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Swing shift: Blue Jays rethink defensive strategy

Toronto may be less aggressive when it comes to moving around players

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Swing shift: Blue Jays rethink defensive strategy play video for Swing shift: Blue Jays rethink defensive strategy

TAMPA, Fla. -- For the past couple of years, the Blue Jays have used the defensive shift at every possible opportunity, but that could be changing -- at least slightly -- this season.

Former third-base coach Brian Butterfield was one of the biggest proponents of shifting Toronto's defense all over the field. There were multiple times each game players would move out of their traditional fielding spots to combat the opposition.

Toronto was arguably the most aggressive team in its usage of the defensive philosophy, but with Luis Rivera now the Blue Jays' third-base coach, the club's stance could become a little more conservative.

"I don't think I'm going to be that aggressive as we were," Rivera said on Thursday afternoon when asked about his philosophy on the shift.

"It all depends on who is hitting. If I do that to David Ortiz and he wants to bunt to third, it's late in the game and they're down by two runs, I'm probably going to take that [bunt] away -- because if he gets on base, it'll be the tying run [at the plate]."

The Blue Jays had yet to use the shift this spring, but ironically enough, after it dominated the pregame discussion with reporters, the club implemented it later that afternoon against the Yankees.

That's likely a coincidence more than anything else, but the shift was successful in its brief appearance on Thursday afternoon. Brett Lawrie shifted from third base to shallow right field, and that's where he turned what would have been a single by Travis Hafner into an easy out at first.

It's the hitters like Hafner, Ortiz and Mark Teixeira that likely will receive most of the attention on shifts. Others such as Carlos Pena and Luke Scott, who have victimized the Blue Jays with bunt singles in the past, are much less likely to receive a similar treatment this season.

Rivera has yet to put together a comprehensive list of which hitters will see the shift, but he's armed with data from the previous coaching staff and has some general ideas on which direction he'll go. Still, it appears as though a lot of work still needs to be done.

"It all depends on what I might be seeing on the videos," Rivera said. "I think it worked a lot last year and we got a lot of outs. The thing about shifting, if you hit into a shift, it's great, but if you don't, they wonder why they were playing that way. If I go back to the two years that I was here, seeing those guys moving around, I think they did a great job."

Unlike previous years, the pitching staff will also play a role in when the shift is used on the field. Previously, Butterfield had the final say in all of those matters and the pitchers just had to react, but that won't be the case this season.

The club's thinking is that some pitchers aren't comfortable with the strategy. They become visibly frustrated when opposing hitters take the easy bunt for a hit, and it has the potential to play mind games with their heads.

Right-hander Brandon Morrow doesn't see what all the big fuss is about, though. He rarely thinks about where the infield is positioned and instead solely focuses on the batter.

Morrow pointed to the ground-ball out by Hafner in the first inning of Toronto's 1-0 win over New York as a prime example of why the shift can be beneficial.

"That play speaks for itself," Morrow said. "I've been the benefactor of the shift a few other times, and I don't think I've ever really gotten beat by somebody bunting down the line. If they had, usually they're not trying to do that. Usually when we're shifting, it's a bigger guy, power lefty and they're usually not going to try to lay down a bunt anyways."

Butterfield might have been one of the originators, but he's far from being the shift's only fan. Jose Bautista regularly sees the shift from opposing teams, while the Yankees even took a similar strategy with Edwin Encarnacion during Thursday's game.

As the stats and technology around baseball have changed, so too, has the game. Spray charts are regularly available to the coaching staffs so they have a better understanding of how often a player hits to a certain part of the field.

"It seems like the last two years everybody is doing it -- especially with the right-handed hitters now," Rivera said. "Usually you don't bring that second baseman on the other side for right-handed hitters, you only do it with the left-handers, but they're doing it more and more and more.

"Coaches, we look at more videos now. Years ago, by eye you'd watch a player, you'd watch a situation, you'd go by feel. You play three games over here and then the guy plays 162 games. You try to look on video and we try to look where the guy hits the most balls, and then you make a decision whether you'd like to have him out there or not."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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