The shift is nothing new in baseball. Ted Williams was crushing it seventy years ago when he was hitting over .400, but it does seem to be enjoying a new era of popularity. Tampa bay has been torturing teams in the Al with it all year, the Yankees being a particular hapless victim.
A defensive shift is exactly what it implies, the normal pattern of defensive position is altered, or shifted if you will, to better position themelves for a particular hitter’s tendencies. A helpful photo:
Prince Fielder, the subject of the above diagram, is a tremendous power hitter who tends to pull the ball, hence the removal of the third basemen from third base, plugging up the hole on the right field side of the infield instead. What shocks me about this is not that managers attempt to limit the effectiveness of power/pull hitters, but that power/pull hitters allow the shift to defeat them so easily. When properly approached, the shift can only lead to failure for the defense.
The objective of an offensive player is to reach base safely. It cannot be stated any simpler than this and it is undeniably true. Extra-base hits are of course more valuable than a single or walk, but only when attained at a rate that does not produce an excessive number of outs. For instance, hitting 30 home runs in a season is an outstanding tally, but not if it’s partnered with a .250 OBP.
Leading off and faced with the shift, a David Ortiz has only to bunt the ball up the third base line and he will reach base safely somewhere in the neighborhood of 90-100%. Sometimes things really are that simple. Look at the above diagram again. Simply get the ball past the pitcher to the left side of the infield and the defense will not be able to throw you out at first, and you will have accomplished the primary goal of every hitter, which is to get on base. A major league hitter – ANY major league hitter – who does not employ this strategy to defeat the shift is hurting the team. Why would they do this?
Several reasons spring to mind. First, the players mistakenly believe that power will negate the extra outs made by hitting into the shift. Second, their managers instruct the hitters to swing away regardless of the defense and are stupid people who don’t understand the value of getting on base. Third, the players themselves are idiots who don’t understand how bad it is to make an out. Fourth, players are incapable of changing their swings without adversely impacting their overall offensive game, notably when the shift is not being employed.
I’ll save the suspense, it’s a combination of 1-3, though I suspect managers would argue that it’s 1 and 4. The thing is, there’s no reason, not one, that will ever alter, or shift if you will, the importance of reaching base at an exceptionally high rate. None. Ever. Baseball is about getting on base and stopping the opposing team from getting on base.
There isn’t a major league hitter who can’t hit .600 by bunting into the shift. Frankly, there isn’t a player in professional baseball at any level who couldn’t bunt the ball past the pitcher to the left side of the infield at that rate, and yet almost noone attempts it, and not one of them does it every single at bat as they should. An OBP of .400 is exceptional, and against the shift that number would be dwarfed by utilizing the single easiest tool a hitter has in his arsenal. It boggles the mind how professional athletes, the best of the best, can so fundamentally misunderstand the game they play.