In the height of the Steroid Era, guys like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa made baseball stadiums look small. With the ability to blast gargantuan home runs with the flick of a wrist, these players demanded special attention at the plate. In Bonds’s case, his numbers reached such video-game numbers (Bonds hit a ridiculous .370 with an on base percentage of .582 in 2002), that opposing managers constantly searched for any advantage to try and get him out.
Enter what is known as the “Barry Bonds shift,” even though players as far back as Ted Williams faced it. In essence, the shift moves players from their traditional spots and places them where a hitter’s tendencies indicate he’ll hit the ball. In Bonds’s case, as a left handed hitter known for pulling the ball, the short-stop and third baseman would abandon the left half of the infield in favor of playing on the right side of second base, with the second baseman positioned in shallow right field. In doing so, teams dared the all-time home run leader to hit the ball the other way, instead of hitting to his strengths. Not that it mattered to Bonds; he kept hacking (quite successfully), figuring if he hit the ball out of the stadium, it would not matter where the defenders stood.
But now in the post-steroid era, hitters have come back down to earth. In the 12 seasons from 1996 to 2007, players hit 50+ home runs in a season 22 times. In the seven seasons since, the feat has been accomplished just twice.With fewer balls leaving the park on the fly, defense has become a hot topic across the MLB. Great defensive players such as Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons and Detroit’s Jose Iglesias are now considered significant impact players despite their below average offensive numbers. This trend appears to be leading to success; it was well-documented that last year’s ALCS teams, the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles, boasted two of the best defenses in the American League. And wouldn’t you know it, both of these teams were top 8 in the major league in runs saved while shifting.
So is shifting really the answer? Defensively it seems to make sense; if you can position yourself where a player more frequently hits the ball, you will get him out more often. However, the shift does not always equate to success. Johnny Damon exploited a major flaw in the shift with some savvy base running in a World Series Game in 2009. Last season, the Cubs shifted the 7th most in baseball, yet finished dead last in the MLB in runs saved while shifting (actually posting a negative number). Part of this can be chalked up to the nature of baseball. If a hitter tries to pull the ball but is late by a fraction of a second, he may hit the ball the other way. If the pitcher fools the hitter, he may take a half-swing or an atypical swing leading to a bloop or soft line drive that falls harmlessly into the outfield grass. Or if the pitcher shatters his bat, he may get a swinging bunt single. While those types of hits are part of the game and can’t be defended, ultimately, using the shift successfully requires the right players on the field, the right hitter at the plate, and a well-timed call from the manager.
But the success of the shift should not be ignored. Despite effectively offering hitters 50% of the field to try to get a hit, offensive numbers are down league wide. While correlation does not always equal causation, I do believe there is a relationship in this scenario that has more to do with guys swinging the bats then it does with the ones standing in the shift. Hitters in today’s game are striking out at an alarming rate, refusing to adjust their swings in negative counts to put the ball in play. Today’s sluggers would rather take a home-run-or-bust swing instead of swinging for contact and, potentially, beating the shift. This approach plays right into the hands of managers implementing these shifts, much to the dismay of some players; David Ortiz, one of the league’s most frequently shifted-against players, recently went as far as to suggest it should be considered an illegal defense.
To me, the idea of eliminating the shift is total nonsense. Maybe I’m biased because I never hit a towering home run in my life, and only managed to play at the D3 level by relying on hitting the ball away from people rather than hitting it through them. But should the Cover 2 defense be illegal in football because it’s effective? To me, as pitching becomes more and more dominant in the MLB, it seems that hitters should go back to basics. From a young age baseball players are taught to pull inside pitches, and to hit outside pitches the other way. Sure, players get paid the big bucks for hitting home runs, but they also get paid for their ability to get on base and help their team win games. So if the shift is a coaching strategy, why don’t coaches have those power hitters bunt every now and then to take the free base? Or spend these spring training months getting people who are paid to hit baseballs to learn how to hit the ball hard the other way?
Like I said in my last piece, good managers find a way to make the difference. Just like NFL coaches debunked the wildcat, and NBA coaches find ways to defend tough offensive schemes like the triangle, MLB coaches should find ways to help their players beat the shift. As the shift continues to become more and more prevalent, I’ll be watching to see what coaches and hitters do to take back the advantage.
By Aaron Gillette