New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi smiles when questioned about the joy of his job and the strategy that goes with it. It’s not a big smile, it’s more like the grin of a poker player who has his cards in order, and has just drawn a valuable ace.
You get to teach. You get to manage. I love the competition and I love the idea of trying to figure out how to beat the other team.
And this season, Girardi has found that valuable ace in the infield shift. Certainly, the shift is not new to him. But he has never used it to the extent that he has so far this year.
And the results are showing up already. Last, year, the Yankees finished 16th in the majors in defensive efficiency, a stat that compares the number of balls opponents put in play versus the number of outs recorded. Home runs are thrown out of the calculation.
But this year, they have already moved up to eighth place, thanks in large part to the shift. The trick, of course, is knowing when to use the shift and when to do without it.
Yankees’ fans recall one of the best examples of this during the 2009 World Series. The Phillies got caught overusing the shift, allowing Johnny Damon to steal two bases on one pitch. After stealing second, Damon continued on to third when the Phillies’ third baseman got stuck covering second, leaving no one to cover third.
The Yankees currently hold second place in the majors in times using the shift. And it has been Girardi’s intuition, with the help of his coaching staff, that has made the difference.
The origin of the shift dates back to the 1920’s. But it was first consistently employed against Ted Williams. Still, if teams had consistently covered the hole up the middle just a couple of decades ago, that would have been considered as borderline insanity.
So how far will Girardi take it? If Ivan Nova‘s sinker is not sinking, as it wasn’t recently, and David Ortiz steps to the plate after hitting three fly balls on the day, will we see four outfielders? Imagine one in left center and one covering the right center gap to grab a line drive that would have otherwise made it through to the wall.
And will we see infielders setting up in one spot, and then changing to another before the pitch? This would distract the hitter the same way defensive lineman in football change positions before the snap to confuse the offense’s blocking assignments.
It sounds crazy. But it could be the next ace up Girardi’s sleeve.