Phillies Defensive Philosophy "Shifting" (See What I Did There?)

A.J. Burnett should benefit greatly from defensive shifting. - Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Up until now, the Phillies have been one of the few teams in baseball not to employ defensive shifts against their opponents. Wednesday's spring game against Atlanta showed that may no longer be the case.

What you saw was not a mistake. It was not an error. Phillies infielders were not confused, like T-ballers who have no idea where they're supposed to stand when the coach tells them to "go play shortstop."

As Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman came to the plate in Wednesday's spring game against the Braves, the Phillies instituted a defensive shift, moving three infielders to the right side of the infield, leaving just one infielder on the left side.

That Freeman beat the shift with a single to left is a minor detail. The major point is that it finally appears the Phillies are going to use advanced metrics, sabermetrics, analytics, whatever you want to call it, to aid them in their defensive placement.

For most other baseball teams, this would not be news. The best defenses have been utilizing their opponents' spray charts and aligning their defenses according to where hitters typically hit the ball for years.

Obviously, Phils fans know what this looks like. It's been done against their own players. Teams have been shifting against Ryan Howard since 2007, and it has worked tremendously. Chase Utley has gotten the treatment as well. It was a tactic the Pittsburgh Pirates used a lot last year and is one of the reasons they were one of the better defensive teams in the league.

"I was aware that they were doing it," Sandberg said after Wednesday's game. "(Pittsburgh) wasn't the only team doing it, but they pitched to it effectively and the way their season went, I think it worked well for them." - via Philadelphia Daily News' David Murphy.

And for a team that has gone out of their way to acquire ground ball pitchers like A.J. Burnett and Roberto Hernandez this off-season, this is no small thing.

Sandberg said the team will have spray charts for all opposing hitters at their disposal and will shift in situations where it is called for. This should greatly aid an infield defense that has seen Chase Utley's and Jimmy Rollins' range diminish over the last few years.

Last year, the Phillies ranked 29th out of 30 teams when it came to utilizing defensive shifts, according to Hardball Times. And Ryan Morrison from Beyond the Box Score noted that, while the Phillies were able to make the routine plays on defense last year, their lack of range cost them anywhere from 60-100 runs defensively in 2013.

These two items are not unrelated.

The top four teams to employ defensive shifts last year, Baltimore, Tampa, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, all held opponents to a BAbip under .300 last year. Meanwhile, hitters posted a .320 BAbip against the Phillies in 2013. Surely, this is fantastic news for Burnett, Hernandez and Kyle Kendrick, who should see their BAbip against helped by the use of defensive shifting.

Certainly, one defensive shift against one player in one spring training game does not constitute a sea change in defensive philosophy. But listening to Sandberg, it certainly sounds as if the team is ready to join the masses and begin employing sabermetrics in this area of the team.

Better late than never.

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