Against the shift: Hitters adjust to defensive tactics
As Jay Bruce stepped to the plate against the Cubs on a Tuesday night at Wrigley Field this month, Starlin Castro took about eight steps to the left of his natural position at shortstop, just a shade to the right of second base.
It wasn't the first time Bruce had seen such a formation, and the trend is nothing new to the game. Innovators like Ron Roenicke and Joe Maddon move their infielders to their left against power-hitting left-handed hitters -- and the Pirates' third baseman will sometimes migrate to the right side of the infield so no other man leaves his natural position -- to protect against balls hit that way.
So what goes through the mind of Bruce -- or David Ortiz, Adam Dunn, Carlos Gonzalez, Nick Swisher, Prince Fielder, Rick Ankiel; the list these days seems to grow longer and longer -- when he steps to the plate and sees the shortstop behind second base, or the second baseman near where the right fielder might otherwise be?
"That's the biggest part, is people start thinking too much about it and trying to say, 'I'm going to get a pitch like this now,'" Bruce said. "There's two philosophies to it -- guys will pitch you soft and away and want you to roll over, and some guys will pitch you in and want you to try to yank it. You can't let them dictate what you're trying to do up there."
That detection is why Bruce's manager, Dusty Baker, doesn't believe any hitter should be rattled when he steps into the box against an infield shift. Because then, Baker said, you should have a better idea of what's coming.
"It's pretty easy to determine how they're gonna pitch him," Baker said. "The new modern shifts, if you survey the land before you get in the box and look around, it'll tell you how they're gonna pitch you."
To get a loose idea of how shifts actually impact hitters, you can look at a player's BABIP (batting average on balls in play), both with and without men on base -- assuming the fielders would only be shifted when there are no runners to hold on.
There are some good: Adam Dunn (.286 with men on versus .282 without), Mark Teixeira (.288 versus .294), Rafael Palmeiro (.280 versus .285), Carlos Pena (.274 versus .282) and Carlos Delgado (.303 versus .304) all have a career BABIP with nobody on that is either near or better than their BABIP with runners on base. Chris Davis' differential is 54 points worse, but his BABIP with the bases empty is still a strong .318.
Cleveland's Carlos Santana tops this group, with a career .271 BABIP with men on and a .287 mark without.
And there are some bad: Bruce (.281 versus .316), Ortiz (.281 versus .325), Jason Giambi (.272 versus .322) and Barry Bonds (.267 versus .308) are all hit significantly lower with no men on and, thus, presumably against a shift.
"All in all, I believe shifts make sense, especially against guys hitting for power," Bruce said. "Not a lot of power-hitting guys hit the ball on the ground on the left side of the infield. But it's one of those things where I don't even worry about it or look at it, because it's not worth it. If I do what I'm supposed to do, it doesn't matter anyway."
What he's supposed to do, Bruce says, is stick to his consistent approach, swing at the right pitches and drive the ball to the middle of the field. In that case, he says, the most difficult shift is not when there's a defender in shallow right, but an infielder directly behind second base.
"You're doing what you're supposed to do if you're hitting the ball up the middle," Bruce said. "You wonder why teams don't do that to more people."
In that at-bat against the Cubs, Bruce did find a hole on the left side of the infield for a single off a four-seamer from reliever Hector Rondon. Ankiel had success dropping down a bunt down the third-base line when Chicago shifted on him earlier this season at Wrigley Field.
"The idea [of trying to beat the shift] is good," said Indians manager Terry Francona, who managed Ortiz in Boston and now Giambi, Santana and Swisher in Cleveland. "When you're down, when you can't tie the game with one swing, getting on base is the most important thing. I've talked to [Giambi] about that a lot. He told me, 'Yeah, I've bunted before. I'm not too proud.' When you can't tie it up, I love it."
And if you think it's only a strange thing for hitters to see, perhaps not.
"When you ask a guy to play on the opposite side, it's different," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "You hear guys talk about how you're looking at someone in a mirror, in a sense, when you're playing on the other side of a base."
Regardless of where the defense is positioned against him, San Francisco's Brandon Belt said as long as he hits the ball where a fielder can't reach it, it doesn't matter where they're standing against him.
"My goal when I go to the plate is to hit a line drive, so if I hit a line drive, it isn't really going to matter," Belt said. "I think it probably enters my mind when I hit a hard ground ball and it plays right into the shift. But other than that, I don't think about it too much."