When the Red Sox were routing the Angels in a game earlier this month, manager Alex Cora decided to give Xander Bogaerts the last two innings off and moved third baseman Rafael Devers over to shortstop.
Devers had never played shortstop before in his career, not even an inning. But it made sense, as Cora explained later, because when the Sox shift their infield over to the right side, Devers essentially plays shortstop.
“It felt natural to me,” Devers said.
A few days later, Oakland turned a 5-6-3 double play against the Seattle Mariners. Such a play was unheard of just a few seasons ago before shifting became so commonplace.
Even small college teams do it. Matt Noone, who coached Babson to the Division 3 World Series last spring, said his program subscribes to a service that supplies spray charts and tendencies culled from play-by-play reports.
Lefthanded hitters are shifted 40 percent of the time in the majors, according to data from BaseballSavant.com. Righthanded hitters are shifted 14.2 percent of the time, up from 8.9 percent last season.
The Astros, Dodgers, and Orioles shift on at least 46 percent of plays.
The Red Sox shift 17 percent of the time, largely because they rarely shift righthanded hitters. But they shift lefties nearly half the time.
Major League Baseball is concerned enough about the trend that it has the independent Atlantic League experimenting with a rule this summer that forces teams to keep two infielders on either side of second base on the infield dirt to start a play. There’s a chalk line drawn behind second base to remind the infielders where to be.
Such a rule in the majors would be akin to the NFL prohibiting blitzes or NBA teams not being allowed to double-team the best scorers.
Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers wants to see that rule, or something like it, implemented.
“That’s a really good question and it’s for other people to make those decisions,” he said. “But for me, I’d like to see some kind of rule where you can’t have four guys on one side of the infield.
“I would like to see that. It would make things more equal.”
Much of Hyers’s job these days is trying to find ways around the shift. For the Sox, and most other teams, it’s by brute force. Hitters are now coached to adjust their swings and hit the ball in the air — ideally out of the park — to beat the shift.
It helps explain why the Yankees set a major league record with 267 home runs last season and the Twins are set to blow by that this year.
On Wednesday, the majors ended a streak of 37 days where at least one player had a multi-home run game. That broke the old record of 31 days, which came in May and June.
It’s created a game increasingly defined by strikeouts, home runs, or hard-hit balls snapped up by a second baseman playing what amounts to short right field.
Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. gets shifted on 66 percent of his at-bats. But he does not want to see the rules changed to prohibit shifts. He believes it’s incumbent on him to find a way to beat them.
“If you hit the ball in the air to the pull side a lot, they would stop shifting you,” Bradley said. “I hit more balls to the air to the opposite side. I need to pull the ball in the air more to the pull side. That’s really it.”
Bradley acknowledged that shifts have frustrated him, especially when friends, family, or fans suggest hitting the ball the other way. It looks simple to everybody but the hitter — just hit the ball to the open space.
“Hitting a ball in on your hands at 95 [miles per hour] the other way isn’t easy. If it was easy, nobody would get shifted,” Bradley said. “But look at all the shifts.”
Said Hyers: “Maybe three out of 10 pitchers are weak enough that you can go the other way on them. Most of the time you have somebody throwing cutters inside on you or busting a fastball in. It’s hard to hit that ball to left field.”
In a sense, getting a hitter to go the other way is a victory for the defense. Teams feel if a hitter changes his swing, the shift has worked.
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has discussed this often with his hitters, particularly Jay Bruce, who gets shifted 87 percent of the time.
“When you change your swing physically to beat the shift, you become less athletic,” said Kapler. “When you take a less-athletic swing, you don’t hit the ball as hard and you end up trying to do something different and getting a worse result.
“It’s why we shift. Even if you change your mentality or change your approach, it’s still very difficult to have a different outcome. Independent of the pitcher who comes in, independent of pitch location, we still make the bet that a guy’s swing produces the same results.”
Kapler feels that whatever rule MLB implements, it’s up to managers to find a way to be successful in that framework. But he would prefer hitters find a way to get on base without a new rule.
Devers has succeeded with an opposite-field approach. Mitch Moreland resorted to a few bunts last season hoping that would force the defense to move back even a step or two.
“I hate the shift,” said Moreland. “But I don’t know if I want new rules.”
It’s uncertain whether MLB will resort to a shift rule. But given how new this is relative to the long history of the game, it would seem best to give the hitters a chance to adjust before fundamentally changing how the game is played.
Vazquez’s defense in need of tuneup
Through the first 95 games he caught this season, Christian Vazquez was behind the plate for 48 wild pitches. That’s nine more than any other catcher.
He also has been charged with eight passed balls, two off the major league lead.
To be sure, the Red Sox pitchers bear much of the responsibility for this. Matt Barnes alone has 13 wild pitches thanks to the number of curveballs he has fired into the ground in front of the plate.
But Vazquez, who reached the majors in 2014 on the strength of his defense, has to get better at blocking balls. It should be a priority next spring training.
Part of the problem has been the Sox haven’t had a catching instructor on the major league staff since Dana LeVangie became pitching coach in 2018. Jason Varitek and minor league staffer Chad Epperson have since split the job.
Varitek and Epperson are good coaches. But the Sox need one voice for their catchers.
A few other observations about the Sox:
■ There were 16,441 fans at Fenway Park on Thursday for the continuation of the suspended game against Kansas City. They showed up knowing it might be for only four batters. It turned out to be seven before the Sox won the game.
The Rays had smaller crowds for 42 of their first 65 home games.
It speaks to what a great baseball town Boston is and the creativity the Sox showed by letting kids in for free and slashing prices at the concession stands.
The Sox said 4,000 kids ran the bases after the game. Wonder how many of them will take their kids to a game someday?
