“Hit em where they ain’t.” Sage advice from Wee Willie Keeler, that today’s ballplayers could benefit from. He would know. A lifetime .341 hitter, he knew how to get the ball where he wanted in order to get on base. He was the master bunter of his day. In fact, he is the reason why there is a rule that if you bunt a foul ball with two strikes, it counts as a strikeout (read here). Keep that in the back of your mind as we look at the trend by managers to put on the shift.
Ahh yes – the Shift. Ever since Joe Maddon started using it every day when he took over the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006, the shift has gained more press time and more popularity than it ever deserved. It is actually a very creative defensive maneuver, based on the principle that if hitters consistently hit the ball in specific spots, put more defensive players to cover those spots. The story goes that it was put on against Ted Williams to distract him (some old-timers call it the Williams shift), and it has survived all the way to today.
The mystery to me is why it is so successful, and why teams are so willing to put it in play. Every time I see hitters like Mark Teixeira batting from the left side and the entire infield is to the right field side of second, I wonder how hitters do not make an obvious adjustment. A simple bouncer to third base gives them a free hit. Yet they continue to try to pull the ball, where they always hit it, and there is a fielder there ready to catch the ball and throw them out at first. It is baffling.
The answer may be as simple as hitters’ unwillingness to adjust. If a hitter insists on being a pull hitter, then take advantage and put all your fielders on one side of the field. In business, we call that being a dinosaur. Keep doing what you have always been doing, even if it no longer works and your business is going down the tubes. If hitters would adjust to the fielders’ positions, the shift would be a historical artifact.
Don Mattingly would have loved teams playing the shift on him. He knew how to go with the pitch, and adjust his hitting to the circumstances on the field. He would look at the barrel of the bat on the flagpole to see what direction the wind was blowing and adjust accordingly. One of my favorite stats on Donnie Baseball was his .348 lifetime batting average against Randy Johnson. Left-handed batters were horrible against Johnson, but not Mattingly. He knew how to punch the ball out to left field when he knew he could not pull it. Sure, he did not have as much power to left, but he knew how to hit it there and get on base.
So, here’s a memo to all the major league hitters out there. You are professional athletes. Your job is win games for your team. Sometimes that means that you have to adjust to your opponents’ defensive tactics. It means that you have to hit the ball to the enormous gaps created by shifted infielders. You may not get home runs, but you will get on base and you will come around to score. You will put your team in a better position to win. Which is the point. Then managers will have to come up with another gimmick to stop you.