On the Pirates: Shifting sands of defense

The Pirates' reliance on defensive shifts helped the club break a 20-year spell of losing last year. That's no secret, and was widely applauded as a tool for small-market teams searching for an edge that was free of cost. •  But as more and more teams move to heavy usage of defensive shifts -- a trend that has moved mainstream and is no longer used by just the most progressive teams -- could there be a blowback from hitters? An ability to adjust, hit the other way, or, heaven forbid, lay a bunt?

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"I don't see it going away until it's forced to go away," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Whether that be more guys making more contact on those balls that are away and driving and hitting them the other way. There's just too much information for us as an organization to turn our back. It was in place in our minor league system before I even got here."

Hurdle likens the discovery of shifting and its usefulness to the IRS finding a new way to squeeze taxpayers.

"I think we finally got to a point, digging in our thirst for research and information," Hurdle said. "It's like the IRS finding different ways, taxable dollars. Hey, we've been missing out on something."

The Pirates shifted on balls in play 422 times in 2013, and show no signs of slowing this season.

The premise of the shift -- lining up in a dramatic alignment to one side of the infield -- has an inherent assumption that a hitter will continue to hit the way he always has.

For example, a power hitter is at bat, who regularly pulls 30 to 40 home runs. He squares to bunt? Sure, think most teams.

"At the end of the day if you have a big home run hitter up there the last thing he wants to go up there and be like, know what? I think I'm going to bunt this time," said Josh Harrison, the Pirates' utility leadoff man. "Then he tries to bunt and fouls off a pitch that he could've driven. ... For the most part shifts are done on guys who the other team is saying to: 'We would love for you to bunt. It'll keep you inside the park.' "

Not only does the classic argument arise about bunting in general -- it can give up a needless out -- but so does the matter that few hitters bunt consistently well.

"There are arguments against bunting except for certain situations. You give up an out, and move a runner to second versus letting the hitter swing away," Hurdle said. "We've dug into all of this. I've probably backed off the bunting aspect I had used early in my managerial career because of the numbers to some degree. We work on it as hard as ever. We haven't done the job we feel we should be able to do with our pitchers, especially. It's a lost art."

Prospects are hiring hitting coaches at young ages these days, and it's not uncommon for them to have had several by the time they reach the majors.

That contributes to the lost art of bunting.

"They might have five, six hitting instructors by the time they get to the big leagues. They're not bunting instructors. They're hitting instructors," Hurdle said. "It seems to be a lost art over time. We're trying to reclaim it to some degree, so when we do have an opportunity to use it, we're successful, it becomes a weapon. But it's been a lost weapon in our game."

Until hitters make a point to adjust, don't expect the shift to go away anytime soon.

"I think the question is if more hitters start adjusting to it," Hurdle said. "The defensive shifts have taken place, for me, because of our loss of ability to hit the ball hard where it's pitched. It's happened over a period of time. ... It paid huge dividends. Last year [it paid] huge dividends. This year, it's playing out very very well."

The gravitas of Gerrit Cole

There seems to be a distinctly different feel that emanates from the field when Gerrit Cole starts for the Pirates, as evidenced in Thursday's steady, punch-back, complete win at Los Angeles.

Certainly his stuff plays into that, as does his competence at the plate, his demeanor and his efficiency with pitches.

"It's skills, No. 1," Hurdle said. "You know you feel a chance to win with every starting pitcher. This guy has done some special things. He's one of our guys. The energy he does bring, the focus, the stuff. You can throw that fastball, you stripe it. It's 96, 97. You're pitching quick. His pitch counts have been good, efficient. Everybody feeds off it."

Hurdle said Cole carries the same demeanor on and off the mound between innings -- which could be one of those undervalued qualities that make a difference.

"The biggest thing for me is when they scored the runs, the first, the second run, and even came back and got another one in the sixth, you would never have known it," Hurdle said. "His demeanor in the dugout is good. He's so stoic. Or he's laughing, smiling, having conversations. He's just engaged with everybody."

Looking ahead ...

The Pirates will look to pounce early Monday in San Diego as the club opens a three-game series against right-hander Tim Stauffer, who was lit up in his last outing.

Stauffer was chased in the first inning after giving up seven runs to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

He is 1-1 with an 8.64 ERA in his last three starts. It was the shortest non-injury start for the Padres since 2003.

Charlie Morton, who has a 1.33 lifetime ERA against the Padres, will take the mound for the Pirates.

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