BRADENTON, Fla. — Over the last few years, the Pirates have become notorious for their use of defensive shifting. The Pirates played in a shift the fourth-most of any team in the majors in 2016 after being third in 2015.
Their shifts frequently involve both the familiar overshift for pull-happy left-handed hitters sometimes referred to as a “Ted Williams shift” for the former Red Sox slugger that it was invented to stop. But the Pirates also perform other shifts, moving three infielders to the left side of the infield at times and sometimes just moving the second baseman and shortstop around based on where the opposing hitter is more likely to place the ball.
It’s something that the Pirates are teaching a lot of their younger players at the lower levels so that when they get to the majors, there’s no adjustment to be made. But when the Pirates get a new major-league player through a trade or free agency, they’re given a crash course in what their new defensive responsibilities will be.
That’s taken place with infielder Phil Gosselin, who the Pirates acquired in early February from the Arizona Diamondbacks. With the Diamondbacks, Gosselin shifted some, about the middle of the road for an MLB team. Earlier in his career with the Atlanta Braves, he barely shifted at all.
“It’s challenging at first,” Gosselin said of his first few weeks playing defense in the pirates’ system. “I feel like I’m pretty good at getting my work in at all the spots, picking different days that I’m not played and taking ground balls at a couple different spots just so I’m ready. It’s like anything. You get a routine and kind of stick with it and get your work in as many places as you can to stay ready.”
Gosselin admitted that when we was with teams that shifted less often, he had a professional curiosity about what other teams saw in the numbers that led to the decision to play non-traditional defense. When he was with the Diamondbacks, it was something that he did, but he said there is a different level of information flow and buy-in with the Pirates.
“The biggest thing is that they present the information to you and it kind of speaks for itself,” he said. “This guy has a greater chance to hit the ball here, so we have to cover that area. The biggest thing is going out there and working at taking ground balls in different spots. Those deep ones in the grass in the outfield aren’t normal. So, once you get your reps in, I think it’s definitely for the better, following the data.”
He also pointed out that the fact the he’s played multiple infield positions throughout his career made for an easier transition. When he shifts to shallow left field as a third baseman against heavy-pull lefties, he doesn’t look at is as playing 100 feet away from his usual spot in the field. He’s just playing second base a good bit deeper than usual. Gosselin has played all four infield positions for the Pirates this spring.
“I think the fact that we all play different spots helps a lot,” he said. [Playing second base], I’m over on the shortstop side for a couple guys. If I’m playing third, I’m over on the second base side with a lot of lefties, so I think the versatility helps in that perspective. You don’t feel too out of place, no matter where you are in the shift or what position you’re playing.”
It’s an interesting coincidence that the Pirates’ increased use of defensive shifts was quickly followed by a success of utility infielders that can play multiple spots well. From Josh Harrison to Sean Rodriguez and now to Gosselin, Adam Frazier and Alen Hanson, the Pirates seem to have embraced the approach that as the positions become more fluid, versatility and shifting can go hand-in-hand. That, and a lot of practice, said infield coach Joey Cora.
“The good thing that we do here is that we make sure that we practice where we want to play during the season, because there’s some places that you ask people to shift, but they’ve never practiced there before,” Cora said. “We’ve been doing that on a very consistent basis. Gosselin is doing very well in that regard.”
Gosselin has seemed primed to be the top choice at shortstop if Jordy Mercer needs a breather and now with the news that Jung Ho Kang’s entire season is in doubt, he may get a chance to have an impact at third base, as well. Gosselin hasn’t played much shortstop recently in his career, but he feels good about where his defense is at that spot and felt that he could have contributed more there at his other MLB stops.
“I played there my whole life growing up,” he said. “I was a shortstop and high school and college a little bit and all that. Not as much lately, just the situation in Arizona that’s kind of the way it was. I’ve loved getting back there. I played there a lot growing up. It’s obviously at a higher level now. It’s a little harder. I’ve been working hard with Joey. I think the progress has been there in the games. It’s been getting better from day one until now. It’s going to have to keep getting there. I feel confident that if they do throw me out there, I’m going to be able to make the plays for the guys.”