There are times in life when you look up and realize you’ve spent so much time trying to keep up with the neighbors that you’ve forgotten to take care of what is in your wheelhouse or works for you.
The Pirates in many ways have had this play out. Teams focusing on power, launch angle. Deemphasizing the strikeout. Steering clear of using the running game to pressure opposing defenses. Allowing the extreme shifts they face to go unchecked.
Maybe when we get to the regular season the Pirates will jump right back to that school of thought, but this Spring they have really looked like they planned to take a different approach.
None of this is to say they won’t happily take some homeruns or that you’re going to see Jacob Stallings take off for second on a 2-1 count.
But as I watched Gregory Polanco drop down an unsuccessful bunt down the completely vacated third base line in yesterday’s game versus the Orioles it struck me that this isn’t just something the kids are trying. This is an approach the Pirates are actively trying to pursue.
MLB is trying to eliminate extreme shifts from the game by testing new rules to at least box the process in a bit in MiLB this year. The rules won’t eliminate the shift but they should all but eliminate seeing all 4 infielders on one side of the diamond.
The Pirates aren’t waiting.
When your club isn’t likely to finish in the top 25 for homeruns you better find a way to score runs. So having Colin Moran or Gregory Polanco take the free double teams keep shoving under their nose and more importantly to see them actually try it makes a whole lot of sense.
Combine that type of action with an organization wide approach that emphasizes hitting the ball where it’s pitched and I bet by the end of this season the Pirates will become a team that has been shifted against less than the rest of the league.
The league average for shifts, and we’re talking extreme now, is 34.1%. So it’s funny to see the Pirates who ranked 3rd in shift percentage last season with a whopping 46.2% actively try to eliminate the advantage from opponents. For perspective, nobody does it more than the Dodgers 55.8% of the time and they don’t play favorites based on which side of the plate you happen to be hitting from.
In a way, what the Pirates are doing is taking an approach at the plate designed to beat the defense they’ve traditionally run.
It’s smart coaching, progressive coaching and in the early going (yes Spring) it’s working. Teams are less aggressive with shifting in the Spring anyway, but the approach at the plate will ultimately keep those numbers manageable.
Why does this matter so damn much? Let’s look at Gregory Polanco.
In 2019 Greg faced shifts 51.2% of the time resulting in a wOBA with no shift of .332 and with the shift .280. 2020 saw these numbers change drastically, as he faced a shift 86.8% of the time and that changed his numbers drastically wOBA with no shift only changes to .316 (far fewer opportunities) and with a shift .219.
Polanco is a guy who’s exit velocity is in the 95th percentile, his hard hit% is in the 94th, but the shift is negating almost all the positives that could come from that. So when you see him try to drop a bunt down the 3rd base line, the hit he might get is nice, but the goal is to get some of the shifts to return to where they were in 2019 if not even better.
Now, these are just numbers, but when we discuss how very bad some players looked last year it looks as thought the coaches have at least identified this as one way to maximize the ability of every player by taking an arrow out of the quiver the opponents have defensively.
We’ll have to see how this plays out, but statistically speaking, this is a smart approach and one that will at the very least make the Pirates tougher to play and plan against in 2021.