Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon
news

MLB News

Making sense of the Twins' bunting gripe

Orioles' maneuver late in contest on Sunday sparking conversation
MLB.com @JPosnanski

When Ted Williams first saw the shift Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau had created to defend him in 1946, he started laughing. Literally. He stood inside the batter's box, and he doubled over in laughter. "If teams started doing that against me," Williams joked with reporters after the game, "I'll start hitting right-handed."

Teams did start doing that against Williams, but he didn't start hitting right-handed. Instead, he spent the rest of his career hitting into the teeth of the defense. Williams pulled ball after ball into the shift because he felt like it was more important that he hit for power than pick up cheappie singles by bunting or punching ground balls the opposite way.

When Ted Williams first saw the shift Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau had created to defend him in 1946, he started laughing. Literally. He stood inside the batter's box, and he doubled over in laughter. "If teams started doing that against me," Williams joked with reporters after the game, "I'll start hitting right-handed."

Teams did start doing that against Williams, but he didn't start hitting right-handed. Instead, he spent the rest of his career hitting into the teeth of the defense. Williams pulled ball after ball into the shift because he felt like it was more important that he hit for power than pick up cheappie singles by bunting or punching ground balls the opposite way.

"Williams believed that his value to the club and to the game was as a slugger," John Updike wrote in his famous New Yorker story about Williams' last game, "so he went on pulling the ball, trying to blast it through three men, and paid the price of perhaps 15 points of lifetime average."

In other words, the power of the shift is not only in taking away half the field, it's a mental ploy as well, one that convinces hitters that they should not do anything to beat the shift.

Boy, did we see that Sunday in the Twins-Orioles game. Recapping it quickly: Minnesota led 7-0 in the ninth inning behind the powerhouse pitching of Jose Berrios. When Berrios is good, he is really good, which is very exciting for Twins fans -- he had allowed just one hit through eight innings, and even that was on a fly ball by Baltimore's rookie backup catcher Chance Sisco, one that Minnesota left fielder Eddie Rosario couldn't quite pull in.

Well, Sisco came up again with one out in the ninth -- and the Twins loaded up the right side of the infield in an extreme shift. Seeing this, Sisco pushed a bunt to the left side of the infield and beat it out for a single.

Video: ALCS Gm3: Gregorius beats shift with a bunt in 1st

None of this mattered in the game; Berrios finished and got the shutout. But the Twins were not happy at all.

"I don't care if he's bunting," Berrios said. "I just know it's not good for baseball in that situation."

"Obviously, we're not a fan of it," Brian Dozier said.

"Nobody liked that," Rosario said. "No. No. No. That's not a good play."

Now, we can say here -- as many have said across Twitter and Facebook and the like -- that the Twins were being absolutely ridiculous, that they can't shift up 7-0 against a backup rookie catcher and then gripe that the kid bunted. To use a legal term, this is ludicrous prima facie; it's so silly that this hardly needs explanation.

But there's something else here that I think is more interesting: Nobody in baseball thinks that putting a huge shift on a rookie catcher up 7-0 is a violation of unwritten rules. But apparently many people in baseball think that catcher bunting is a violation.

If everyone started bunting regularly against the shift, it would mostly end extreme defensive shifting. I feel sure of this. On the rare occasions when Williams did bunt against the shift, he got a hit almost every time; the most up-to-date numbers say he was 13-for-16 on bunt attempts, a sweet little .813 average. And remember, Williams couldn't run.

Video: Black, LeMahieu discuss hitting against the shift

Last year, based on Statcast™ numbers, players who got a bunt down against the shift hit .568. This is more complicated than simple batting average numbers because, among other things, it doesn't include those who fail to get the bunt down, but the point is: Major League players can beat the shift time after time after time if they so choose.

But they don't because the shift is more than a defensive strategy. The shift is a psychological game, and has been since the days of Ted Williams. It is meant to convince hitters that they don't really have the option to bunt or chop the ball the other way. To do that, the shift suggests, is to hurt yourself and the team.

And beyond that, it's also apparently against some unwritten rules. The Twins are not alone in being convinced that it's Sisco's duty as a Major League hitter to try and hit the ball through the shift they designed for him when his team is hopelessly down against an overpowering pitcher.

My personal hope is more people successfully bunt against the shift in any and every possible situation. Shifting defenses have had their day. It's time for the hitters to strike back.

Joe Posnanski is a national columnist for MLB.com.