Copyright 2014 by John T. Reed
The best coaching periodical in America has done it again. That would be the Wall Street Journal—really. Their 3/28/14 issue has several excellent articles about baseball coaching. You can probably read it online by Goggling “Deee-fense: Baseball’s Big Shift.”
The main one is about the recent increase in extreme shifting on defense according to the pitcher, batter, and count.
Manager Lou Boudreau of the Indians did that against dead-pull-hitter Ted Williams who batted left-handed. He left only the third baseman and left fielder to the left of second base and they were nearer to second than the third-base foul line. All the other fielders were on the right side of second base. Boudreau said he was just trying to psyche out Williams, not defend against him. Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack was also famous for signalling to his fielders with his line-up card to move them for each pitch—reportedly he had an uncanny ability to put the fielders where they needed to be for the batter in question.
The current far wider use of similar shifts IS intended to defend against pull hitters. It is based on newly available statistics—part of the continued Moneyballization of the sport.
The Journal says MLB teams shifted 8,134 times in 2013 compared to 2,357 in 2011.
Essentially, many batters have what football coaches call “tendencies.” They hit to certain areas of the field more than to others. Statistically, moving more fielders to those areas does more good than harm. And apparently fans and announcers are now sophisticated enough to recognize that although it sometimes backfires, it is the smart percentage play.
They actually now use the job title “defensive coordinator” on some MLB teams.
Tampa Bay was first in runs saved by shifts according to the Journal. They did not give the number but they said the Pirates saved 77 run by shifting one season making them third in the league in that category.
When I played right field in adult and semi-pro baseball, I shifted a little on my own and at the direction of my second baseman. We had no advance scouting. I would mark a straight-away neutral spot with my cleats in right field. Then I would adjust off that spot every pitch. If the batter seemed to be behind the pitches, I would shift a little towards the batter’s opposite field. If he was pulling fouls, I would do the opposite.
The second baseman would signal to me whether the next pitch was a fast ball or off speed. I would shift toward the pull side on an off-speed pitch and the other way on a fast ball. As the count went against the batter, I would play him more to hit opposite field. If he was hitting deep balls in earlier at bats, I would play him deeper. And so on.
Should Little League and other amateur coaches do shifts like MLB has been doing recently?
If you have the data and it says the shift is statistically sound in a particular pitcher-batter-count situation, yes. But to get that data, you have to do advance scouting. I say failure to do advance scouting in football, even at the youth level, is coaching malpractice. But I never did much scouting in Little League. Once, we were playing out of our league against another Little League. I scouted them because we had no clue. They were a brand new league. Among other things, that meant they had brand new, league-supplied, catcher’s and first-basemen’s mitts. They were too stiff. The catcher kept dropping the pitches. So I had my guys steal a lot more more against them.
Otherwise, I am not sure Little Leaguers or even high school kids are consistent enough to shift against. So if you do advance scouting, and there are statistically significant tendencies, shift. If you refuse to do the scouting and/or the data is not consistent, do not shift. It’s a probability and statistics course exercise. You need lots of data (so as to enlist the Law of Large Numbers) and you need to know how to do the calculations (not rocket science) but it is a college level course generally.
There is a sidebar article in the Journal titled “Why the heck don’t they just hit it the other way?” That is, to the empty side of the field.
After his career ended, Ted Willians was asked if he would do anything differently if he had it to do over. “I would have used more of the field,” was his answer.
I am a big advocate of bunting, which is highly coachable. Whether you should shift in amateur baseball is questionable. But there is no question that you should bunt down the third base line if there is no one playing third base.
Some hitting coaches say you should pull inside pitches, hit down-the-middle pitches straight away, and hit outside pitches to the opposite field. I tried to do that as a batter but I did not feel it worked.
Many hitters can must or hit to the opposite field, but even in the MLB,the vast majority cannot. All they know how to do is pull (71% of MLB batted balls). And they are afraid to mess with their swing which is highly grooved.
But that grooved pull swing is irrelevant to bunting. Everyone can learn to bunt. It’s easy to learn, but you have to practice it. It’s not so easy that you can do it without practice, even with MLB talent. Seems to me that whenever a team shifts against you—typically toward the first-base line—you bunt down the third-base line. Should be automatic, like stealing if the pitcher forgets there is a runner on base and starts to do a full wind-up motion.
There is another sidebar in the 3/28/14 issue titled “Two-strike strategy Shifting Between Pitches.” My books Youth Baseball Coaching, 3rd edition and Coaching Teenage and Adult Baseball urge coaches to require a radical shift when the batter has two-strikes. I am also a big advocate of two-strike bunting. I advocate choking up and shortening the swing to about as short as can be without it being called a bunt. I want the batter to defend the strike zone like a goalie and slap the ball down into fair territory. Using a lighter bat also makes sense although I am always for really light bats. Or bunt.
The Journal discusses two batters: Jose Bautista and Andrew McCutchen. Bautista pulled 89% of the time before he had two strikes; only 74% when he had two strikes. McCutchen pulled 84% of the time before two strikes and 89% with two strikes! That’s a little goofy, maybe just an unusual bunch of a bats were looked at for McCutchen.