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Shift-happy Astros find some resistance in their own clubhouse

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider

 Bench coach Eduardo Perez is responsible for designing and implementing the Astros' shifts.(Getty Images)
Bench coach Eduardo Perez is responsible for designing and implementing the Astros' shifts. (Getty Images)

NEW YORK -- There's plenty of debate about some of the things the Astros are doing, all over baseball.

Even, to some extent, in their own clubhouse.

One example: Under new manager Bo Porter and under the direction of the most data-driven front office in the game, the Astros have become baseball's most shift-happy team. They often employ extreme defensive shifts for each opposing batter.

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Monday night against the Yankees, though, they didn't.

"We don't use it with every pitcher," bench coach Eduardo Perez explained. "You probably came on the wrong night."

Perez, the coach responsible for designing and implementing the shifts, is a true believer. Lucas Harrell, Monday's Astros starter, is not, and after some early-season issues with shifts when he was on the mound, the Astros now use much more conventional defensive alignments when he pitches.

"I feel when I'm on, sinking the ball down and away, you can play guys more straight up," Harrell said. He was on Monday, and the straight-up defense turned three double plays in 6 1/3 innings of a 9-1 Astros win over the Yankees.

The Astros used some shifts, as every team now does. But while Harrell was in the game Monday, they stayed away from moving players drastically away from their normal positions.

Harrell said he and Perez met before Monday's game, and he applauded Perez's willingness to adapt the defense to the pitcher's comfort.

"I have no problem with anything we do," he said.

Other Astros pitchers have also resisted the move towards shifts, even though the club's numbers people insist that the shifts have already paid dividends in saving runs.

"It's not proven yet," starter Bud Norris said, choosing his words carefully. "I understand they have a philosophy, but we are unfortunately the test dummies for it. I think a lot more information needs to be put in the database."

Perez would actually agree with that. He said that while he gets the initial data from the front office -- the "decision sciences" people, as the Astros call them -- he's adding to it and adapting as he goes along, and as he sees what works and what doesn't with different Astros pitchers on the mound.

Perez also said that he accepts any input from the pitchers.

"If the pitcher wants the shortstop to move, he moves," Perez said.

It's not unusual for teams to stay away from shifts with some pitchers on the mound. The Rays are big believers in shifting but don't do it much when David Price is pitching, for example.

The shifts are complicated enough that Perez said he could have as many as three for any one opposing hitter, depending on the count, the situation and the pitcher on the mound. They're also complicated enough that Astros players find themselves reminding each other on the field where they're supposed to be on any specific hitter.

"I don't think we'd have a good enough memory to remember all of them," first baseman Carlos Pena said.

Pena played for the Rays, where manager Joe Maddon and another data-driven front office have been at the forefront of a baseball-wide move towards greater shifting on defense. But he said that the Astros shift far more -- and more drastically than the Rays ever did.

Pena believes the shifts are helping.

"We're in better position, no question about it," he said. "It's unconventional, but when you see the percentages, it just makes sense. Bo Porter, Eddie Perez, these guys are not afraid."

Their many detractors will say the Astros are trying to reinvent the game. The Astros themselves (and their supporters) will say they're simply trying to take advantage of the best information available.

The debate will go on. Even in the Astros clubhouse.

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