Phillies’ Defensive Strategy Worked To Near Perfection

During last night’s game, the Phillies utilized a dramatic defensive shift on Blue Jays’ right-handed sluggers Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. Here are the spray charts for both hitters on ground balls since the start of the 2013 season:

Bautista GB 13-14Encarnacion GB 13-14

Phillies shift on Jose Bautista in the top of the 3rd, 5-5-14. (click to enlarge)

The spray charts clearly show that when hitting the ball on the ground, both hitters have shown a pronounced tendency to pull the ball to the left side of the infield. With Kyle Kendrick, a ground ball inducing sinker baller, on the mound, the Phillies elected to play the percentages and position second baseman, Chase Utley, on the third base side of the second base bag when Bautista and Encarnacion were at the plate. Click to enlarge the above photo and note Utley playing in a position similar to a shortstop at double play depth.

The results were even better than could be expected. Bautista and Encarnacion combined for eight plate appearances against Kendrick and went 0-for-7 with one hit by pitch. Five of those seven outs were ground outs to the left side of the infield including a critical bases loaded double play off the bat of Encarnacion to end the 7th inning.

Bautista Balls in Play 5-5Encarnacion Balls in Play 5-5-14

(Trivial Note: The ball hit to shallow left field on Encarnacion’s chart was a fly ball caught by second baseman, Chase Utley. Without researching it, I’d bet that was one of the few times, if not the only time, Utley has made a catch in left field during his long, illustrious career.)

Additionally, the Phillies employed a “Ryan Howard shift” (moving the shortstop, Freddy Galvis, to the first base side of the second base bag) on Juan Francisco, a left-handed hitter. This shift was less noticeable in this particular game as it only came into play once. During the third inning, Kendrick retired the side in order by getting all three batters he faced (Bautista, Encarnacion, and Francisco) to hit into the shift.

It’s not uncommon in baseball (or in life) for good decisions and smart strategies to backfire or bad processes and poor strategies to be rewarded. Last night, though, was a glimpse at an ideal world for rational minded Phillies fans. Sandberg and his coaching staff played one highly questionable strategy by tabbing Freddy Galvis and his nearly incomprehensible .032/.088/.032 slash line to bat second in the lineup and it was an utter failure. Galvis went 1-for-5 and struck out for the final out of the game. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the coaches embraced defensive shifting, a strategy with a new-fangled sabermetric-y reputation, to a degree we haven’t seen before and it worked to near perfection. Hopefully, the positive reinforcement of a good process and negative consequences of a questionable process will encourage the Phillies coaches to continue exploring common sense strategies rooted in relevant data when making future decisions.

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