The undefended area of the infield can stretch at times to 90 feet, without a player positioned between second and third.
Other times, with three defenders to the left of second.
Almost any given night, in any professional baseball game, in the majors or minors, gaping holes can be seen as teams apply an array of defensive shifts.
Everyone’s doing it. But this game is all about adjustments. The counter move is hitters have got to find ways to beat the shift.
Fresno Grizzlies manager Tony DeFrancesco on baseball’s defensive shift and what offenses must do in response
On a weeknight at Chukchansi Park, the Salt Lake Bees applied an extreme shift toward the right side of the field when Fresno Grizzlies left-handed-hitting slugger Jon Singleton – almost exclusively a dead-pull hitter – stepped to the plate.
The Salt Lake first baseman was in his usual position, but the second baseman manned shallow right. The shortstop moved a couple of feet to the right of where the second baseman traditionally stands. About 5 feet directly behind second was the third baseman.
Somewhere in the top deck, among a fairly quiet crowd, a fan bellowed while pointing out the wide open area between second and third: “Just hit it toward that hole! No one’s there. Why are you not trying to hit it there? My God!”
It seems so simple. Players and coaches argue that it’s not.
Shift-busting skills are in demand as creative defensive alignments become more commonplace in a sport where spray charts and other analytics allow coaches to see where a particular hitter’s batted balls typically land.
That leaves it to batters to learn, and embrace, techniques to beat the shift.
“That’s the way the game is going – the shift is here to stay unless they change the rules,” said Grizzlies manager Tony DeFrancesco, who heads the Triple-A affiliate of the Houston Astros – arguably the most data-driven major-league organization. “Everyone’s doing it. But this game is all about adjustments.
“The counter move is hitters have got to find ways to beat the shift.”
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The shift’s origin remains up for debate.
Many credit then-Cleveland Indians player/manager Lou Boudreau for the first extreme shift in 1946, a desperate move to stop a hot-hitting Ted Williams after he homered three times for the Boston Red Sox in the opening game of a doubleheader. Boudreau put all of the infielders to the right of second, leaving only the left fielder on the other side.
But defensive shifts for decades remained a novelty, viewed as a gimmick.
17,744 shifts employed in Major League Baseball in 2015. As of late July this season, teams were on pace to reach 28,169.
It wasn’t until sabermetrics infiltrated the game in the early 2000s that baseball went from steady embrace to heavy reliance on the scheme’s variations.
According to major-league data provided by Baseball Info Solutions, the shift in 2011 was used 2,350 times. In 2013, that number was 6,882. Last year, it surged to 17,744.
And as of July 29 this season, the shift had been deployed 17,632 times – on track to to hit 28,169 by season’s end.
The minor leagues are following right along.
“It’s the way of the world now in baseball,” Salt Lake manager Keith Johnson said. “It’s data based on a hitter’s tendencies, along with a little bit of gut feel on the manager’s part. As the data confirms that gut feel, teams will keep relying on the shift.”
There are other reasons the opposition deploys the shift, too, such as playing mind games with the batter.
“It definitely messes with people’s heads,” said Ben Paulsen, a left-handed hitter for Albuquerque who has spent parts of the past three seasons in the majors with the Colorado Rockies. “You grow up playing the game with the third baseman at his spot, the shortstop is where he’s supposed to be.
“Now, they’re all over the place.”
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Why don’t batters just hit the ball toward the open area of the infield?
Even a weak ground ball or bunt toward third, when the extreme shift leaves only one defender on the left side – usually positioned where the shortstop normally lines up – would give the hitter a fair chance of reaching base.
One argument against that is pitchers have a say in the outcome, based on the pitches they throw and where they are delivered in and around the strike zone.
“I believe a pitcher can and should be able to control where a batter hits the ball – if he’s throwing to the right zones,” said Grizzlies pitching coach Dyar Miller, who played seven years in the majors.
“Routine” also can get in the way. Others might call it “stubbornness” or “ego.”
Grizzlies middle infielder Nolan Fontana, a left-handed hitter who regularly faces the shift, doesn’t even like to pay attention to where the defense is positioned when he’s at bat.
“I just try to make it just me and the pitcher,” Fontana said. “As soon as you think about those other eight guys out there, you’re going to get yourself in trouble.
“You got to stay within yourself and not try to guide the ball.”
Singleton, who faces the most extreme shifts among Grizzlies players, said he tries to keep his approach simple and just power his way through it.
“When I’m in the box, I’m looking for something I can hit hard,” Singleton said. “I’m just trying to hit the ball where it’s pitched. I’m not worried about hitting to left.”
A year ago, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt wrote an opinion piece for The Associated Press urging minor-league coaches to teach hitters to hit more to the opposite field.
But is it too late for even minor-league players to adjust their swings?
“Guys have habits in their swings,” Grizzlies hitting coach Ralph Dickenson said. “They’re trying to repeat that habit over and over. Their swing is designed to hit the ball a certain way.”
As for the notion of merely bunting to nullify the shift?
That, too, isn’t always embraced, even if simple execution yields great rewards.
If I can just get the ball down the third-base line, that’s a free hit.
