Thus far in the MLB season, the entire league has participated in approximately 13,000 defensive shifts during games. We’ve seen the Baltimore Orioles do this on numerous occasions, as well as many of their opponents against them. When people first started playing a shift on various players it was a novelty that most fans had never seen; now we’re probably at the point to where NOT playing a shift is the novel concept.
However again in using the O’s as a sample, I feel like we’re also seeing more and more teams and players hitting against the shift. That contributed to Detroit beating the Orioles on Tuesday night, when Alex Avila led off the ninth inning with a hit against the shift. Avila would later score (granted on a home run), and in doing so represented the tying run. And when I say hit against the shift, I mean that had the defense been playing straight away the ball would have been hit right to a fielder (in that case third baseman Manny Machado).
As a coach, that would be the most frustrating thing in the world for me. I’ve obviously done my home work and the spray charts are indicating that player-x hits the ball to this spot almost exclusively – to the point to where you decide that it would be stupid not to position your infielders in a shift. And then player-x basically defies logic and hits the ball to the exact spot your fielder would have been had you not used a shift.
This is not to say that Buck Showalter is to blame for the Orioles losing that game, or that any other manager in similar cases are to blame. However, I do feel like more and more hitters are hitting against the shift league-wide. So how does that affect what managers are trying to do?
Ultimately I think a few things are going to start to happen. First off, we’re going to see more base runners because hitters will begin to be more well-rounded and not necessarily favor one side of the field. We’ll also start seeing more bunt base hits in the other direction. More base runners are going to mean more runs, which means more high scoring games. If you don’t like pitchers duels, I suppose you’re in luck there.
But keep in mind that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. The idea behind the shift has been that it’s easier to get guys out. So how can you get guys out while not having to worry about the shift? Ultimately I think more and more pitchers will start pitching to strikeout, as opposed to pitching to contact.
This is not to say that either way is right or wrong. Sports are all about adjustments; if you take the league by storm in a sense, odds are the next year the league will have adjusted to you in some manner. To equate this to another sport, the late 80’s/early 90’s Detroit Pistons catered their defense to stopping Michael Jordan. They thus adjusted to Jordan, and it worked.
My point here is that as trends begin, so do ideas to buck those trends. Another example might be what’s known as the “read option” in the NFL. Little by little it seemed that defenses had an answer for it last year. So if hitters start becoming more adept at hitting against the shift (and thus to all parts of the field), pitching coaches will start emphasizing pitching to strikeout. And in doing so, hitting coaches will start putting more emphasis on homers, which obviously have no effect regarding the shift. And so it goes…
We’re starting to see more and more teams playing a shift on the O’s, however what we don’t see are Oriole hitters starting to be able to hit against the shift. Having said that, there’s no time like the present!