Teams have used a defensive shift -- three infielders positioned on the right side of second base -- against Howard for years. In fact, The Fielding Bible -- Volume III found teams shifted against Howard 461 times the previous two seasons, putting him behind only David Ortiz (486). The book's research also suggests the defensive shift reduces batting average on ground balls, short line drives and bunts by the top shifted hitters by 40 to 60 points, which means as long as Howard continues to pull the ball he will continue to face it.
And because of the shift's perceived success, more and more teams are doing it. The book found the shift at play 1,900 times each of the previous two seasons, but that number could double this season.
Nobody shifts more than Tampa Bay, which shifted 171 times as of last week. The Phillies? They shifted just once.
So what gives?
"We buy into the shift," said Phillies first base coach Sam Perlozzo, who is the team's infield instructor and sets up the team's defense during games. "What you don't see is we don't always send the shortstop all the way to the other side. So it's a shift. It just doesn't play like the one where you're sending the guy way over."
Perlozzo gets spray charts for every hitter on every team, which shows where each hitter is inclined to hit the ball. Certain pitchers are more particular about their defensive placement. Roy Halladay is very particular. Cliff Lee is not.
"A lot of it is individual to a pitcher," Perlozzo said. "It's easy to say we're going to shift him if we know we're going to pound the hitter inside. But if we're going to stay away, then it doesn't do any good. I'll check with Doc almost every time he pitches. He'll tell me he's going to pound a guy inside so he wants a guy in the hole. And he'll say don't put the shortstop on the other side of second. Keep him just on the inside of the bag. So I'll tell our second baseman, if the ball goes up the middle or to your right, don't worry about it. If Doc says that's what he wants, that's what we're going to do. We're not going to let that ball get in the hole."
Perlozzo talks to his infielders before the game. For Monday's game against the Houston Astros, he might approach second baseman Freddy Galvis and say, "This is where this guy has been hitting the ball against Joe Blanton."
If there is a definite pattern, Perlozzo will position Galvis accordingly.
Asked if he would play the traditional shift against Howard, Perlozzo said, "Absolutely. We'd send our guy back."