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 East


By Greg Hudson

Atlanta Braves (96-66, 1st in 2013)
The Braves had a spectacular season in 2013, finishing 30 games over .500 and falling just one game short of the Cardinals for top seed in the National League. But while they certainly had some powerful offensive performances – thanks to the likes of Chris Johnson, the brothers Upton, and Jason Heyward – the story of the Braves season was all about pitching. Atlanta pitchers ranked first in the majors in ERA at 3.18, and second in both quality starts (102) and WHIP (1.20), thanks is no small part to Chris Medlen’s 15 wins and 3.11 ERA, and the positively lights-out work from closer Craig Kimbrel.
The 2014 Braves Lineup should look very much like last year, seeing as no major moves happen into or out of Atlanta, with one major exception: the announcement that the Braves will be leaving the Atlanta Metro area and taking up residence at a new home some 15 miles out of the city. But for the next few years, until the stadium is ready for the 2017 season, Braves fans can expect the recent string of success to continue, provided the quality of players in the current lineup stick around and keep improving.
Miami Marlins (62-100, 5th in 2013)
For as impressive as the Braves were last season, the Marlins were just as much entirely awful in their second season in their new Miami home. While their pitching was an improved mediocre, Marlins hitters ranked dead last in the majors in runs scored, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and were rather lucky to lose only 100 games.
With such awful hitting stats it’s no surprise that the Marlins have made several lineup changes, most notably the additions of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Rafael Furcal, and Casey McGehee, who will hopefully add some production to a lineup otherwise mostly devoid of oomph.
There have been no major moves in the pitching staff, but top prospects Andrew Heaney and Kevin Slowey will be fighting for a spot in the rotation against the likes of Tom Koehler during spring training. A successful season for either of them will be the highlight of the year for the fish.
New York Mets (74-88, 3rd in 2013)
When one looks at the Mets season last year, one has to admit they were remarkable. A team that couldn’t really hit (29th in batting average), couldn’t really field, and aside from Cy Young candidate Matt Harvey, couldn’t really pitch (20th in opponent batting average), finished less than 15 games under .500 despite having one of the worst home records in the majors. 
To say that the Mets have turned the corner in the off-season would be overselling the improvements the organization has made, but there’s no doubt the division’d third-place team last season has taking steps in the right direction, signing outfielders Chris Young and Curtis Granderson, while adding veteran hurler Bartolo Colon to the rotation and set-up man Kyle Farnsworth to the bullpen.
It isn’t likely to be a very successful season this year, but with Matt Harvey due to return next season and some very highly rated prospects coming through the system, including infielders Gavin Cecchini and L.J. Mazzilli, son of Met legend Lee Mazzilli. Don’t expect them to play October just yet though. Yet.
Philadelphia Phillies (73-89, 4th in 2013)
The Phillies were a team of contradictions in 2013. The team with the 9th most quality starts had one of the worst ERA’s and WHIP’s in the league, and while ranking 21st in batting average, Phillies hitters ranked 24th in on base percentage. So for them to finish with 73 wins, it’s tough to predict the 2014 season based on last season’s lineup.
Fortunately, we don’t have to try, they’ve added several key players in an attempt to improve their weakest elements. Marlon Bird features in the outfield while AJ Burnett, Roberto Hernandez, and rookie Miguel Gonzalez are part of a total overhaul of the rotation after the retirement of Roy Halladay.
They won’t be in the playoffs, but they could prove spoilers for teams like the Braves and the Nationals as they fight for the division title.