ST. PETERSBURG — The talk in spring training was about humility and gratitude. The marketing department tags its ads with Baseball is Beautiful. There's another mathematical catchphrase, '09 > '08, with an invented symbol.
But if you really want to put a slogan on this year's Rays, the best word might be aggressive.
"We talked about being aggressively offensively, being aggressive on the bases, and I think that we're being aggressive on defense," manager Joe Maddon said. "Look at the NFL, and even the NBA, and some aggressive defenses, and how that speaks to winning championships, too."
The aggressiveness can be seen in how they push their outfielders to play as shallow as they can to take away line drive and bloop hits, and encourage all fielders to take chances in making catches and throws.
But it's also in their scheming, as they have started to use significant defensive shifts against more hitters. It used to be that only a few left-handed sluggers, such as Boston's David Ortiz and Chicago's Jim Thome, got the special treatment, with 2B Akinori Iwamura going into short rightfield and SS Jason Bartlett crossing over to the first-base side of second.
But now the Rays are shifting against more left-handers (Baltimore's Aubrey Huff, for example) and also against some right-handers, such as Boston's Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis, though not as dramatically, with Iwamura up the middle and 1B Carlos Peña in the hole.
The premise, actually, is very simple.
"We're trying to not cover things that guys don't do," Maddon said, "and cover the things that they do, more."
For example, when Bay "beat" the shift in Boston by hitting a ground ball down the rightfield line, it was the first ball he'd hit that way, Maddon said, in three seasons.
The Rays are shifting more because, in the fourth season of this regime, they have more data compiled. Plus, they feel like it works.
"A lot of times in baseball, it's hard for some people to just break away from traditional situations and try something new," Maddon said. "For us it's just not that hard."