■ Al Jackson, who died on Monday at age 83, was best known for being one of the original New York Mets. But he also served as pitching coach of the Red Sox from 1977-79 under Don Zimmer, another of the original Mets.
Dennis Eckersley was 37-18 with a 2.99 ERA in two years under Jackson. Bob Stanley also flourished, going 39-21 with 14 saves and a 3.60 ERA over those three seasons.
■ Back in spring training, the Prospect Industrial Complex pegged righthander Durbin Feltman being ready to help the Red Sox in June.
Now the minor league season is coming to an end and Feltman has a 5.36 ERA and 1.46 WHIP for Double A Portland. His strikeouts per nine innings dropped from 13.9 last season to 9.5.
Feltman is only 22, so this season could prove to be a lesson that sparks further development. But it’s also a reminder not to get too excited about any prospect until they show they can succeed beyond Single A ball.
■ That all said, the Red Sox are understandably hopeful about what they could have in 22-year-old righthander Noah Song.
Song, who was a fourth-round draft pick out of Navy in June, threw 11 shutout innings and allowed four hits in his first five starts for Rookie-level Lowell and struck out 15 with two walks.
Because Song threw 94 innings at Navy, the Sox are easing him into pro ball. He is expected to continue his development in Instructional League next month in Florida.
Song has a service commitment to the Navy. But it’s worth noting that former Army offensive tackle Brett Toth (2014-17) signed a three-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles this summer after successfully getting a waiver of his service requirement while remaining an active duty officer.
The hope is a similar arrangement can be made for Song.
■ What the Red Sox see in Chris Owings is a mystery. The 28-year-old utility player was released by the Royals in June and signed to a minor league contract by the Sox two weeks later. Owings hit very well for Triple A Pawtucket (.325 with a .980 OPS) but was 1 for 13 with nine strikeouts since being called up on Aug. 11.
Owings was promoted to give the Sox better production against lefthanded pitchers in the bottom of their order. But he is 6 for 52 (.115) against lefties this season with 31 strikeouts and two extra-base hits, both doubles.
At what point does playing the percentages mean less than giving playing time to Marco Hernandez, a prospect with a bright future?
The Sox are long shots for the postseason. They should be focused on their future.
BOSTON YOU’RE MY HOME
Kapler nostalgic in Fenway return
Gabe Kapler, who played for the Red Sox from 2003-06, offered up a few interesting observations when he was at Fenway Park this past week.
He certainly loves being in Boston.
“Even before 2004, even the beginning parts of 2003, I always felt really, really welcome here and this immediately felt like home. Walking around the ballpark brings back the most nostalgia for me,” he said.
“There are a lot of 2004 pictures scattered about and there’s one in particular we’re all kind of piled in the middle of the field. The first thing I want to do is reach out to my teammates at that time.”
Kapler is not surprised former Sox teammates Alex Cora and Dave Roberts are successful major league managers. But he expected Jason Varitek to be the first among them to manage and also believes Mike Lowell would be a good manager.
Kapler has the Phillies in the hunt for a National League wild card. He’s also almost certainly the only manager who banged out about 50 pushups on the outfield grass at Fenway before a game this season.
At 44, Kapler remains in the same condition he was as a player, if not better.
Mancini takes good with bad
Trey Mancini went into the weekend with an .867 OPS, 29 home runs, 74 RBIs, and 83 runs scored. The 27-year-old Orioles right fielder has the strange life of being a good player on a bad team.
He’s having the best year of his career for a team on pace to lose 110 games.
What’s that like?
“I try not to focus on individual success,” Mancini said. “My mind-set for every game is to try and help my team win that game and do whatever I can. Then at the end of the year you can look back and see what kind of year you had and be proud of yourself for that. But it’s a lot more fun to win.
“You can take a little satisfaction if you play well. But the end goal is to win the game. It’s tough to be selfish in a team sport.”
Mancini was called up in September of 2016 for an Orioles team that finished 89-73 and played in the wild-card game. He was on the roster for that game but didn’t play.
“I had a little taste of it and once you’re there you crave it again,” he said. “We know rebuilds can take years, especially in our division. But I would love to be here when we come out on the other side.
“It would be great for me to be here throughout the whole process. I want to be somebody the other guys in the locker room can look up to. That would be rewarding.”
Braves manager Brian Snitker pulled 21-year-old star Ronald Acuña Jr. out of last Sunday’s game against the Dodgers when he failed to hustle on a long fly ball that hit the wall and settled for a single. “You’ve got to run. That’s not going to be acceptable here,” Snitker said. Then on Tuesday, Snitker was ejected sticking up for Acuña after Marlins pitcher Elieser Hernandez hit him with the first pitch of the game. That’s some good managing . . . Yadier Molina of the Cardinals has caught 149 shutouts. According to Elias Sports, only Yogi Berra (184), Gary Carter (168), and Carlton Fisk (157) have more . . . Through Friday, the Orioles had allowed 261 home runs, a major league record with 33 games still to play. The Yankees have 61 of those and the Red Sox 28 with three more games to play . . . Former Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, now 68, has stayed connected to baseball by doing some radio work in Pittsburgh and serving as one of the official scorers at Pirates games. Zduriencik, who was born and raised in the Pittsburgh area, worked in pro ball from 1983-2015 as a scout and executive . . . Birthday greetings go out to Deven Marrero, who is 29. The Red Sox took Marrero with the 24th overall pick of the 2012 draft out of Arizona State. The shortstop went on to play 109 games over three seasons then was traded to Arizona in 2018. He is now with Miami. Andy Abad is 47. He was drafted by the Sox in 1993 and played for the Athletics and Marlins before coming back to the Sox as a free agent in 2003 and getting in nine games that season. Abad hit 53 homers for Triple A Pawtucket during his career.