College baseball is changing, and Penn coach John Yurkow wants to be at the forefront.
As Major League analytics have slowly found their way into the college game, it has become more important than ever for coaches to be willing to adjust to the changing landscape of the sport. From the installation of the FlightScope Strike machine to better track and scout players, to a new on-base percentage oriented approach at the plate, the Quakers have ridden the analytical wave to an impressive 17-9 start this season. Yet, anyone who has watched the Red and Blue take the field this year will observe another element of the Major League game trickling down to Meiklejohn Stadium: the shift.
“We have used [the shift] more this year than we have in the past because of what we are doing with advanced scouting, having more data at our fingertips to put the scouting reports together,” Yurkow said. “You definitely see the trickle down from Major League Baseball; the only difference is they have so much more data that they have it down to a science, and we are still working that way.”
“I’ve been here for four years, and this year, we’ve started to use the shift a lot more, especially on guys that we have a lot of information on,” senior third baseman Matt McGeagh said.
The shift, which has existed at the Major League level for over a decade now, is based on the basic premise that hitters — especially lefties — are more likely to pull the ball on the ground and hit the ball in the air to the opposite field. Therefore, teams can adjust their defense to account for this and take away balls that would have otherwise been hits.
The shift typically leaves the third baseman as the only player on the left side of the infield at the shortstop position, with the shortstop playing up the middle and the second baseman moving into shallow right field. This new alignment can create some new roles and challenges for players playing out of position.
“I move over to where the shortstop would play so I have a little bit more ground to cover. In that situation, the shortstop needs to cover second base sometimes on a ball to [third base], when in most cases that would be the second baseman,” McGeagh said.
While the shift is most apparent in the infield, putting the outfielders in the right positions can be just as important.
“There is no formal shift for the outfield, but when each different player comes up, [assistant] coach [Will] Kaufman will shift me around 10 to 15 feet in each direction,” junior right fielder Peter Matt said. “For example, if you get a pull heavy lefty up, I might shift towards the line and we might have the center fielder come towards the right center field gap to eliminate a double.”
Crucial to shifting effectively is having a solid understanding of the tendencies of opposing hitters and other contributing factors to make sure everyone is in the proper position.
“You're looking at the hitter's tendencies, but you also have to take into consideration what pitcher you have on the mound, what their velocity is, if they are more of a breaking ball pitcher or a fastball pitcher,” Yurkow said. “Even during the at-bat, if a guy's swing looks a little late, we will rotate the outfielders around, depending on what the hitter looks like.”
“Coach Yurkow has worked hard, factoring in the weather conditions and what field surface we are playing on into his algorithm to make the right decisions,” McGeagh said.
Moving forward, as the team continues to gather more information on the offensive tendencies of its Ivy rivals, it seems like the shift will only become a more common occurrence for the Quakers.
“I anticipate that, as we get more data and video moving forward, you are going to see it more and more,” Yurkow said.
While the introduction of the shift may mark an important strategic shift for Penn, Yurkow realizes the Quakers are only at the tip of the analytical iceberg.
“The further we go with this, with FlightScope and more advanced scouting, we can get even more detailed and do it even more,” Yurkow said.
Through all of this change, one thing is certain: The Quakers will not find themselves behind curve anytime soon.