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Cardinals cutting back on defensive shifts

Cardinals cutting back on defensive shifts

Cardinals cutting back on defensive shifts

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals have employed infield defensive shifts against Atlanta's left-handed-hitting Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman at times throughout this series. But the implementation of such exaggerated positioning has been much more the exception than the rule this season.

Manager Mike Matheny admitted on Saturday that the team has cut back on its shifting, largely because the concept of moving infielders to unorthodox places based on a batter's likelihood of hitting the ball to a particular spot was not embraced by all members of the pitching staff.

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Getting pitchers to buy into the philosophy is as critical as using a hitters' spray chart to position the defenders appropriately. That's because a pitcher can negate the shift single-handedly if he does not pitch the batter in a way that increases the chances of a ball hit a certain direction.

"Last year there were times when we were shifting and I knew [the pitchers] weren't real comfortable with it," Matheny said. "No matter what I believe, we can talk to guys about the importance and show them the statistics, but if they don't feel comfortable with how the defense is aligned behind them, we're wasting our time."

Matheny and his coaching staff present those statistics during pre-series pitching meetings. The information shows the potential payoff of shifting against certain batters, but those numbers are absorbed and applied individually. Younger pitchers have less say in eliminating shifts behind them than do veterans.

"There are some guys it just bothers them to know that the defense is shifted and is out of what the normal position would be when it's not working," Matheny said. "It's kind of like the catcher's philosophy. You have a game plan, and you know what could work, but if a pitcher doesn't have complete buy-in, you're probably not going to get a very well-executed pitch. The way our pitchers think and the way that they go about preparing in their mind for a pitch is the top of our priority list."

Shelby Miller reaped the benefits of the Cardinals' defensive shifts against Freeman twice on Saturday. In both the fourth and sixth, Freeman sent sharp grounders right to second baseman Kolten Wong, who was positioned in shallow right field. Both resulted in routine groundouts.

"It worked out because [catcher] Yadi [Molina] was calling softer stuff to make him pull the ball," Miller said. "Wong was there both times. The shift is hit or miss. But I think if you execute the pitches that Yadi calls -- because Yadi calls them toward the defense -- good things happen. Those two balls that Freddie hit, he hit them hard, but they were both outs. I won't complain about it."

From the opposing perspective, the Cardinals have seen opponents use defensive shifts against them several times this season. Matt Adams and -- to a lesser degree -- Carlos Beltran have faced it most often. The potential benefits of a shift were no more obvious than back on Aug. 13, when Pirates second baseman Neil Walker snagged Adams' line drive while playing several feet into right field. Walker's positioning prevented the Cardinals from scoring what would have been the tying run.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. Chad Thornburg is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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