Most would agree the Rays’ success in 2008 was due in large part to their improved play with the gloves. Not content to with sticking with what works, the Rays have become even more agressive defensively in 2009.
“We talked about being aggressively offensively, being aggressive on the bases, and I think that we’re being aggressive on defense,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Look at the NFL, and even the NBA, and some aggressive defenses, and how that speaks to winning championships, too.”
The aggressiveness can be seen in how they push their outfielders to play as shallow as they can to take away line drive and bloop hits, and encourage all fielders to take chances in making catches and throws…But it’s also in their scheming, as they have started to use significant defensive shifts against more hitters. It used to be that only a few left-handed sluggers, such as Boston’s David Ortiz and Chicago’s Jim Thome, got the special treatment, with 2B Akinori Iwamura going into short rightfield and SS Jason Bartlett crossing over to the first-base side of second…But now the Rays are shifting against more left-handers (Baltimore’s Aubrey Huff, for example) and also against some right-handers, such as Boston’s Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis, though not as dramatically, with Iwamura up the middle and 1B Carlos Peña in the hole.
We have become very familiar with Joe Maddon’s use of the infield shift. We have seen it work, like earlier this year when Mike Lowell was robbed of an RBI by lining out to Aki Iwamura who was standing behind second base.
But we have also seen the Rays beat with the shift a few times this season. For example, yesterday, Jim Thome grounded to Ben Zobrist playing to the right of second base with the bases loaded. Rather than turning an inning-ending double play, Zobrist was forced to go to first for one out because there was nobody to cover second. As a result, a run scored.
And we have also seen BJ Upton and Carl Crawford get beat by balls over their head late in close games. Rather than play not to give up the extra-base hits, the Rays were trying to take away bloop singles.
What we don’t know is how many more hits the Rays would have allowed had Upton and Crawford not been playing shallow.
On the other hand, we know from Maddon that the Rays are being more aggressive and we know from our own observations that on several occasions this year, that new found aggressiveness has cost the Rays runs at crucial times.
Only time will tell, but let’s hope that at this point, it is just bad luck.
Aggressive Tampa Bay Rays increase use of defensive shift [St. Pete Times]