Since the beginning of athletic competition, there has always been the presence of strategy. It’s the cunning art of out-witting an opponent by simply guessing his next move. Sometimes it succeeds… and sometimes it fails. But that doesn’t stop the fiercest of competitors from coming up with new and inventive counterpoints.
In our national past time, the grand old game of baseball, strategy usually begins with the pitcher and catcher deciding what type of pitch to throw a hitter to best get him out. This has worked since the days of the boys playing in uniforms resembling their flannel jammies.
Lately, however, there is a new wrinkle — or better yet, an old one that is making a comeback – that seems to have the purists all up in arms.
The shift is basically a defensive strategy where a manager will move his infielders to load up one side of the diamond to increase the probability of getting that hitter out. No biggie, right? It’s a move based on the numbers—like the rest of the game.
In most cases, the shift is employed when a power hitter, who looks to pull the ball, steps into the batters box. Sabermetrics will tell you, and in excruciating detail, that these pull hitters rarely hit the ball up the middle or to the opposite field. This makes it an easy call for a manager to move his defense over to one side to cover more ground. And why not? The name of the game is to get the batter out!
While researching what many have said or written—and there has been a lot, about the growing popularity of the use of the shift in baseball – I’m shocked even more to find that it’s such a big deal.
You don’t honestly hear about a defensive coordinator in the NFL getting accused of ruining his sport for putting six defensive backs in the game when you’re facing Peyton Manning. We, as fans, simply love the challenge of watching a great quarterback try and succeed against such odds.
So why aren’t we doing the same in baseball?
Boston Red Sox fans shouldn’t get puckered up over a defensive shift put into play when left-handed slugger David Ortiz comes up. Isn’t it really up to Big Papi to make the adjustment offensively? Don’t groan at Detroit Tiger’s manager Brad Ausmus for playing his cards right. Just take one of those low and away off speed pitches you see regularly, Mr. Ortiz and poke it through the left side of the infield.
I know… easier said than done.
While we’re on the Red Sox, arguably, the greatest hitter to ever put on cleats, Ted Williams, was apparently one of the first hitters to ever have the shift put on to stop him.
A left-handed hitter, Williams was all about contact and mastered pulling a rope into right. More times than not though, as in all baseball categories, Williams didn’t lift the ball over the head of the second baseman but rolled it through the vast landscape between first and second base. Somebody, most likely a manager tired of kicking the dirt after every William’s at-bat, must’ve said enough is enough. We’ve got to try something!
My personal earliest recollection of the shift being used regularly was just a few years ago when Jason Giambi was with the New York Yankees. Giambi, although still a feared power hitter, was losing his skills as a contact guy. Defenses began to shift to the right against him and seemingly without fail, Giambi hit a roller to the second baseman, who was now closer to first base.
Frustrating to Yankee fans, no doubt, but more so to Giambi it seemed. It looked as though the shift had gotten into his head. Thus, making it as much a psychological tool as a physical one.
I’ve lately been sensing, however, a shift in the shift. A few recent games I’ve caught on television have shown some rebellion against the shift by a couple of dangerous left-handed pull hitters—one being Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies.
In an interleague contest last week against the Los Angeles Angels, Howard beat the shift with a line drive back up the middle that scored a run. Howard, with cameras on him at first base, had a look of jovial defiance as he pointed to teammates in the Phillies dugout.
Okay—so maybe that’s just one instance where a hitter beat the shift. But I see more coming. I personally love the strategy and have now shifted my disdain for the shift to a love for it. I’ll be rooting for the pull hitters—and as a pitching guy, you won’t hear that often from me.
If you’re a numbers person who can’t get enough of spray charts and percentages, or more of a historian who soaks up every fact like a Sham-Wow, I recommend articles by Jeff Wiser for SB Nation or Matthew Futterman for the Wall Street Journal.