collects base hits to the right side. It happened twice Tuesday, the second time eventually resulting in the go-ahead run for the White Sox in a Twins loss.
But Mike Pelfrey, who gave up the hits, said he doesn’t blame the unorthodox defense. He blames himself.
“I didn’t execute the pitches the way I wanted to. I got it in the middle of the plate and he shot it through the [right-side] hole,” Pelfrey said. “It’s hard to take a ball the other way when it’s in on you. If I had put it where I was supposed to, that wouldn’t have happened.
“The shift has worked a lot for us. [Molitor] has convinced us. I get a lot of ground balls, so I see how much it’s helping us.”