After several season’s worth of at-bats facing the left-handed shift, it seems the defensive positioning has yet to force the Red Sox to compromise on David Ortiz’s approach at the plate. He never appears to be trying to go to the opposite field, and it looks like the Red Sox don’t really want him to. The fact is that when he makes hard contact, Ortiz stings a ball as well as some of the best hitters in baseball. At the age of 39, Ortiz’s continued success gives hope to any fan of a team that has signed its star into their late 30’s. “Big Papi” has seen his 2014 batting average fall over 40 points from last year with his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) also dropping from .321 in 2013 to .276 in 2014. The shift, which consists of employing three infielders on the right side of the infield and one on the left side (vice versa for righties), is designed to combat pull-happy lefties by taking away hits up the middle and in shallow right field. This season, I have seen the shift rob Ortiz of more hits than I have fingers to count. The obvious question is why doesn’t Ortiz simply change his approach and go to the opposite field or bunt down the third base line? This could certainly help improve Ortiz’s declining batting average, but would it actually improve his overall value? The Red Sox don’t seem to think so. Ortiz is not a speedy singles-hitter, and while changing his approach to the opposite field could improve his batting average, his potential for extra base hits and home runs would likely decrease. The Red Sox wisely don’t seem willing to make that trade-off. If Ortiz’ average has to suffer, it’s a small price to pay in order to retain his slugging value. In Ortiz’s own words “you can’t shift against a home run”, and from what I have witnessed this season, Ortiz isn’t changing a thing at the dish. With spray charts, heat maps, and advanced scouting, Ortiz’s days as a .300 hitter are likely over, but a fifth straight season of plus .500 slugging is all but assumed.
Stats and info services are actively tracking numbers, metrics and zone ratings against shifts this season, and we should have access to some interesting data that could affect an overall decline in batting average like many of us have never seen in our lifetimes. With a current American League batting average of .252 (with the Detroit Tigers being the only team collectively hitting over .270), shifts and improved pitching are taking a huge bite out of hitter’s success rates. Not since 1972, when the American League batting average was a paltry .239, has the AL hit this poorly. With declining batting averages, players like Ortiz that walk and hit for power are even more valuable as batting average continues to be a less accurate representation of a player’s overall importance.
Many people believe shifting began with the “out of the box” thinking of progressive managers like Buck Showalter and Joe Maddon, but the implementation of infield shifting goes back much further. Cy Williams of the Philadelphia Phillies used three men on the right side of the infield during the 1920’s. St. Louis Cardinals manager Eddie Dyer famously used the shift against Ted Williams in the 1946 World Series. Indians Manager Lou Boudreau (whom the shift was named after) considered the strategy to be more psychological than tactical. Ted Williams refused to change his approach at the plate as teams would sometimes have six fielders on the right side of the diamond. Shifting has been used more this year than ever before, and it looks to continue to become a big part of the game we love. So the question becomes at what level do we start teaching and applying it?
In a recent conversation with a local high school baseball coach here in Vermont, I asked him if he had ever considered shifting against the better opposing batters. He of course looked at me like I was crazy and basically said if someone got a hit in a spot where he had moved a fielder, the parents and fans would eat him alive. I noted that at the high school level where the best players can easily hit above .450 and slug like Barry Bonds, a single to the opposite field might not be the worst possible outcome. Preventing elite hitters from getting extra bases at the high school or even little league level could be very effective if a coach is willing to subject himself to the possible questioning and criticism. Think of how many times in high school, Babe Ruth league, or little league your team would get crushed because of one or two elite hitters. Shifting at these lower levels could pay huge dividends to an open-minded manager. Obviously you don’t want to be intentionally walking players in little league where the focus is more about development than winning, but shifting could be a great learning tool for both hitter and fielder. If an infielder can get more reps in fielding balls from the opposite side of the field they are accustomed to, it could help them greatly if they are talented enough to have a career in baseball. The younger you start teaching a skill, the better the skill will be developed. With shifting proving to be successful on players like Ortiz at the pro level, you have to wonder how soon it will start trickling down to backyards, sandlots, and parks across the world.