Shifty business: It’s a dilemma to shift in college game

Nino Giarratano

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Coach Eric Valenzuela invested $1,350 into technology to study college hitters and determine whether he might start shifting his infield at tiny Saint Mary’s College.

That’s a lot of money for a coach at a mid-major school with just 4,200 students.

“The investment is basically like a piece of equipment,” said Valenzuela, who uses data from Diamond Charts as he looks for even the slightest edge. “There are the spray charts, which we have purchased. It’s an advantage. If you don’t have them, your opponents are going to.”

As the use of defensive shifts by major league clubs has increased in the last five years, college teams have taken notice.

The scouting reports are slim, and teams play opponents they often know little or nothing about.

“Trying to gain an edge in any way is smart,” said Elliott Strankman, a Bay Area-based amateur scout for the Minnesota Twins. “It’s tough to chart college stuff because coaches will have a hard time gathering data on visiting teams until they play them. Baseball is becoming more and more complicated.”

That doesn’t mean some teams won’t try.

Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia spoke recently with former Los Angeles player information coach Rick Eckstein, now an assistant at Kentucky.

“He feels they have enough information to make some of the things on the defensive side pay off,” Scioscia said. “I’m sure if you play in the SEC conference, you’re playing guys enough at some point you can look around and there’s enough data. You’re still playing an upward of 60-70 games in college now, roughly half our season, so by halfway through our season, we have what we call recent spray charts.”

Another factor in college baseball is the level of pitching. For a shift to work, the pitcher must hit his spot and execute consistently to keep hitters guessing.

“When you know what your pitchers are capable of doing from an execution standpoint and velocity, it’s a lot easier to shift, where in our games it’s not as predictable,” said University of San Francisco coach Nino Giarratano, who has Manny Ramirez Jr. on the roster. “The other thing is we’re not able to take six years of watching Ortiz hit, maybe we have 50 at-bats, if that, of a player.”

California coach David Esquer, for one, figures shifting might quickly catch on at the college level. Whether it’s financially feasible for the masses, he’s not sure.

“The information is out there,” he said. “They’re trying to provide you that edge, that advantage. That’s what Major League Baseball is doing with those metrics they’re trying to use to see if they can stand in front of more groundballs that David Ortiz hits. It’s a big deal.”

Ben Jedlovec, president of Baseball Info Solutions, which provided data to 21 of 30 major league clubs last season, is seeing some interest from college programs and only expects that to grow.

“We start scouting guys at high school and Little League,” Jedlovec said. “The teams are to the point where they appreciate and value the information that you can collect. … So their appetites are very open for these sorts of things.”

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AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum contributed to this report.

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