TAMPA, Florida - Former Blue Jays third base/infield coach Brian Butterfield was an hour's drive south with the Red Sox in Bradenton on Thursday. His presence, however, was felt in the first inning of the Blue Jays' 1-0 win at Steinbrenner Field.
With two outs and Ichiro Suzuki on first, Travis Hafner came to the plate. The former Indians' slugger, a left-handed hitter, is known strictly as a pull hitter. It was the Blue Jays' first opportunity of the spring to employ one of Butterfield's favourite strategies: the infield shift.
The decision paid off. Hafner hit a bullet off diving first baseman Edwin Encarnacion's glove. The ball deflected in to shallow right field, directly to third baseman Brett Lawrie who was playing a deep second base. Encarnacion recovered and Lawrie threw Hafner out. Not your typical put out, the rare 3-5-3 on your scorecard.
"The thing about shifting, if you hit into the shift it's great but if you don't, (your players) will wonder why they were playing that way," said third base coach Luis Rivera, who's also tasked with setting the infield defense. "If I go back to the two years I was here and I've seen those guys moving around, I think they did a great job moving those guys around."
The tables were turned on the Blue Jays in the fourth when, with one out, Encarnacion was robbed by New York second baseman Jose Pirela of a base hit up the middle. Pirela was positioned behind the base, knowing Encarnacion rarely hits the ball to the right side of the infield.
At its simplest the shift is a play on percentages. A game's situation, too, will determine whether the shift is used. Hypothetically, it's less likely Hafner would have seen an unorthodox defensive alignment had he come up in the ninth inning of today's game. The Blue Jays were up one run. Playing out this pretend scenario, had the Jays used the shift, Hafner could have taken a base hit just by slapping the ball to the opposite field. New York would have had the tying run on base, Hafner would have been replaced by a pinch-runner with better speed and the likelihood of the Yankees scoring would have increased dramatically.
Last season, Tampa Bay's Luke Scott laid a bunt down the third base line for a single against the shift. Carlos Pena, now with Houston, has been known to the do the same.
"If one of the baseball big boys wants to bunt to third base for 10 or 15 million dollars a year, then go ahead," said Rivera.
When Butterfield was with the Blue Jays through the Carlos Tosca, John Gibbons, Cito Gaston and John Farrell years, he created and controlled the infield shifts. Once an anomaly, the strategy is now commonplace. Rivera will take a more conservative approach to the shift's use, studying video and binders full of statistics on each hitter. The plan is for broader consultation amongst the coaching staff and pitchers, with manager John Gibbons having the final say.
"(Pitching coach) Pete (Walker,) with some of the new pitchers, when they get their game plan together, he'll sit down with Luis (Rivera) and the defensive guys and make sure it all matches up," said Gibbons. "Guys like (Mark) Buehrle, they know the guys and they know how they pitch … A guy like that, he's such a command guy, he's not going to miss a whole lot normally so we're going to make sure we put the guys in spots where he likes them."
Rivera already has spoken to Buehrle.
"He says, 'the middle is mine, you can do whatever you want but the middle is mine.' So I guess he feels very comfortable that if I move people off the middle (of the infield) he can catch the ball so we're going to see."
"Yeah I like it," said starter Brandon Morrow, who got the 3-5-3 put out in Thursday's game. "That play there speaks for itself. I've been the benefactor of the shift a few other times and I don't think I've ever really gotten beat by someone bunting down the line or chopping it and if they had, usually they weren't trying to do that."
The shift, it would seem, is here to stay; far more than a passing fad. When the Blue Jays play the Red Sox this season, with Butterfield in the other dugout, Jose Bautista and Encarnacion will assuredly see the pull-side shift on the left side of the diamond.
- Colby Rasmus originally was in the Blue Jays starting lineup against the Yankees and made the trip to Tampa. He was scratched with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder, which manager John Gibbons described as "no big deal." Rasmus first felt pain on Wednesday.
- Jose Reyes made two great defensive plays early in the game. In the second inning, he went deep into the hole at short to nab a Chris Stewart ground ball, turned and fired a cross-body throw to get the out. Stewart, the Yankees' catcher, didn't like the call, argued and was ejected.
An inning later, Reyes tracked a Brett Gardner fly ball into shallow left field, making an over-the-shoulder catch.
- The Yankees always do things "big." The YES Network broadcasts a majority of spring training games, even utilizing the overhead shot from a blimp. CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte were among the current Yankees to contribute to the broadcast of Thursday's game.
Darryl Strawberry, now 50 years old, was in attendance.
- The Blue Jays return to Dunedin, Friday, for a date with the Tampa Bay Rays. Game time is 1:05 ET.
Here's how the pitching will line up:
Mark Buehrle (starts – 2 innings)
Darren Oliver (1)
Sean Nolin (1)
David Bush (1)
Mickey Storey (1)
Alex Hinshaw (1)
Rich Thompson (1)
Neil Wagner (1)