Who’s On Third ?


By Greg Hudson

I don’t know: third base!

It’s a classic line from a classic comedy routine by Abbott and Costello. It’s also a question that the Los Angeles Dodgers will be asking themselves between now and Opening Day next season.

Losing a winner-take-all game is tough. Losing it in front of your home fans is tougher still. Losing it thanks in large part to a runner going first-to-third on a walk? Inconceivable.

And yet, as New York Mets first baseman Lucas Duda, a power-hitting lefty slugger, took ball four and trotted to first base, teammate Daniel Murphy seized the moment: and won the series.

It was the top of the fourth inning in the decisive game five of the National League Division series. After allowing a run in the top of the first on a triple off the bat of Murphy, the Dodgers responded with a pair of runs in the home half of the inning and led 2-1 as Duda came to the plate with one out and a runner on first.

The Dodgers, like most other teams the Mets have faced this season, had pulled a shift against Duda, leaving shortstop Corey Seager in his position and shifting third baseman Justin Turner to fill the hole between first and second, cutting down on the chance that pull-hitting Duda could turn on a pitch and pull it through the right side for a hit. The entire purpose of the shift in that situation was to limit the likelihood that Murphy, who stood on first base after singling to lead off the frame, would reach third on a hit by Duda.

But Duda turned in a good at-bat against Dodgers’ Cy Young candidate Zach Grienke, and held his swing on a 3-1 offering that missed low. After checking with the home plate umpire, Duda, trotted down to first and Murphy slowly jogged to second.

Perhaps the Dodgers had never practiced what to do if a pitcher walks a hitter with a shift on. Perhaps Turner, who first made a name for himself playing second base for the Mets in 2011, wasn’t familiar with the schematics. Perhaps Grienke was supposed to move off the mound to cover third while waiting for Turner to return to the hot corner, and keep Murphy at second base. Perhaps the Dodgers forgot there was a runner on.

Regardless of the specific conditions of the Dodgers’ mentality at the time, when Murphy approached second base, he took a glance over toward third base coach Tim Tueffel, and saw only Tueffel standing there. Just before reaching second, he broke into a sprint and within four seconds was sliding safely into third: long before Grienke could cover the bag and with Turner still on the right side of the infield.

It was a decisive moment in the game – as Murphy would score the tying run on a sacrifice fly a batter later and then capped off a monster night with a go-ahead home run in the sixth that would send the Mets to the National League Championship Series – and may prove to be a decisive moment in baseball strategy.

The infield shift has been a practice in baseball for nearly 90 years, beginning in the 1920s against lefty slugger Cy WIlliams. The practice was again employed in the 1940s against Hall of Famer Ted Williams, but these uses were designed more for psychological impact on the hitter than for actual defensive purpose.

But as metrics and statistics tracking advanced over the decades, spray charts helped teams track the hit location of their opponents, and lefty power hitters who pull the ball to the right side of the infield suddenly found themselves facing an unusual dilemma: an extra infielder on the right side of the infield.

And to a certain extent, the strategy has been effective. Shifting against a power hitter can lower his batting average by between 30 and 50 points, and by extension can save a team several runs over the course of a season.

But the shift is inherently risky. A hitter who squibs a ball softly toward third base can end up with a double if he has decent speed, as neither the shortstop nor left fielder are in position to field the ball quickly. More importantly, with runners on base, it leaves third base totally exposed.

And that fact has been exploited twice in very important postseason games in the past decade. In 2009, with the score tied in the top of the ninth inning of game four of the World Series between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, Johnny Damon stole second base and simply carried on all the way to third and went on to score what would be the winning run to give the Yankees a 3-1 series lead.

Then on Thursday in Los Angeles, Murphy’s first-to-third advance on a walk again highlights the weakness in the shift. It can be proven effective against hitters who pull the ball, but the risk of employing the stratagem with runners on base may result in a new shift: away from pulling an infielder away from third base unless the bases are empty.

Some will question the Mets’ merit in winning the series after benefitting from such a tactical blunder. Some will question whether the Dodgers can continue to consider themselves an elite organization after failing to advance past the divisional round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Others will question whether either the Mets or their NLCS opponents, the Chicago Cubs, can beat either American League candidate in the World Series. But there’s a more urgent question that still needs to be answered.

Who exactly IS on third?

