Hitting Against the Defensive Shift (baseball)

MLB hitters explain why they can’t just beat the shift

The basic gist of the thinking of 3 MLB players interviewed seems to be that there are two reasons they don’t just hit to the left (sparsely fielded) side of the infield.

[li]Hitting a double (or HR) is a lot better than hitting a single.[/li][li]There’s no guarantee that they’d get a single either.[/li][/ol]

The first of these seems completely ridiculous. The likelihood of even the top players getting an extra base hit in a given AB is not more than about 15%. If they could have even a 60% chance of getting a single by hitting to the left side, that would be much better than a 15% chance of an extra base hit (plus a reduced chance of a single against the shift). And further, if they did get their batting averages up by getting 60% singles through the left side, then the opposing teams would abandon the shift, which would then allow these hitters to be even more successful hitting straightaway.

ISTM that these interviews reveal players thinking irrationally. They’re ideally trying to get extra base hits, so they’re focused on extra base hits at the expense of what would actually help their teams. So they’re viewing things too much in terms of “what would help me hit a double?” versus “what actually advances the teams chances?”

If you are such a dangerous “pull hitter” that I put a shift on you, it is a victory for me defensively if I can get you to change your batting style and become a “slap hitter” in an effort to defeat it. Also, a good pitcher is going to pitch you in such a way that it will be very hard for you to hit the ball to the opposite side. He’s going to avoid fastballs on the outside corner that would allow you to just slap the ball the other way, and it is very hard to inside-out an inside pitch, especially a breaking ball.

But hitting into the shift is just as bad. And pitchers make mistakes, damn near every sequence. Just goes to show that hitters are all ego and no team.

Bolding mine. This is something people overlook when they ask, hey why not just hit the ball to left field? Pitchers have to pitch to the shift for it to work correctly. And teams have been shifting for so long now, most pitchers know how to do it. Daniel Murphy says to hit the ball the other way:

And Matt Carpenter said if he tried to slap a ground ball to short against the shift 4 times in one night, he might be successful once or twice. Is it worth it? In today’s baseball, 1 HR is basically the equivalent of 3 singles. Murphy said as much. So if you’re lucky, you can slap the ball to the left side for 3 singles. Or if you just hit like you know how to hit and get lucky, you’ll hit a home run.

Depends on what level of success as “slap hitter”. If you’ve been converted into a “slap hitter” with a .270 BA, then you’d be right. If you’ve been converted into a “slap hitter” with a .600 BA, then you’re not.

This is essentially the second of the two arguments cited in the OP. I myself am not in a position to comment on this, not being a professional baseball player. It seems hard to imagine that pitchers are so successful at pitch placement that they can overcome the fact that there’s nobody at all fielding a huge swath of the infield, if the hitter is looking to hit that way. But I can’t say this with a high degree of confidence. What I’m commenting on is the other argument.

If a walk is as good as a hit, and sabermetics bears that out, then a bunt single is just fine.

Meh. Just homer over it.

I’m by no means a baseball player, either, but my suspicion is:

a) If you’re a power hitter, changing one’s swing a bit (i.e., the “launch angle” that gets a lot of press now) in order to put the ball in the air (in hopes of an extra-base hit) is a simpler change to implement than changing one’s swing to hit to the opposite field, and might go against years of practice.

b) If there’s a “selfishness” in not trying to hit to the opposite field, I suspect that it’s tied up in their desire for continued success (and the next big contract). Power hitters made it to the major leagues by pulling the ball, hitting for power, and getting extra-base hits and RBIs; it’s what they know they can do well. Also, my perception (possibly not grounded in reality) is that, all else being equal, a “contact hitter” doesn’t make as much money as a player who puts up big HR and RBI numbers.

c) At some point, some team / manager / coach is going to go against the current conventional wisdom in the game, do a good job in training their hitters to go opposite-field when the shift is on, and the balance will move away from the defensive shift.

A walk is not as good as a hit, as sabermetrics bears out. You can’t advance baserunners as well on a walk as you can on a hit - which is reflected in WAR.

Its not as simple as flipping the switch on your bat from left to right. If hitters were confident that hitting the opposite way would be successful then they’d do it. As mentioned, the pitchers aren’t cooperating. Hitters take the swing that they have confidence in.

Today there was a shift involving an infielder moving to the outfield. The batter bunted for a hit to the vacated position. I was only half listening to the game so I don’t know what teams were involved (not the ones I was half listening to, Tor v. Bal).

I’m no expert, but it feels like asking a batter vulnerable to the shift to hit differently is like asking a pitcher to learn a new pitch. It can be done, it would make them a better player, but it takes a concerted effort and not during the season.

Here my hopes lie. Managers are like a bunch of sheep. Most AL teams have only three position players on the bench anymore, little pinch hitting, even less pinch running, damn few sacrifice bunts. It’s boring baseball. Give me a team with selfless players willing to take what the defense gives them. Get a couple guys on base and the effectiveness of the shift decreases dramatically. One guy is going to figure this out and be successful, then the rest of the sheep will do the same.

Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals against the Cubs. Given that Carpenter had hit 6 home runs against the Cubs since Thursday, they can be forgiven for trying to defend against the extra-base hit.

The shift was pretty much invented by the Cleveland Indians in an attempt to stop Ted Williams. Williams famously refused to try to hit against the shift for fear it would screw up his swing.

Bunting would encourage managers to use caution when using the shift.

Problem is and I know this is hard to believe, many Major Leaguers have never thrown down a bunt their entire baseball careers.

My 2 fears with outlawing the shift are:

  1. How exactly do you enforce the rule?
  2. The game will turn into slow pitch softball with too many games with double digit runs.

I say leave it alone and let hitters and managers figure it out.
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Yes, you don’t have to change your swing to defeat a shift. Witness Robinson Cano’s bunt double.

Bunting itself is a vanishing art these days, but that’s an interesting approach to the problem.

The other thing to remember is that they know exactly who to shift against. There are plenty of players great at adjusting their swing if they are down 0-2 (for example) and going the other way. These players aren’t being shifted against, but these typically also aren’t the guys hitting lots of homeruns, more singles hitters.

I honestly don’t understand this at all. What hitter who was all ego would NOT want to get free base hits if hitting the other way was so easy? If hitting mistakes was so easy why have hitters usually failed for the entirely of the history of professional baseball?

Sure, hitting against the shift would work. It’s HARD. Everyone here’s super smart, talking about how you should just tap the ball the other way, but get up there against a guy throwing 96 and he’s deliberately hitting the inside half to force you to pull and let’s see who’s smart.

The manner in which a guy hits is the product of years of training and changing it is harder than it looks.

True, but as Jimmy said in “A League of Their Own”, of course it’s hard, that’s what makes it great. Players today have equipment and training and knowledge. They’re supposed to be able to make adjustments. Make some adjustments. Hit them where they ain’t enough times and the shifts will die down.