Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Beating the Shift

I enjoyed this article today by Joe Posnanski on the value of bunting to beat a defensive shift in the big leagues. The video he references of Robinson Cano bunting down the left field line for a double is priceless. Why don't more batters learn that skill and take advantage of the opportunity to get on base for their team when the situation calls for it? Posnanski suggests one reason is that bunting is considered embarrassing for a power hitter. So the hitter's ego prevents him from doing it - as in "I hit home runs. I don't bunt." He likens a power hitter bunting against the shift to former NBA player Rick Barry lofting underhanded "granny style" free throws in order to shoot a higher percentage from the line. It would take some guts for a player to decide to do that now.

Batters must hate the shift. They can scorch a ball through the infield dirt, only to be thrown out by the second baseman from shallow right field. That must be so frustrating. But batters have the power to end the shift. Start laying down bunts occasionally, take the base hit the other team is giving you, and the shift goes away. Frustration gone. Back to regular baseball. 

Better yet - become a well-rounded hitter. Let the ball travel and stay inside it so you can hit to all fields. That's why Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter in the game. He doesn't just launch home runs to left field. Look at his spray chart for this season at Comerica Park. Dude hits it everywhere. As a result, he spreads out the defense. He has made it so that he is able to get hits all over the field. He has more square inches of grass (or seats) to work with than most guys do.

Think about why teams put the shift on in the first place. They are taking advantage of a hitter's inability to do more than one thing well. He may be able to turn on a pitch over the inner half of the plate - and he can do that really well - but that's about it. He casts his hands and gets the barrel around the outer half of the ball so often, it's a no-brainer for the pitcher to go away. If the pitcher can hit the outside corner, it's weak contact most of the time. Or they can just put the shift on because they know where the ball is most likely to go. The odds are in the defense's favor even more so than usual because the hitter's usable field is smaller.

That's why a guy like Dan Uggla, for example, is hitting .181. He has 22 home runs, but I don't know that 22 is enough to cover for a .181 average. Uggla is too one dimensional right now. He's too pull-happy. He simply cannot, or will not, stay inside the ball. He's actually a good candidate for a left side shift with no runners on. Why not? According to his spray chart for Turner Field this season, he has hit only 2 ground balls to the second baseman.

The home run is obviously still a valuable stat. And the pull side is a power zone for many hitters. But the stat geeks are spending more time praising on-base percentage. It has been statistically proven to be significantly valuable. So I expect a "shift" in the typical power hitter's approach over the next several years. I think we'll see more bunting against the shift, and more well-rounded hitters. But first, they've got to check their ego and be willing to shoot a few granny shots for the sake of the team.

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