’92-93 Blue Jays weigh in on shift conundrum facing today’s hitters

Baseball Central's Kevin Barker blames Joe Maddon for the dreaded shift, and discusses solutions with Elliott Price on how to eliminate it from baseball.

They were like a baseball college, those 1992-93 Toronto Blue Jays. Great players but baseball brainiacs, too. Guys who’d call out the next pitch in the dugout; guys who put the “pro” in professionals; yet guys whose wisdom seems rooted as much in a common-sense understanding of the actual playing of the game.

The perfect people to talk to, then, about approaching defensive shifts, a topic that has dominated baseball this season and is sure to come up again in the off-season. There are people who want to legislate the shift out of the game because it takes away from the level of action on the field, which is essentially the same as saying this generation of MLB hitters is too stupid to figure out a way around it themselves. You want to see eyes roll? Mention the notion to some of the men who were in Toronto this past weekend for the 25th anniversary reunion of the Blue Jays back-to-back World Series winners.

“If you’re giving me a base hit that way, I’m taking it,” said John Olerud. Like it was the dimmest question anybody could ask someone who flirted with .400. I mean, he was practically apologetic.

Each week, Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt tackle the most impactful stories in the world of sports and their intersection with popular culture. Come for the sports; stay for the storytelling and cigars.

Now, Olerud provided a caveat: he’s a family guy and doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time watching baseball let alone musing about baseball. But Pat Hentgen and Ed Sprague are two members of those teams who have remained in the game, Hentgen as a special advisor for the Blue Jays and Sprague as co-ordinator of instruction for the Oakland Athletics. Neither of them seemed overly perplexed about shifts, balls in play, pace of game when I interviewed them on The Jeff Blair Show. In fact, Sprague – who spent 11 seasons coaching the University of the Pacific Tigers – seemed inclined to buy into the notion that before shifts are regulated, let’s see how this generation of young hitters, who’ve been shifted since high school, adapt.

 
Pat Hentgen & Ed Sprague on the mentality of championship Blue Jays
August 10 2018

Shifts are a product of the increasing influence of analytics in the game, and in that way their development was predictable. That’s part of the issue: as a society, we aren’t very good at trying to put technological genies back in bottles. True, things change. When he was manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, Joe Maddon’s teams made shifts popular. Now, his Chicago Cubs shift fewer times in a game than just about any other team in the game. But Sprague says railing against hitters being obstinate when faced with a shift overlooks one significant factor.

Economics.

“There’s really no incentive for a hitter to hit the opposite way with the shift,” Sprague said, matter of factly. In other words, you get paid for launch angle and home runs. Opposite-field rollers? Er, not so much.

“It’s like how everybody always talked about ‘move ‘em over, drive ‘em in,” said former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston. “Sounds nice. Makes sense. But you go into an arbitration hearing and try to get paid for that. You tell them: ‘Hey, I moved ‘em over like you said I should,’ and the response would be: ‘Yeah. But you didn’t drive ‘em in.’

“So much for that.”

NOW TWEET THIS …

In which we suggest a reason for Teoscar Hernandez’s reluctance to take charge in the field … tell you how to trade Josh Donaldson … and make your day better by simply writing the name Marquis Grissom …

• There are some in the Blue Jays front office who think Teoscar Hernandez’s tentative play is a result of a collision with Jose Altuve last April. Could be a challenge for sports psychs as much as the coaches. #understandable

• Forget a September call-up: I wonder if the Jays will send Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to double-A New Hampshire for the Eastern League playoffs before sending him to the Arizona Fall League. #possibility

• How will the Blue Jays get value for Josh Donaldson in August? One MLB GM suggested picking up the remainder of his salary. “They’re going to be paying him, regardless, so get a prospect, especially if you aren’t going to qualify him in the winter.” #sageadvice

• Red Sox manager Alex Cora, a former infielder, says video replay has changed tags at second base. Cora was taught to tag the runners’ feet, because umpires were looking for contact on the bag. Replay has given latitude to tag any part of the runner. #change

• Because any time you can mention Marquis Grissom it’s a good day: Braves rookie Ronald Acuna is on a roll with leadoff HRs. He has four this season, one behind the record set by Grissom in 1996. #Exposed

• With the Duke Blue Devils playing some U Sports teams in an exhibition basketball tournament, can we just enjoy the games without being chided for not giving Canadian college hoops its due? #please

• The Dodgers bullpen is in meltdown, which kind of puts a different light on GM Farhan Zaidi’s glib, delicate rebuke of the Astros’ acquisition of Roberto Osuna. #karma

• Got to think a good start Wednesday by Marco Estrada is a must if he’s to be dealt. Keep an eye on the Cleveland Indians, who put Trevor Bauer on the DL. #timesawasting

THE END GAME

I know the Blue Jays seem set on bringing in a bilingual manager in time for the 2019 season and that seems to make a lot of sense given the influx of Latino players this organization will experience these next few seasons. But, man, I’ll be some bitter if they don’t at least interview Hentgen for the job. My understanding is the organization is set on retaining Pete Walker as pitching coach (unless he wants to leave) so I don’t know how that would jibe with somebody who made their bones winning a Cy Young Award and helping develop the organization’s pitchers. But it’s public knowledge that Hentgen spoke to former GM Alex Anthopoulos about the gig; I’ve long been in his corner as a future manager.

Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show on from 9 a.m.-Nnoon and Baseball Central from noon-1 p.m. ET. on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. He and Stephen Brunt are co-hosts of “The Lede” podcast.

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