More Defensive Shifts
A recent major development in MLB has been the increase in defensive shifts on hitters. Not only have the shifts become more frequent, but they have also become more extreme as advanced statistical analysis has become commonly used to identify where each hitter tends to hit the ball. It’s been commented on a number of times this season, and today the New York Times had a piece on it.
The Tampa Rays and their manager Joe Madden are generally credited with initiating the current craze. Presumably, the increased shifting works, because almost every team is now using dramatic shifts on at least some players. However, I read somewhere recently (although unfortunately I haven’t been able to find the source) that the increase in shifting has not led to a marked drop in BABIP (batting average on balls hit in play, i.e. not strikeouts and home runs) throughout MLB as a whole, at least so far.
Shifts have historically been used predominately against left-handed pull hitters, like Ted Williams, Cy Williams and Barry Bonds. What has changed is that shifts are used against different types of hitters now, essentially any hitter that statistical and game-play analysis indicate will hit the ball to certain predictable locations in general, in certain counts and/or certain base runner situations.
Even against dead pull hitters, however, shifting doesn’t always work against every such hitter. Ted Williams said that the shift never bothered him, because pitchers tended to pitch him inside to pitch “into the shift” and he feasted on inside pitching.
Certainly, pitchers always tried to jam Barry Bonds, the one spot his batting stance/position couldn’t cover. However, the window in which to locate these pitches was so small that Bonds ended up crushing a lot a pitches that weren’t inside enough.
The other obvious solution to extreme defensive shifts is more bunting. It used to drive me crazy that Barry Bonds never tried to bunt to force teams to give up shifting him. However, Bonds didn’t need to bother with bunting, at least when he was on vitamin-S, and many pull-hitting sluggers simply are incapable of bunting effectively.
I had always thought that a well-place hard bunt by a lefty against the shift could mean two bases for the batter, and I was very pleased to learn that Robinson Cano bunted for a double late last year against the Red Sox. It gives me added respect for Cano, who isn’t always credited with having a great baseball mind.
A lot of people love to say, hey, if a big-time power hitter wants to bunt for a base hit, let him, it’s better than giving up a home run. However, no team wants to just give away doubles.
It’s worth noting that there wasn’t much shifting in professional baseball before 1920, because almost every major league player knew how to bunt. Also, in the low home run environment before 1920, there weren’t nearly as many extreme pull hitters as there were after 1920. Other reasons why bunting is so much less common today is that major league 3Bmen as a group are so much better at fielding the bunt than they were in the days of old and the fact that teams want power hitters, not singles hitters.
Clearly, however, bunting is going to make a comeback if shifting becomes the norm. It’s almost always infielders that are shifted, because of the risk of triples and inside-the-park home runs if an outfielder is too far from his traditional position. If an infield spot is vacated against a good bunter, the batter can almost always reach base safely by pushing a bunt where they ain’t.