Why shift against Freeman, those who beat it?

May 18th, 2018

Joe Maddon boggles my mind. There are so many things I like about the guy, particularly the fact that he is an American original. You have so many cookie-cutter managers and coaches in sports, people who try to be Bill Belichick clones or Nick Saban replicas or, yes, even Maddon mimeographs.

You have those who act the way they think the manager or coach is supposed to act, say what they think a manager should say, strategize by the ever-changing book.

Not Maddon. He's managing to the rhythm he hears in his head. When you come from a small industrial town, grow up in a tiny apartment above your father's plumbing store, kick around for four years in Class A ball, get a Minor League managing job at age 27 and manage Minor League teams and coach in the big leagues for 25 years before getting your big shot, you don't sweat the small stuff. You don't play it safe. You manage with gusto and verve and without fear.

Go ahead, bring zoo animals to the game. Have someone drive a white Ferrari into the middle of your team stretching. Have your players wear footie pajamas. Seriously, what's the worst that can happen?

I love every bit of the way Maddon manages his team.

It's the game where Maddon befuddles me sometimes. I assume that there is all sorts of data to show that what he and the Cubs are doing is mathematically sound. But I still don't get it. For instance, during the first inning of Wednesday night's against the Braves, Atlanta had a runner on third with one out. The Cubs brought in their infield against Freddie Freeman.

The first inning. Why would you bring in your infield against one of the Majors' best hitters in the first inning?

Even before Freeman rifled a line-drive single that might have been caught, had the infield been at normal depth, it seemed entirely baffling.

The big defensive question came in the eighth. The Braves had just scored the go-ahead run, and they had the extraordinary on first, when Freeman came up again. This time, Maddon put on a massive shift to the right side of second base. No infielder was on the left side.

Freeman saw this and calmly chopped a routine ground ball to the left side for a single. Acuna went all the way to third, and Freeman followed up by going to second on the throw. The Braves then scored two more runs, and that was that in a 4-1 win.

Freeman has been destroying the shift for a long time now.

Sometimes I just don't get Maddon.

OK, this isn't just Maddon. Opposing teams are shifting 69 percent of the time against Freeman, which would make a lot more sense if Freeman didn't have a .424 weighted on-base average (wOBA) against the shift. You might know that wOBA -- which measures a player's complete offensive contribution -- is on the scale of on-base percentage. In other words, .320 is about average, .350 is good, .375 is really good and .424 means Freeman is humiliating the shift.

And this is not just the first few weeks of this season. Last year, Freeman had a .425 wOBA against the shift. That's 40 points better than he does when there's no shift.

Now, I have a theory about this, one that I admit is based purely on observation and a sense of the game. But before we get into that, we should look at players who, like Freeman, beat the shift, and those who clearly do not.

Nobody in baseball is shifted against more often than Texas' Joey Gallo … and for good reason: He struggles against it. Gallo faces the shift roughly 90 percent of the time. And so far this year, his wOBA against it is a fairly miserable .303. It was better last year (.364), but it seems that the shifts Gallo faces this year are more extreme than they were last year. Teams are putting basically everybody on the right side of the field. Infielders. Outfielders. Bullpen catchers. Mascots.

Gallo's strength is that he hits the ball super hard and, often, super far. His weaknesses are twofold -- he strikes out a ton, and when he doesn't hit the ball out, he usually hits it to a reliable area. In other words, he's probably the second-most perfect guy to shift in baseball.

Second-most because Baltimore's Chris Davis is the most perfect guy. Last year, on the rare few occasions (30 times) that teams did not shift him, he crushed the ball. With the shift on, though, his wOBA was .303. This year, it's a miserable .240. He's simply helpless against it.

(.290 wOBA), Matt Carpenter (.241), (.266) and (.172) are some of the others who have struggled against the shift this year, though Calhoun has inexplicably been hitting about that poorly whether teams shift him or not.

On the good side, the Royals are the best team against the shift, which is interesting. Third baseman Mike Moustakas (.381) is hitting about 50 wOBA points better against the shift, and left fielder (.374) is about 150 points better.

From the right side, (.438) kills the shift, as does (.406).

The question then is: Why shift against players who have shown the ability to beat it? I think -- and this theory brings us back around to Freeman -- that the reason is this: The shift is a psychological play as much as it is a strategic ploy. Yes, the defense is playing percentages based on zones and tendencies. But the defense is playing the odds that even if you can, you won't simply try to hit the other way.

This was how the modern shift began: Cleveland's player-manager Lou Boudreau, somewhat on a lark, put it out there to stifle Ted Williams. Boudreau did not necessarily think it would work; Williams had simply been so good against Cleveland that Boudreau decided that it was time for desperate measures. Williams himself laughed at it when he first saw it.

But that shift was a more powerful mental web than anyone expected. Williams could not stop hitting into it. There were various rumors that he tried to learn to poke the ball the other way (including taking a lesson or two from Ty Cobb), but it's hard to believe. Williams was such an extraordinary hitter, it seems improbable that he could not learn to hit the ball to left.

Williams did not want to. He knew there was a right way and a wrong way to hit, and his was the right way. The Spendid Splinter was sure his place in the hitting galaxy, and he was sure as heck not going to let some group of wise guys on one side of the field tell him how to hit a baseball.

And so it is now, hitters face some of the hardest fastballs and nastiest breaking balls ever thrown, more or less on a nightly basis, and to hit that takes singular focus and confidence, bordering on arrogance and absolutely perfect timing.

Now, you put three infielders on one side of the field. It's a dare. Go ahead. Change your swing. Hit the ball the other way in the hopes of a measly single. Bunt it if you want. You are playing right into our hands. Go ahead. Do it. Most hitters simply will not. They're not built to turn down dares.

But Freeman is a different kind of hitter. By all accounts, he is a natural -- see the ball, hit the ball.

"There's nothing I can really do," Freeman has said, "but keep going out there and swinging."

That's the plan. He doesn't change it. He doesn't complicate things. He doesn't overanalyze the situation. He doesn't study film incessantly, or chart launch angles. He has said in the past that he loves the shift, hopes teams keep doing it to him, because it opens up half the field, gives him more chances to win.

And he keeps it that simple. He looks to see where the defense is playing, and he hits accordingly. It's an old-fashioned idea. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn used to say that he constantly watched the defense. He knew who was going to cover on a steal. He saw if the third baseman was in. He paid close attention to see how far off the bag the first baseman stood. All of these played a part in his mental calculation.

That seems to be Freeman, too. He is just better against the shift. He's not alone. Joey Votto (.465) crushes the shift. (.463) does, too. crushes everything, but he's particularly good against the shift (.444). The thing is, for those guys, teams have mostly stopped shifting. They will throw in exotic defenses now and again, but for the most part they play straight up.

But teams still shift Freeman. You wonder when everyone, and particularly Maddon, will get the hint.