By: Brian Chapman
This year there have been more extreme infield shifts in baseball than ever before. They’re not just for David Ortiz and Adam Dunn. They’re for every pull hitter including Tigers like Alex Avila and Victor Martinez. These shifts are not just put in place by the Tampa Bay Rays. Just about every team uses them, including your Detroit Tigers. We’ve even seen teams (including the Tigers) shift during the middle of an at bat.
It’s pretty hard to digest these shifts when you’ve been watching baseball for decades and you believe the third baseman should be over by third base, not in shallow right field. Or when you believe that just because a player is called a second baseman, it doesn’t mean he has to play directly behind second base when a dead pull hitting righty steps to the plate. But who cares if it’s hard for some to digest if it works? Managers certainly don’t care which is why they continue to implement it more and more and if it works I’m all for teams doing it.
Then I came across this article by Tom Verducci of SI.com on Tuesday night: http://www.si.com/mlb/2014/07/22/shifts-rule-change-lefthanded-batters-david-ortiz. In the story Verducci says the idea of instituting an illegal defense rule in baseball is gaining momentum where teams would be barred from placing three infielders on the same side of the diamond. The story also says, “shifts are killing one type of hitter in particular: the left-handed pull hitter with little speed.” For example, 2013 AL MVP candidate Chris Davis had a .402 batting average on balls in play to the pull field in 2013, but because of increased shifting, he’s hitting just .186 when he pulls the ball this year. Some of the biggest names in baseball like Ortiz, Ryan Howard, Shin-Soo Choo and Brian McCann have been victimized too. For them, installing an illegal defense rule would provide immediate benefits.
To me, this is one of the most ridiculous proposed rule changes in any sport in recent memory. If a hitter hits the ball to the pull field 80% of the time, it’s just logical to put more fielders on the pull side of the field and to throw him more pitches that he is likely to pull. It’s called an adjustment. The same goes for the slap hitter who can’t turn on a fastball. It makes sense to place more fielders on the opposite side of the field.
Typically when the league makes an adjustment to any player in any sport for any reason, the player responds by making an adjustment of his own to take advantage of the defense’s weakness. In this case, the obvious response for a left handed pull hitter like Ortiz or Avila, whose numbers are dropping due to the shift, is to learn how to hit the ball to leftfield. Instead, the response by some in the baseball world is to refuse to change the approaches of the hitters and complain about the rules. I find this to be both lazy and embarrassing.
For players like Ortiz and Dunn, these shifts may be more frequent in 2014 than they were in past years, but they are nothing new. They knew that teams would tempt them to either find a small hole in a crowded right side of the field or make the uncomfortable adjustment to slap it to the left side of the field for a stand up double. They have not adjusted at all and their numbers have dropped accordingly.
Another easy adjustment to keep the defense honest is just to lay a bunt down the third base line. If the shortstop is playing in his normal position and the third baseman is way out in right field, a hard bunt down the left side is guaranteed way to get on base. But instead of laying down fifty bunts a day down the third base line until they’ve perfected the art and can use it as a tool to boost their batting average fifty points or more, these left handers continue to ignore the easy base hit, continue to see their batting averages decline and may need to wait on a rule change (that may not happen) to return to stardom.
It’s one thing for players and coaches in a sport to beg for a rule change to reduce the risk of injury like the no collision rule instituted in baseball this year or the crackdown on helmet to helmet hits in football. It’s another thing for them to say, “Hey! Teams are leaving a gaping hole on the left side on the field and it’s making it difficult for my slow left handed pull hitters to reach base. Let’s take the easy way out and just change the rules.”
In my humble opinion, if the game changes and a major league baseball player either can’t adjust or refuses to adjust and his performance takes a nose dive, then maybe he shouldn’t be in the major leagues anymore. I think it’s preposterous that a player can make $12 million per year and because of his high salary he and his coaches believe that it’s okay for him to have fewer tools in his arsenal and have fewer ways to beat you. Multi-million dollar sluggers should be embarrassed to call themselves professional hitters if they can’t beat a shift with a bunt or a line drive to the opposite field. What kind of hitter deserves a $50 million contract if his excellence can be neutralized simply by moving one fielder from the left side of the diamond to the right side?
If it’s not too hard for Don Kelly to slap the ball to left field for a base hit, it shouldn’t be too hard for a great hitter like Big Papi to do the same.