Friday, July 22, 2011

Beat the Shift!

Early in the game yesterday between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Pete, Derek Jeter had just walked in the first inning. The next batter facing James Shields was Mark Teixeira batting left-handed. As David Cone correctly pointed out in Thursday's telecast on YES, Teixeira is much more of a pull hitter as a left-hand batter as he is from the right side. Joe Maddon knows this, of course, and employed the shift against Teixeira. Obliviously or stubbornly, Teixeira hit right into the shift and the inning went nowhere. Why? Why don't hitters challenge the shift?

Is it a manly thing? Is it a pride thing where the batter says he isn't going to change his approach simply because of the way the defense is lined up? Later in the game, a man was again on base for the Yankees with Nick Swisher at the plate. A modified shift was employed this time with the shortstop playing just barely on his side of the diamond. The Rays were going to cut off anything right up the middle. Swisher hit it right at the shortstop who made the play. Swisher looked shocked and dismayed at the shortstop's placement. Didn't he see it before he swung at anything?

Defense has become an adjustment to the batter in just the same way a pitcher adjusts to the batter based on scouting reports and batted ball data. The object of the hitter is to adjust to the fielding alignment just as much as to the pitcher. Many experts have made the case that sophisticated fielding alignments have more to do with the decreased runs scored in the past two seasons than any other factor. But at some point, doesn't the batter have to adjust just like the batter has to adjust to the pitcher?

If you ask Joe Maddon, he would probably smile and say that he would be more than happy to have Teixeira hit a little ground ball to third instead of hitting a homer. And that is probably why Teixeira doesn't hit it that way. But that is disingenuous on both parts. Maddon knows that Teixeira would rather hit a homer than dink it down the third base line so there is no risk to the move at all. If there was risk, Maddon wouldn't take it!

But let's look at this logically. There is only a one in fourteen chance that Teixeira will hit a homer but there is a two in five chance he'll hit a ground ball. So what is going to happen more often?  And what of the game situation and win probability? In a game where James Shields and C.C. Sabathia are going to be putting up a lot of zeroes, doesn't it make more sense to push a little grounder to the open space to add base runners? Win probability would increase because of the extra base runner in a game where base runners are at a premium. Plus, Jeter would be at third in scoring position or more if the ball rolled all the way down the line.

Whatever happened to "hit 'em where they ain't"? Batters take batting practice every day. Don't they practice hitting the ball the other way? Isn't it part of the hitter's job to adjust? This isn't to just pick on Teixeira and Swisher. Shifts are employed on a lot of batters. They do it to Adam Dunn and David Ortiz and Ryan Howard and a lot of batters. They do it because it works more often than it doesn't.

If this writer was honest, an admission is necessary here that shifts are hated about as much as multiple pitching changes in an inning and intentional walks. All three would be outlawed if this Fan was in charge of the game. But that's pie in the sky thinking because it isn't going to happen. And since it isn't, then batters and their coaches and managers have to make it stop. They have to beat the shift.

If you were to ask Joe Girardi and managers of those other sluggers, they would probably tell you that they don't want to take their hitters out of their game. That's a bunch of baloney. Because ultimately it becomes why Teixeira and Howard have become .240 batters with OBP in the .350s instead of closer to .400 like they used to have. Pitchers and defenses have adjusted and the batters haven't.

Beat the shift, for crying out loud. Beat it enough times and teams will stop using it. Get those extra base runners and you will score more runs than hoping for that one in fourteen chance a homer will be hit. And the funny thing is, when you are looking to put the ball in play where the fielders aren't, just as many homers will be hit because pitchers still make mistakes. Adrian Gonzalez and Albert Pujols do it every day. They use all fields and their success shows that it is the right way to play.

Stubbornly hitting into the shift is stupid. Not only is it stupid, it detracts from a team's chances of scoring and winning. Make the adjustments and put the defense and the pitching on the defensive. That's the ticket.


Anonymous said...

Great post - Teixeira was up in the 1st with Grandy on 2nd and 2 outs and again didn't try to beat the shift and score the run.

Rather, he tried to pull a 3-2 breaking ball and pulled himself off the pitch into an inning-ending strikeout.

I googled "why don't hitters try to beat the shift" and found your post, which was created earlier today about the same hitter in a game less than 24 hours ago.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Thanks, Anon. Glad you found the piece and agree with the conclusions.