Albuquerque Isotopes cleanup hitter Ben Paulsen
During a game between Fresno and Albuquerque in late June, up stepped Paulsen, batting cleanup, with the Grizzlies aligned in a shift. Three defenders were to the right of second, and the third baseman was in the traditional shortstop area.
Paulsen, who has hit as many as 20 homers in a season as a minor leaguer, bunted down the third-base line.
Grizzlies catcher Tyler Heineman raced to field the bunt and rifled a throw to first. Except the ball sailed all the way into right, and Paulsen advanced to third, credited with a bunt single and a two-base error.
The next batter hit a fly ball to center, and Paulsen tagged up and scored.
“If I can just get the ball down the third-base line, that’s a free hit,” Paulsen said.
Even attempting a bunt could concern defenses enough to shift back slightly in the other direction. That would create more openings on the batter’s pull side.
“If you let go of your ego and realize that a hit is a hit and you’re still getting on base,” Paulsen said, “your team has a better chance of winning.”
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Whereas some batters might feel comfortable laying down a bunt, others find it awkward or don’t have the speed to beat out a close play at first base.
So they continue to stick with their usual approach and try to land a hard hit into the teeth of the shift. Or maybe launch one completely over it – and possibly over the fence.
“That’s always nice when it works out that way,” said Singleton, who leads the Grizzlies with 15 home runs and smacked 22 last season.
But not everyone has the power of Singleton, so the Astros have been teaching and emphasizing a specific launch path to avoid hitting sure-out grounders and instead, at the very least, rope line drives over the shift.
Throughout the Houston Astros organization, players are taught to hit with a 12-degree launching angle to help combat defensive shifts. The Astros believe a hard-hit ball that leaves the bat with a 12-degree lift helps players avoid hitting ground balls and instead belt line drives.
Grizzlies coaches refer to it as the 12-degree angle; the Astros have been working on it throughout the organization for the past three years.
“What we’re trying to do is get the most productive launch angle for hitting a line drive and getting base hits,” Dickenson said. “To us, that’s 12 degrees. We’re trying to get our bodies in a position so when we swing, automatically, we’re pretty close to that path.
“Our objective isn’t to hit the ball on the ground. It’s to hit the ball in the air.”
The Grizzlies did not provide any statistics on their players’ rates of success against the shift.
As a team, Fresno’s overall batting average is down from .274 last year to .256 this season, even with many of the same players.
DeFrancesco noted that it’s a challenge for players to incorporate the 12-degree lift in their swing.
“These guys here, they’re already three, four, five years into their careers,” DeFrancesco said. “To make adjustments with launch angles is very difficult. But unless you’re going to get the ball in the air, it’s hard to get the ball through the infield consistently.
“Somehow, we’ve got to get the ball in the air and drive them to the gaps.”
The approach was working for Grizzlies middle infielder Danny Worth earlier in the season, and it led to a brief call-up to the Astros.
Worth, 30, hit .340 with a career-high eight homers and 36 RBIs in 54 games with the Grizzlies.
In comparison, Worth hit six home runs in 350 at-bats last season while playing in friendlier hitting conditions with the Reno Aces.
“I’m always tinkering with my swing and trying to get better,” the right-handed-hitting Worth said. “I think I’m seeing the ball better, hitting it hard with more lift and staying away from grounders.”
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Hitters such as Worth increasingly seem to be the exception. Continued use of the defensive shift and the precision with which it is employed appear to have helped stymie offenses.
In the majors, the league-wide batting average was down from .257 in 2010 to .254 last year. That’s a difference of 448 hits in a season.
Hitting has risen slightly to .255 this season despite more shifts, but there are two months to go.
Nonetheless, baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has floated the idea of banning the shifts.
New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi calls the shift an “illegal defense.”
If I were commissioner, they would be illegal.
New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi on defensive shifts
“Guard your man; guard your spot,” Girardi was quoted in a New York Daily News story in April. “If I were commissioner, they would be illegal.”
But until that happens, if it ever does, players will have to keep dealing with the shift.
“It’s all about making adjustments,” DeFrancesco said. “If (players are) not going to make the adjustment, teams are going to find someone else who can.
“The next wave of young players, those guys are going to find out a way to keep the ball out of the ground or learn to hit opposite field with some power.”
And the pull hitter who won’t bunt, or doesn’t have enough power to beat the shift that way, or otherwise can’t get consistent lift on their swing, could get phased out of the game.
Major League Baseball shift usage
ON BALLS IN PLAY ACCORDING TO BASEBALL INFO SOLUTIONS
- 2011: 2,350
- 2012: 4,577
- 2013: 6,882
- 2014: 13,299
- 2015: 17,744
- 2016 (through July 28): 17,632 with a season-end projection of 28,169
Baseball Info Solutions defines shifts as two types of plays, called Ted Williams Shifts and Partial Ted Williams Shifts
TWS – Three infielders move completely to one side of the 2B bag (usually the SS moves across the bag against a LHB)
PTWS – At least two players are significantly away from their standard positioning (usually when the SS is behind but not across the 2B bag and the 2B is several steps into RF)