Infield shifts and Nico Hoerner’s advice for kids
The nature and frequency of infield shifts has us rethinking the idea of conventional “positions” in baseball.
MLB teams are shifting 35.7% of the time in 2020, including 53% of the time against left-handed hitters.
As a result, it’s no longer as simple as sending four infielders out there in regular spots at first base, second base, third base and shortstop.
Nico Hoerner has experienced this firsthand. He was drafted as a shortstop and worked at both second base and center field as he came up through the Cubs minor league system. Then, on Aug. 19, David Ross gave the rookie a start at third base for the first game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals.
It was Hoerner’s first game at third base in professional baseball, but he said he felt like he was essentially playing shortstop in that game because the Cardinals had seven lefties in the lineup and the Cubs opted to shift often.
This season, Hoerner has played 117 defensive innings at second base, 22 at shortstop and 12 at third base (plus 8 innings in the outfield), so at this point, he considers himself more “infielder” or “utility player” than any one specific position.
“Yeah, definitely for any kids out there — get used to taking ground balls on random parts of the field,” Hoerner said. “[Monday], I was definitely in a lot of different places. With Miguel Cabrera, I was up behind second base in a shift, 20 feet in the grass and places I’ve never really taken ground balls in a baseball field before.
“So it’s definitely added to the preparation and the early work, but it also makes second base a lot more dynamic and interesting of a position. When you’re in the shift, there’s more of a need for arm strength and range and kinda playing shortstop on the right side of the infield, which is fun.”
Hoerner’s flexibility and athleticism adds another dimension on defense. Javy Báez and David Bote have also played all over the infield in their careers and when healthy, Kris Bryant is a versatile option.
That gives the Cubs a level of comfort to know that they have a handful of players who can easily handle the natural movement and positioning that comes with shifting.
“It’s nice to have guys that can play multiple positions obviously, like with Nico moving around and his baseball IQ that’s pretty evident early on of positioning and spacing in the areas have been important,” Ross said. “But when you talk about moving around, balls in the gaps, relays, things like that, it’s nice for those guys to be comfortable of where to go and what spots to fill on the diamond.
“We do move them around, but there’s still the tendency to label the position just for responsibility purposes.”