If you haven't yet, I strongly recommend you go to the Trib's site today and check out Travis Sawchik's feature on the Pirates' defensive shifts. In addition to the things that you probably already know about the shifts (you probably remember James Santelli's piece about it from earlier this summer; if you don't please go read that post, as well), Sawchik really provides some insight into how the shifts came about.
There are a few really interesting aspects of this article that I want to touch on. The first is certainly Clint Hurdle. Like most baseball fans, I'm guilty of implicitly praising Hurdle while explicitly criticizing him. In general, I like Hurdle. He seems like a great guy that has a team full of guys that would run through a brick wall for him. I always say that this is the most important thing a manager can do and that many of the decisions that we, as fans, get bent out of shape about — who to pinch hit where or batting order or which reliever to bring in or position player bunts or ocassionally not sticking with a platoon — often end up amounting to very little, even over the course of a long season. Here's the thing: that's not strictly true anymore. Hurdle bought into the data compiled by Dan Fox and prestented to him by Fox and Neal Huntington and agreed to implement the shifts in games. It's easy to look at the number of shifts by the Pirates from year to year to year and see that the more the team shifted, the more Hurdle and company bought into the shifts. Hurdle's admission that he realized he had to change things up after getting fired by the Rockies gets a lot of respect from me; none of this defensive stuff happens without the right manager.
What makes it all more interesting is the point that Sawchik brings up about the personnel that the Pirates have used to enact these shifts. With no intended disrespect to Neil Walker or Pedro Alvarez, it's hard to believe that one of the best infields at turning groundballs into outs has both of those guys playing almost every single out in the field. They both have their strengths (Pedro's cannon arm, Walker's soft hands), but neither is particularly rangey. Think of the way that the various small market success teams change the way that people think about baseball. The A's dropped defense from the equation entirely in the early 2000s, basically saying that they knew how to quantify offense so much better than anyone else that defense was irrelevant. The Rays brought defense back into the picture with the idea that sometimes it's OK to start a Jason Bartlett because defense is so important. Now the Rays and Pirates and the other shift teams are changing that paradigm again; you can get away with less-than-spectacular defenders if they're positioned properly.
The final thing that I wanted to point out is the team's philosophy on ground balls. This, more than anything, drives home for me just how methodical the front office is. Their approach is almost scientific. What do we know? We know that pitchers mostly only control strikeouts, walks, and home runs, and that the main way that thye control home runs is through ground balls, because if you give up fly balls a certain amount of them are going over the fence, no matter how good you are. So how do we maximize is? You make your pitchers throw more groundballs. And what else? You throw out positioning and make your fielders stand where those ground balls are going, regardless of convention.
It sounds easy when you write it out like that, but think of all the work that went into Charlie Morton. Think of how closely regimented Gerrit Cole's minor league and early Major League career have been to turn him into a groundball pitcher. What Sawchik's story really brings into focus, for me, is that the shifts aren't an idea — they're a philosophy. They're a methodology. For years, it's been apparent that small market teams need to create their own advantages to succeed against the teams with money. For a while, it seemed like the Pirates weren't doing that, but now that we know what a successful Pirate team looks like, it seems clear that this is what they've been looking for all along.