David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
It's a popular belief that baseball is a game of inches. Tim Teufel, the former Mets second baseman and now the infield coach, would like to shrink that margin to one inch. Maybe less.
Armed with laptops full of information -- scouting reports, spray charts, heat maps, you name it -- Teufel's primary goal, along with the rest of the Mets' coaching staff, is to predict exactly where the next batted ball is going to be hit. Then make sure somebody is standing there waiting to catch it.
While the basic alignment of defensive players has remained the same in baseball for the last 100 years, the current pitch-by-pitch positioning is an effort to close every gap, every hole, for the slightest percentage edge. These days, it's becoming more and more common to see shortstops on the other side of second base. Or second basemen camped in shallow rightfield.
Expect to see it more and more with the Mets. Chip Hale, now the bench coach for the A's, got it started, and now it's been picked up by Teufel and the rest of the team's new staff.
The game plan against the Braves used variations of the shift against Brian McCann, Eric Hinske and Chipper Jones. They even added Jason Heyward to the watch list, depending on how he trends this season.
The most extreme shift was used against McCann, a very dangerous but predictable pull hitter, and Teufel was pleased Monday when the deployment turned two potential singles into outs. He was just as annoyed, however, about McCann's hit that sneaked past Ruben Tejada, who narrowly missed gloving it as he stood on the shift side.
"We're just trying to combat it from a percentage standpoint of how many balls he hits to the right side compared to how many balls he hits to the left," Teufel said. "It's just too obvious not to do something different. When it starts to show up consistently, then we're going to try to put the guys in the best position to approximate where they're going to hit it."
McCann tried to shrug off the Mets' strategy but sounded irritated by it as well. Did it affect his thinking at the plate?
"I mean, I would have had three hits Monday, so yeah," said McCann, who instead was 1-for-4. "It's something where I can't really change anything because I'm hitting the ball hard. You just kind of live and die with it. There are knocks you do get when you hit one over where the shortstop normally is, but it doesn't quite even out."
When Terry Collins managed the Angels from 1997-99, Rays manager Joe Maddon was his bench coach, and his first experience with the shift was seeing Maddon use it against Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. At one point, Griffey tried to bunt to beat the alignment, and Collins could not have been happier. He believes the psychological factor is greater than the hitters will admit.
"Oh, no doubt," Collins said. "We want to change them at the plate, to do something they don't like to do, or they're not used to doing."
The Mets' pitchers are the first line of defense. They attack hitters according to their tendencies, and with the shift on, the goal is to get them to roll over a ground ball toward the stacked side of the infield.
This integration is neatly outlined by the Mets' coaching staff in spreadsheet format for each of the players -- the columns not only are separated by the individual pitcher but the specific pitch and even the velocity -- so everyone knows where to position themselves before Teufel yells out to them.
The amount of data available, as compared to Teufel's playing days two decades ago, is mind-boggling. "You really went off memory back then," he said.
Not anymore. Midway through the Atlanta trip, Teufel already had a stack of reports ready for the upcoming Giants series. Soon, the Mets' staff will get to see the fruit of its labor.
"So far, we've been pretty good," Teufel said. "But we have to be willing to adjust. The next time we come here, maybe McCann will be hitting the ball the other way."