Still More Defensive Shifts
Here’s part of an espn.com article about the fact that 2016 is on pace to feature more defensive shifts on hitters than ever before by a wide margin. I wrote some comments about defensive shifts about two years ago.
Somewhere I read some analysis whom I respect — sorry, I can’t remember whom — opine that the obvious answer to more defensive shifts (aside from more bunting) is to obtain/promote players who are capable of hitting the ball foul-line to foul-line, i.e., the Paul Waner – Wee Willie Keeler strategy: hit ’em where they ain’t.
If defensive shifts are a permanent trend, like more and more relief pitchers, then we should see more young players reach the majors who have the ability to hit ’em where they ain’t, i.e., hit against the shifts. However, I can see at least two reasons why we won’t see a whole of lot of these kinds of players no matter how many defensive shifts are employed.
First, in the short term, I suspect that MLB organizations are probably not yet spending the money to track the hitting tendencies of minor league players. As shifting becomes a major league strategy, we will see more of it in the minors. However, to really know if shifting works in the minors, someone will have to start tracking every ball batted into play in the minors. That’s obviously happening in the majors, but I don’t know if every team is now tracking every batted ball from at least the full-season single-A level on up, which is what you would need to determine minor league batters’ tendencies before they reach the majors.
If minor leaguers’ batted ball tendencies are not being tracked, then extensive shifting is probably pointless in the minors. Minor league players become major league players primarily by virtue of well above average performance in the minors. If shifting is used less in the minors, or if shifting is less effective against minor league hitters because comprehensive tracking is not taking place, it’s going to be harder to track those players with the ability to hit against the shifts.
The other big factor against the rise of more hit ’em where they ain’t hitters is the importance of power hitting in the modern game. Teams want power hitters, and statistical analysis has only re-enforced the value of hitting for power.
Most power hitters are pull hitters to one degree or another. Very few power hitters can be described as foul-line to foul-line type hitters, even if they have opposite field power.
In short, my guess is that frequent shifting is here to stay. As hitters slowly but steadily get better as hitters, they will largely rely on pitchers’ location mistakes, as hitters, and particularly power hitters, generally always have. Veteran power hitters look for pitches they can drive, and no matter how fast major league pitchers heave it or how sharp the break on their breaking pitches, pitchers are always going to throw the occasional fastball down Broadway and the occasional breaking pitch that does not break enough.