Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Pronk Shift

What you are viewing is quite possibly the biggest strategic overreaction by a manager in recent baseball history.

In an effort to cool down the hot bat of Travis Hafner (incidentally, the only hot bat currently connected to a Cleveland Indian), Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon devised this gem of a defensive alignment during the Tribe's weekend series against the Devil Rays.

Apparently, it involves creating a four-man slow-pitch softball outfield by sacrificing an infield spot, then taking all four members of said slow-pitch outfield and sliding them back so far that their heels are practically on the warning track dirt.

The three remaining infielders are then shifted to the right side of the infield, leaving a vast, green void on the left side of the field. There are no fielders between the pitcher and the left fielder, almost 300 feet away.
As near as I can tell, the logic behind what has been informally dubbed the "Pronk Shift" is that Hafner is a left-handed pull hitter who sends the lion's share of his batted balls to the right side of the field. Makes sense. Left-handed hitters dating back to Ted Williams have been the subject of similar infield shifts.
The two left fielders nearly plastered against the outfield wall suggest that if Hafner hits one to the opposite field, it's going to be a deep fly ball. It sort of makes sense, but Maddon is reaching.

What doesn't make sense is that Maddon would be willing to hand Hafner a base hit on a grounder to the left side of the infield by leaving it undefended. That's where this shift stops as legitimate strategy and starts making a mockery of how the game is supposed to be played.

All Hafner would have to do is reach out and slap at an outside pitch a la Tony Gwynn and he could jog to first before a Tampa Bay fielder could get to the ball.

Given pitchers and their desire to stay out of the power zones of hitters like Hafner, it's a likely scenario.

But maybe I'm overanalyzing this whole thing a bit too much. No one was on base, so Maddon probably didn't care if Hafner slapped a groundball single to left that would have easily been a 6-3 putout if there was someone manning shortstop.

Maybe it wasn't an overreaction. More likely, it was a cheap publicity stunt by Maddon meant to draw some attention to his Nowheresville team, a photo-op so that pictures like the one above could appear in papers around the country.

These are the types of things that would draw bemused, "He's finally lost it" comments if pulled by the likes of Joe Torre. These are the types of things that would draw the fans' wrath if it were tried -- and backfired -- in another town.

Could you imagine the reaction of Tribe fans if Eric Wedge would have pulled a stunt like this against Jim Thome or Justin Morneau? Could you imagine the hellfire and brimstone brought forth on radio talk shows if Thome or Morneau would have gotten a bleeder single out of it? Fans would assemble behind the Indians dugout and chant "Wedge must go!" for nine innings every night.

But in St. Petersburg, Fla., a town that seems to have more Yankee fans than Devil Ray fans, it's something to chuckle about.

Ask to be treated like a bush league team, and ye shall receive. The Indians took two of three from the Devil Rays over the weekend, and the Rays are fast on their way to another pathetic season, 8-11 and in last place in the AL East entering play on Tuesday.

Treat baseball like a video game, and your manager might strategize his way out of a job before too long.


MP said...

I agree with your analysis, but the one thing that makes the Pronk Shift interesting is...

...it worked.

The shifted shortstop who was sent out to left field caught the fly ball lifted by Hafner.

I'm not saying that it's not an overreaction and pretty stupid if Hafner loops a base hit single to the left side. Surely, if that's the case, it is pretty stupid.

But it did work...

Zach said...

My take on these radical shifts. Two bunt singles would end the experiement. If Pronk leads off an inning and sees this, he has to take advantage.