Oregon baseball gains extra edge with infield shifting

The Oregon Ducks play the Oregon State Beavers at PK Park in Eugene, Oregon on May 6, 2014. (Ryan Kang/Emerald)

Posted by Victor Flores on Sunday, May. 18 at 5:05 pm.

Major League Baseball teams have increasingly embraced the infield shift, where one side of the diamond is overloaded with infielders to increase teams’ chances of recording outs. This trend brings one thought to Jay Uhlman’s mind: It’s about time.

Uhlman, Oregon’s infield and hitting coach, said college baseball teams have used infield shifting for “at least 10 years,” and he utilized this defensive concept before he even arrived in Eugene nearly five years ago. Shifting has yielded several positive results, some of which are invisible.

In his 15 years of coaching, Uhlman has noticed a tendency in most batters over their college careers.

“It typically doesn’t matter the type of pitcher — power pitcher, soft pitcher — (hitters) are pretty much going to hit it in the same areas they’ve always hit it in,” Uhlman said.

Uhlman knows this because he and the Oregon staff compile spray charts for almost every batter the Ducks face. The charts provide several key pieces of information.

“The area that a ball will be hit by the opponent based on right or left-handed pitcher and based on count,” Uhlman said.

The charts are also color coded to make the data easier to comprehend. Uhlman said, an accurate chart only requires 20-30 at-bats per batter.

If the spray charts indicate a batter’s tendency to pull the ball, the Ducks will use the shift. Oregon’s pitchers will then try to pitch inside to force the batter to hit into the shift.

But pitching this way can hurt the defense.

“It kind of gives me an idea of how they’re going to pitch me,” Oregon third baseman Mitchell Tolman said.

If batters like Tolman — who said he’s been shifted “a little bit” this season — know pitches will be inside, they don’t have to guess as much as usual. That can result in more walks and more hard hit balls.

Defenses also have to be wary of batters bunting for singles in the holes of shifted infields.

Uhlman isn’t too worried about either issue, though.

He said college pitchers often miss their intended targets, thus negating their predictability. Plus, Uhlman has seen a tendency for batters to hit the ball in the same place no matter what pitch is thrown or where it’s located.

Bunting to counteract the shift, in Uhlman’s opinion, is good for the defense, especially when a power hitter lays one down.

“We win because that’s a guy who can run the ball out of the park,” Uhlman said.

Washington State’s Nick Tanielu remembers being shifted every time he came to the plate against Oregon in April, and he noted another aspect of the shift that works in the defense’s favor.

“When you finally do see (the shift), it throws you off a bit,” Tanielu said.

Tanielu said he eventually grew accustomed to the shift, but its initial look can play mind games.

Not every batter warrants a shift, and several batters will still get hits when the shift is on. But over large samples, the shift almost always proves to net positive results for the defense. It’s why Uhlman’s teams have used it for years and why it’s popping up much more frequently in MLB ballparks.

Follow Victor Flores on Twitter @vflores415