Dodgers plan to stick to shifts

Los Angeles will still stack the deck on defense

If there's a single play from the 2015 season that haunts the Dodgers, it's this. 

Nursing a 2-1, fourth-inning lead in the winner-take-all Game 5 of the National League Division Series, with the Mets' Daniel Murphy on first base, the Dodgers shifted third baseman Justin Turner to the right side of the infield against left-handed pull hitter Lucas Duda, leaving only shortstop Corey Seager on the left side of second base.

Home-plate umpire Gary Cederstrom called ball four on a pitch to Duda that Dodger starter Zack Greinke thought might be a strike. As Greinke walked toward the plate and then back to the mound with his head down, an alert Murphy scampered to an uncovered third base.

"That was the one situation that we hadn't talked about," Seager said. "We went through every scenario, I think, other than a walk. So when you're not prepared, it catches you off guard -- you're a little shocked. You're like, 'Oh my God, he was supposed be there --- what's going on?' Then before you know it, the play's over."

The next Mets batter, Travis d'Arnaud, took immediate advantage, hitting a foul ball down the right-field line that would have been an ordinary out, but instead became a vexing, game-tying sacrifice fly. Two innings later, Murphy would hit his third home run of the series, sending the Dodgers to a grim, season-ending 3-2 defeat.

All year long, the Dodgers had joined -- to some extent even led -- the growing MLB trend of moving defenders from their traditional positions, the better to disrupt opposing batters who tended to hit the ball in the same spots. As often as the shifts worked like a charm, there also came moments that played out like a driver who carefully scouted out the quickest route to the ballpark, only to rear-end the car in front of him.

Those mishaps can be hard to stomach. However, from the front office through the coaching staff to the players, the Dodgers believe defensive shifts are here to stay -- for good reason.

"On paper it makes sense, perfect sense," said infielder Chase Utley, entering his 14th big league season. "There's plenty of hits you take away, and some balls that should be outs that are given up as hits. But over the course of the year, I think the statistics show that if you play in a certain spot, you're gonna get the majority out."

Bob Geren, the Dodgers' new bench coach, previously held the same position with the Mets and watched from the opposing dugout as Murphy went from first to third on Duda's walk. Then, as now, he sees the play as a fluke, one that should inform the use of shifts going forward, rather than eliminate them.

"It could happen to anybody," Geren said. "That was just a highly unusual play. The pitcher normally would cover third. I think he was actually maybe asking the umpire where the pitch was. It was a perfect storm that hadn't happened all year."

Rather than turn away in terror, the Dodgers' approach in 2016 has been to hunker down on preparation. At Spring Training, Geren's initial presentations resembled an NFL gameplan, visually outlining every player's responsibility for every scenario, followed by drills.

On March 2, for example, the Dodgers staged a situational game in which they did nothing but rehearse these gameplans.

"I'll be quite honest with you," Geren said. "You ask people around other organizations … and you'd be surprised the number of people who said, 'You know, we kind of implement shifts, but we've never really practiced them.'

"It's really taken hold just in the last year or two. It used to be you'd shift maybe one guy -- a David Ortiz. Ted Williams got shifted, so this isn't anything new. … But this is the first place that I've been where we have made a really strong effort to go over all of our relays and then do them with shifts also."

Practice might not make perfect, but it comes close. Even the 21-year-old Seager, who was hardly exposed to shifts before 2015 and only made his Major League debut in September, found himself quickly adapting.

"It's just different," he said. "Your sights are different; your angles are different. You're in uncomfortable spots in the beginning. … It just takes a little adjusting to, and you kind of go with the flow."

In the end, if there were any question about whether defensive shifts are worth pursuing, the reminder comes in the other half of the inning, each time one of those defenders comes up to bat.

"I think that fans have got to know that as a hitter, you see the shift, and it gets in your head," Dodger infielder-outfielder Enrique Hernandez said. "You try not to, but then you see a big hole, and you try to change your whole approach, because you're like, 'Oh, it's an easy hit.' But at the same time, we're in the big leagues -- it's not that easy. [When] the pitcher can put the ball wherever he wants to put the ball, it won't be as easy to guide the ball that way.

"I would say more times than not, the shift works."