Beating the Shift
Last night the family and I went to the Diamondbacks game. During the game we watched as time and time again, the defense made a pronounced shift to try and prevent a batter (mostly left handed hitters) from getting on base.
What is the Shift?
According to an article on MLB.com, shifting can happen almost continuously. If you read baseball books by Joe Garagiola, and even as far back as Joe Dimaggio’s seminal book Baseball for Everyone in 1941. It’s a bit hard to find, but it is a very enjoyable read, then you know that defenses shift to what the pitcher is trying pitch. They shifted Ted Williams.
What’s more there are lots, and lots of normal baseball shifts. A shift is just how you position your defense. Can draw the infield in to try and stop a run from scoring at home plate, they can do the “lefty” shift, or play at “double play” depth. Wikipedia as a pretty decent article on shifting in general.
What has changed, However, like so many things today, is the degree, frequency, and intensity of the shifts. According to mlb.com since 2010, dramatics shifts have increased over 440%, from a mere 2,400 times to over 13,000 times during the 2014 season. Probably the most dramatic, and prior to 5 years ago uncommon shift was the over-shift for pull hitters.
What is the over-shift?
With the over-shift, the third baseman moves to short stop (leaving third largely uncovered, the short stop plays right up the middle, and the second baseman moves to shallow right.
To match this, the pitcher is trying to throw the ball “inside” on the batter, increasingly the likelihood they will hit the ball into this over-shifted defense.
Why do teams shift?
Because it gives them a chance to play better defense. By looking at the unbelievable wealth of data available to managers, coaches, and players, teams now look at a batters spray chart and they position the defense to give them the best chance of getting the batter out.
Above is an example of Justin Uptons 2011 and 2012 spray charts.
Why don’t batters hit the ball the other way?
There are a couple of reasons.
Batters hit into shifts because of training.
Batters are told to “hit the ball where it is pitched.” This goes back to little league. If the pitcher throws the ball closer to the batter’s body (inside), the batter should “turn on it” and “pull” the ball. This means a left handed batter will hit the ball toward the second baseman, and right field. A right handed batter – pitched inside – should pull the ball toward the short stop and left field.
A ball pitched away should be driven to, “the opposite field”. A ball thrown away from a left handed batter, to the “outside” part of the plate, he should try to drive “oppo” – or into left field. Right handed batters hit oppo to “right”.
Batters hit into shifts because they are trying to hit home runs.
This one is a little trickier, but as I watch the world of sports, we very often reward behaviors that hurt our long term goals. Mickey Mantle famously said he was trying to hit a home run every time he came to the plate. Later, he admitted that he probably hurt his team because he struck out trying to hit home runs where he could have helped them score more runs by simply putting the ball in play.
Over the last few years, one of the consequences of all this data, is that players have started to change the way they feel about “outs”, and out is an out they say. It does not matter how you get it. By implication, they are trying to remove the stigma of striking out. And as an example of this, Mark Reynolds, who used to play for the Diamondbacks set a major league record number of strike outs on his way to hitting more than 30 home runs.
In the last few years less than 10 players in the league hit more than 30 home runs. Strike out 250 times? Not a problem if you hit 30 over the fence. And this goes back to high school and college.
College coaches and pro scouts are looking for “tools”. They are not looking for good baseball players. In their mind, they are all “good” baseball players. They are looking for what Ron Wolforth described as “outliers”, players with such exceptional talent that they can’t be ignored. For batters this is home runs.
If you start talking to ex-baseball players, trainers, coaches, you will hear stories of plyers that hit 500 or better in high school but did not get any looks from colleges. They lowered their batting average and started hitting home runs and the offers and scholarships came. The conventional wisdom seems to be that a player who can hit 400 and put 5 over the fence is more valuable than a player who hits 600 with no home runs.
Look at any college show case, how is it structured? Players get:
- One 60 yard dash
- Five throws from their position (infield or outfield)
- Ten swings of the bat
Teams spend time in proportion to what they care about. Speed – a little. Throwing and defense – some. Hitting? A lot. And you better hit bombs. These showcases are designed to show tools (raw physical ability) not baseball smarts, or any other skill. As a side note, the pitcher face 5 batters – so they are encouraged to throw absolutely as hard as they can – but that is another story for another day. Let’s just say that’s not good either.
The Bottom Line
Baseball does not reward consistent productivity, they reward sporadic excitement. The possibility that a player can hit a home run every time they come to the plate is worth more than the player who consistently puts the ball in play.
Because that’s what the fans want.
We may never see another 400 hitter because no one wants that. We want more 40 home run hitters.
So back to the shift. Many fans wonder why player don’t just start poking the ball the other way?
The simple answer is that you are asking grown men who have spent thousands of hours training to do one thing, the very thing that brought them into the pros, to stop doing that and do something different.
Most of the players who can hit the other way effectively don’t make it to the pro’s. They are left behind because they don’t hit enough home runs. The system weeds them out. Grab the starting line up from any MLB game and look at the size of the player and you will see what I mean. Of the 18 starters in last nights Diamondbacks vs Rockies game only 2 players were under 6 feet tall and only 3 were under six foot 2. There were more nearly a third of the players were six foot three and there were two players six foot 4.
Baseball has become a game of BIG. Baseball of 2015 is the NFL of 1970. Why? Because big dudes can drive the ball over the fence.
Ironically, offense is universally down across the board and most people believe it’s because baseball has banned performance enhancing drugs. (PED’s). Really? It couldn’t possibly be because hitters are putting the ball in play (making contact) at the lowest rate in the history of baseball?
Will We See Small Ball At the Pro Level?
So what is the answer? In a close 4–3 game, the Diamondbacks did something I have not seen a pro team do… heck, ever. They started playing small ball. In the bottom of the 8th, the Diamondback hitters bunted three times in a row. The effect on the over shifted defense was devastating. The Diamondbacks scored 3 runs in that inning.
The capstone was Peralta who changed his approach at the plate to swing “inside/out” and fist a ball into left field successfully defeating the shift and driving in the 7th run.
Baseball is definitely changing. How it is pitched, how it is defended, and how the hitters approach the game. It seems crazy, but over and over again the sport drifts into rewarding behaviors (let’s try to hit lots of home runs) that actually produce outcomes that hurt the sport and the teams resulting in record low contact, record strike outs, hitting in shifts.
The main thing as a fan is to pay attention. The sport is changing and evolving right in front of us. Even as the entire infrastructure of baseball from high school all the way through college and into the pros desperately seeks bigger and stronger power hitters, I can’t help but wonder if some clever manager is going to dig out their history book and wonder what a speedy, contact, control ball club could do against todays defenders.
The Diamondbacks gave us a glimpse last night. It could be very interesting.
Another very recent phenomena is the explosion of “flashlights” at the game, fans lighting up their cell phones in a galaxy of twinkling lights. It looks cool, and is possibly quite distracting, but this is the first year I have seen it break out spontaneously on this scale.
Note: These are my opinions and even I don’t always agree with them.
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