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Bo Don't Know Shifts: Astros Manager's Defensive Shifts Rankle Pitcher

There's been a lot of nonsense coming out of the Houston Astros this week. Primarily the nonsense around the Houston Area Women's Center and a canceled gala that instead of being handled quietly saw the Astros filtering press statements through attorneys. Here's a hint: The Astros lost that PR war. There was also the departure of team president George Postolos, who supposedly resigned to return to his consulting business. So welcome aboard, Reid Ryan. Now how about getting a television deal handled?

But lost in all of that insanity has been the team's continued crappy play on the field. And lost in the team's continued crappy play on the field is the fact that some of the players aren't exactly thrilled with the machinations of new manager Bo Porter.

You don't get any of that from Chronicle beat writer Brian T. Smith's craptastic puff-piece profile of Bo Porter that ran behind that damn payroll in Sunday's Chronicle. In that piece, Porter is presented as a Greek god, stranded on earth with the mere mortals who can't live up to the expectations that Porter places on himself.

The players, according to the story, worship Porter, and they would eagerly run through a brick wall into the middle of the Gulf Freeway should Porter instruct them to do so. Because Porter's a motivator, the story says. He quotes himself. He's stuck his inspirational quotes up all over the locker room. He teaches the guys how to celebrate wins.

What the story didn't tell you is that there are some guys on the pitching staff who aren't buying into Porter's emphasis on extreme defensive shifts. First and foremost of that group being Lucas Harrell, who spoke up rather loudly after his, and the team's, loss on Tuesday night.

"We're trying some new things with our defense, and I thought they worked against me," Harrell said after the game. He was specifically talking about a go-ahead double hit by Detroit's Andy Dirks in the fifth inning that went to a spot where, because of the shift, there were no players.

Porter responded with a few things. He requested that Harrell speak to him and his staff privately about such matters. He then essentially stated that Harrell was just going to have to deal with the shifts because the shifts are working, citing for support the nonsensical stat that the Astros lead the majors in double plays (Porter fails to note that the Astros also lead the majors in giving up hits and putting opposing players on base, which give the Astros way more chances for double plays than other teams).

The extreme defensive shifts complained of by Harrell are one of the new fads of baseball. Stat-heavy teams are big into the shifts, positioning players all over the field based on stats and charts that show the expectation of where guys hit the balls based on the pitch, the count and so on. And these shifts work. The Tampa Bay Rays are the kings of these shifts, and because it works for the Rays, lots and lots of other teams are copying what the Rays are doing -- kind of like how everybody decided to copy Oakland's moneyball approach.

 

But here's the deal with the shifts. If the pitcher doesn't want to use a shift, a team shouldn't use a shift, no matter what the stats say. Detroit's Jim Leyland, about as old-style as you can find in a manager, dismissed the shifts yesterday, and said when they're used, they're used at the discretion of the pitcher on the mound. And before that is dismissed as being the work of a fossil not hip on the ways of the new kids, consider once again the Rays and Rays manager Joe Maddon.

"And in the spirit of free thinking, Maddon also gives his players the freedom to improvise," according to a New York Times story. "He encourages his fielders to reposition themselves based on tendencies they notice from the hitter and the pitcher, and he allows his pitchers to call off a shift if they want to pitch a hitter differently."

So if Maddon, the king of the extreme defensive shift, gives his pitchers the freedom to call off shifts, then isn't this something that Bo Porter should also be considering? Porter might be a god among mortals to the Chronicle, but unlike Maddon, he's yet to actually accomplish anything as a manager.

Porter's also being a bit disingenuous when he criticizes Harrell for complaining in public and not discussing it privately because, as Porter well knows, Harrell has been through this in private with the staff before. In late April, Harrell went to bench coach Eduardo Perez and made his displeasure with the shifts known. In his next start, the Astros didn't employ the shift, and the team won. But now the Astros are using the shifts again on Harrell's starts. So if going straight to the coaches doesn't work for Harrell, maybe going straight to the media will get Porter to actually listen to what his pitcher wants.

So here's the thing for Porter, maybe a lesson that a god can learn from a mere mortal: If Harrell doesn't want the extreme shifts used when he's on the mound, then don't use the extreme shifts when Harrell is on the field. Maybe the team will get burned. Maybe the team won't. But if the pitcher's not comfortable with it, why force it on him?

And if Porter's not content with learning lessons from mere mortals, maybe he should take the advice of guys like Leyland and Maddon, managers who have actually accomplished something. If their pitcher doesn't want a shift, there's no shift.


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