Spikes test Black Bears Mangieri with defensive shift

MORGANTOWN — Luke Mangieri grew up in a football family in Peoria, Ill., so the word “shift” had a whole other meaning for him as a kid.

As a developing first baseman with the West Virginia Black Bears, Mangieri is now learning to deal with baseball’s latest positioning craze, which may have made its debut in Monongalia County Ballpark during the Black Bears’ 4-2 victory against State College on June 22.

Simply put, the shift is a maneuver in which either the third baseman or shortstop plays on the first-base side of second base, leaving only one fielder on the third-base side and three on the other.

It is designed as a way for teams to better defend against left-handed hitters who pull the ball to the right side of the field.

According to Major League Baseball statistics, the shift was used nearly 18,000 times during the 2015 season.

Mangieri, a standout at Bradley who batted .322 with five home runs and 34 RBIs this season before being selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 25th round in the 2018 draft, said he faced the shift a few times in college.

Facing it in just his sixth game as a professional, when trends and numbers are still limited, caught him a bit off guard.

“It was kind of weird,” Mangieri said. “If I got two strikes on me, it was almost like everyone was moving over to the right side.”

In four at-bats against the shift, Mangieri was 2-for-3 with a walk and three runs scored.

He blasted a solo home run to start the second inning, in his first at-bat against the shift. It landed beyond the right field wall, in the Black Bears’ bullpen.

“One of the guys kept the ball for me, which was pretty cool,” he said.

He added a single in the sixth that blooped over all the infielders.

His walk in the fourth inning came on 10 pitches — Mangieri kept hitting fouls while trying to poke the ball down to third base, where there were no position players.

Which sets up a question for lefties facing the shift: Do they go out of their way and take what the defense gives them or do they try to power a ball through or over the shift?

“I honestly really thought about just laying a bunt down over there,” Mangieri said.

That seems like taking the easy way out, but is quickly becoming the popular choice for many hitters.

With nobody playing at third base, a bunt deep enough along the base line forces the pitcher to field the ball, then turn around and make a good throw to first to get the out.

“I feel like I’m more of a gap-to-gap guy,” said Mangieri, who was batting .320 early in his pro career, before Saturday night’s game, against State College. “I really don’t know why they were shifting me that hard.”

And if Mangieri was surprised to see the shift against him, so, too, was Black Bears manager Kieran Mattison.

“I don’t want to say what I’m really thinking, but using the shift would really have to depend on a lot of things,” Mattison said. “Mangieri is not a guy you want to shift on. That’s all I’ll say. He can hit the ball to all fields. He’s a very solid hitter. I hope [State College] doesn’t see this interview, but Mangieri is not a guy you want to shift on.”

Mattison said the Pirates’ organization worked a lot on using the shift on defense in extended spring training.

To actually do it in a game at the short-season Class A level would take some extenuating circumstances.

“It would depend on the hitter,” Mattison said. “He would have to show me through numerous at-bats that’s what his tendencies are. This early in their career, I don’t see the shift working a lot.

“You get up the ladder to (Class) AA or AAA, you’ll see it more then. I’m just not a big fan of it.”

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