2014 Preview: NL Central



By Greg Hudson
Chicago Cubs (66-96, 5th in 2013)
The Cubs had a season to forget in 2013, failing to win 70 games and failing crack into the top 5 in any statistical category with one exception: starting pitcher Edwin Jackson led the majors with 18 losses.
Frankly, 2014 doesn’t have much brighter prospects for the Cubbies, either, with an almost entirely unchanged lineup featuring only the addition of rookie infielder Mike Olt, while Edwin Jackson will continue taking the hill for a rotation that will add Jason Hammel. The signing of journeyman closer Jose Veras could help them win close games, but only if the lineup can produce enough runs to get him out of the pen in the first place.
For the time being, if you want to find the Cubs in the NL Central standings, look towards the bottom.
Cincinnati Reds (90-72, 3rd in 2013)
A 90-win season in 2013 meant the Reds were headed to the postseason, but their October dreams were cut short after a loss to division-rival Pittsburgh in the wildcard game. 
The Cincinnati front office was clearly satisfied with the productivity of the team, however, and the 2014 roster is set to look almost exactly as it did last season, with the only change being the replacement of Shin-Soo Choo with rookie prospect Billy Hamilton. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a sport where constant change is an accepted way of life and continuity is rare, the Reds roster has stayed together and is a few years off from experiencing the decline that has plagued the aging Yankees lineup in the past few seasons. Their entire rotation is under the age of 30, including 24-year-old who impressed with a 7-4 record and 2.92 ERA in 2013. Meanwhile the bullpen is full of experienced hurlers like Jonathon Broxton and Manny Parra, while featuring younger players like 26-year-old closer Aroldis Chapman.
The position players have a similar story. The only regular starters over 30 are Brandon Phillips at second and Ryan Ludwick in left, while the big hitters Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are only 30 and 26, respectively.
They missed out on a long postseason run last year, but look for them to be making a case to play in the NLCS this time around.
Milwaukee Brewers (74-88, 4th in 2013)
A losing record seems a fair assessment of the Brew Crew in 2013, but perhaps to finish 15 games under .500 was a little unfair. But it’s the product of playing in perhaps the most competitive division in all of baseball, with now three legitimate World Series contenders in the Central in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, where a middle-of-the-pack team doesn’t really have a chance to show it.
Brewers hitters ranked 16th in batting average (.252) and 14th in on base percentage (.398) last season, while the pitching staff ranked 16th in ERA (3.84) and 14th in WHIP (1.29). It was truly a middle-of-the-pack season at Miller Park.
It’s likely that those numbers, and the numbers in the wins column, should be about the same this year too, with perhaps a few improvements in the pitching department with the signing of veteran starter Matt Garza and set-up man Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, who returns to Miller Park after spending much of last year in Baltimore. 
But the mediocrity in the lineup remains, despite the addition of Mark Reynolds and his power. The simple fact is that Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez can’t be the only two sources of consistent production if the team wants to reach the .500 mark.
Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68, 2nd in 2013)
In 2013, all the promises the Pirates have made since the days that Jason Bay was a top rookie came to fruition as the Pirates secured October baseball for the first time since 1992. And it was no small miracle: a mix of experience and youth provided the right combination of speed, power, and consistency to get them to 94 wins despite sub-par hitting stats, thanks in no small part to the elite work of a pitching staff that ranked third in ERA (3.26) and 2nd in opponent batting average (.238).
This season looks to be another positive one, with the lineup and bullpen set to remain unchanged as young players like Jose Tabata and Starling Marte continue to develop and mature. The only major change is in the rotation, as the Pirates welcome righty hurler Edinson Volquez to a rotation that dominated opposing hitters in 2013.
Look to see them fighting to play in October again, but the Reds will be a tough team to beat if they want to make the playoffs again.
St. Louis Cardinals (97-65, 1st in 2013)
Last year’s World Series runners up are a veritable juggernaut, and have been since their loss in the 2004 World Series, also to Boston. Cardinals hitters ranked 3rd in runs scored and on base percentage, and 4th in batting average at .269. The pitching department was equally dominant, ranking 5th in ERA and 8th in WHIP, thanks in no small part to young phenom Michael Wacha.
Wacha and his friends in the rotation and the bullpen won’t be welcoming any new faces unless struck by the injury bug, but the already strong lineup has been further strengthened by shortstop Jhonny Peralta and catcher Peter Bourjos. Look to see them in the NCLS, for a start.
1st: Cardinals
2nd: Reds *wildcard
3rd: Pirates
4th: Brewers
5th: Cubs