The end of defensive shifts could be coming as Major League Baseball will experiment this summer with limiting shifts in the minor leagues. If shifts go the way of the twinight doubleheader, Phillies manager Joe Girardi won’t be upset.
“I’m anxious to see how it’s going to work out and I would love to see us get away from defensive shifting,” Girardi said after Friday’s 6-2 Grapefruit League win over Baltimore in Sarasota, Fla. “I think it leads to more strikeouts, actually. Because left-handers now face the shift a lot and they try to beat the shift by hitting it over the shift. When that happens, that leads to less action in our game. I think that’s what we’re all dying for, more action. I’m curious to see how it works out.”
The new experimental rules will force defenses at the double-A level to have a minimum of four players with both feet completely in front of the outer boundary of the infield dirt. For the second half of the double-A season, two infielders could be required to be positioned entirely on each side of second base.
Other rule changes include larger bases at triple A to reduce injuries, new pickoff rules in A ball to increase stolen-base attempts, and expanded testing at some low-A games of an automatic ball-strike system to assist umpires. MLB said they “will closely monitor and analyze the impact of each rule change throughout the 2021 season and report to clubs on their effects for further analysis.”
Major-league teams shifted last season on 34.1% of all plate appearances, the highest-rate in Baseball Savant’s five-year database and double the rate from 2018. The Phillies, according to Baseball Savant, applied the seventh-fewest shifts in baseball last season.
To Girardi’s point, left-handed hitters last season faced shifts in 50.8% of their plate appearances while right-handed hitters saw shifts 21.6%. Last season’s average strikeout rate (8.55 per team, per game) was the fifth straight year of a rate higher than eight.
“I haven’t really been a fan of the shift anyways. I could care less what happens honestly,” Phillies pitcher Zack Wheeler said after pitching four innings against the Orioles. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You’re happy when it does. You’re not happy when it doesn’t. I’m sure it’ll be a couple years before it changes up here if it does.
“I love it when it’s there. I hate it when they’re out of position or whatever you want to call it.”
Pitcher Jose Alvarado touched 100 mph and four other relievers -- Connor Brogdon, Archie Bradley, Hector Neris, and Enyel De Los Santos -- logged scoreless innings in relief of Wheeler. The Phillies still plan to carry eight relievers on the opening-day roster and the competition is stiff.
“It’s going to be really difficult to pick those seven or eight spots,” Girardi said. “But that’s a good problem to have.”
Center field does not
The Phillies are still waiting for someone to claim the starting job in center field, the lone vacancy in their opening-day lineup. Roman Quinn, Scott Kingery, and Odubel Herrera each went 0-for-3. Quinn and Kingery, the team leaders in strikeouts this spring, struck out twice, a day after Girardi said the team wants to cut back on strikeouts. The lack of someone emerging in the competition could create a chance for Mickey Moniak, whom Girardi said will soon have a chance to start.
“I keep saying we’re hoping somebody grabs it and takes off with it,” Girardi said. “It hasn’t happened yet. We need someone to do it. Guys are getting an opportunity. We need someone to grab a hold of it.”
Wheeler allowed two runs on four hits in four innings while striking out three and walking one. ... C.J. Chatham and Nick Maton -- both competing for utility roles -- had nice days. Chatham had two hits, including an RBI double, and Maton hit a three-run homer. ... Ivan Nova, Christopher Sanchez, and Adonis Medina pitched Friday in a six-inning “B” game in Sarasota. ... Zach Eflin will start Saturday against the Tigers in Clearwater. NBC Sports Philadelphia will air the game.