June 18, 2018 10:18:03 AM
OMAHA, Neb. -- The North Carolina baseball program is taking on the age of data.
The Tar Heels (44-18) have embraced the analytical age of baseball in the most noticeable way possible: defensive shifting. Major League teams have taken to shifting defenders more than ever before as its accesses more and more data on where specific players tend to hit the ball and North Carolina is following suit, showing shifts several times in its College World Series-opening win over Oregon State.
Mississippi State (38-27) may be the next team required to solve it, as the Bulldogs meet the Tar Heels 6 p.m. Monday (ESPN).
"It's very difficult, actually, the shift," North Carolina shortstop Ike Freeman told The Dispatch. "Especially turning double plays; you don't always get it, but we're more focused on outs because the analytics side of it, that's what we play, we play the percentages.
"We've saved a lot of runs from it."
The maneuver is not as easy as simply moving from spot to spot on the field. This requires practice.
North Carolina is doing more than just the common shift, where the shortstop moves to the right of the second base bag, the second baseman moves into shallow right field and the third baseman aligns himself where a shortstop might usually be. The Tar Heels will also slide their players around within the traditional alignment, acting on any inclination their spray chart may give them. It forces Tar Heel defenders to find comfort in taking ground balls from all angles, a skill that is only acquired through practice.
"Very hard," Freeman said. "We do a good job of it in practice, we start at third base, work our way all the way around to second, first and back. It's different seeing the bat come off a different angle; taking hops off the mound when you're behind the mound, that's probably the hardest one. We work hard at it."
Those reps have made Freeman and his teammates comfortable enough to attempt double plays out of shifted alignments when the time is right. They all recognize the difficulty, but they keep their focus on one out and react when a shot to turn two is presented.
Such a defensive emphasis is one of the primary reasons the Tar Heels are in the College World Series and facing MSU.
"I think the key to the game was, if you look at the box score, we had 12 assists," North Carolina coach Mike Fox said after the win over Oregon State. "I think we defended really well. We needed to with their offense."
MSU's coaching staff is not certain that any of its hitters will face a guaranteed shift the way North Carolina treated Oregon State right fielder Trevor Larnach, but it won't be bewildered by a shift, either. MSU interim coach Gary Henderson saw the shift frequently against one of his former players, Kentucky first baseman A.J. Reed, who beat the shift enough to win the Golden Spikes Award and the Dick Howser Trophy in 2014.
Henderson even used the shift himself for the first time this season on Saturday, shifting Washington designated hitter Joe Wainhouse twice.
"That's been going on extensively, even in college baseball, for four or five years," Henderson said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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