Thursday, May 7, 2009 Updated: May 8, 10:27 AM ET
Going the other way
By Chris Sprow ESPN The Magazine
Nick Markakis drives the ball to left field.
The first instance of "the shift" -- piling two-thirds of your defense on one side of the field to disrupt a pull hitter -- happened in 1946 when, in the second game of a double-header, Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau stacked six players on the right side of the infield when Ted Williams came to the plate. He did this because the splinter had cranked three home runs against his Indians in Game one. Fair enough.
The concept caught on, and Williams' numbers, though remaining gaudy, took a small hit the rest of his career. And people noticed; an old Ty Cobb once said, "The way those clubs shift against (him), I can't understand how he can be so stupid not to accept the challenge to him and hit to left field." But Williams had an excuse -- "By the time you know what to do, you're too old to do it!" he once said -- and only occasionally sought relief on the 5-6-7 side.
Today, only a handful of players routinely face the shift. David Ortiz, Jason Giambi, Jim Thome, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Carlos Delgado are the main culprits and, frankly, they all could qualify as multi-year pension holders in the old-dog-new-tricks club. But perhaps with the advent of the prominent pee cup, a younger generation has learned to go the other way to keep the average up, since dreams of 60 home runs are no longer in play.
Just look at this list of "oppo" hitters so far in 2009:
Robinson Cano might have been tempted, as any other lefty would, to pull the ball at Yankee Stadium, but he's off to the best hitting start of his still young career, because he's learned how to go the other way. That his K/BB ratio (11/7) is better than it has been in previous years is a sign he's taking pitchers the other way when they try to keep him from pulling inside stuff to the short porch.
Opposite Field Hits
Robinson Cano, NYY
Nick Johnson, Was
Raul Ibanez, Phi
Evan Longoria, TB
Nick Markakis, Bal
Orlando Hudson, LAA
Joey Votto, Cin
Orlando Cabrera, Oak
Nick Johnson is hitting .330, even amid a blunted Washington lineup. His previous career high average is .290.
Orlando Hudson, a career .284 hitter, is currently spraying the ball the other way to a .342 average as of Friday morning.
Nick Markakis has seen steady improvement in his career, but his ability to take the ball to left and improve his K/BB ratio (14/16) has him also off to by far the best run of his young career. He sits at .355 and hasn't sacrificed power.
Even steady old Raul Ibanez is benefiting from attacking the other side of the field. He's a career .287 hitter, and we know it's a small sample set for a guy with a solid track record, but again, the man is hovering at .347 on the season.
Essentially, this list doubles as a list of guys off to, if not their best starts, easily some of the best stretches of their career. The contrarian can point out sample sets and claim that the list is also indicative of a bunch of guys hitting the most shanked drives that hit trees and landed in the fairway, but we know better. Whether it was Mr. Cobb himself, Rod Carew, Julio Franco, Ichiro or any other great opposite field connoisseur, the results often speak for themselves.
Opposite Field Hits
Michael Young, Tex
Joe Mauer, Min
Ryan Theriot, ChC
Derek Jeter, NYY
Brian Roberts, Bal
Miguel Tejada, Hou
Nick Markakis, Bal
Delmon Young, Min
And just look at the list of players who led the majors in opposite field hits last year. At that point, on a more aggregate scale, the numbers again don't look like an accident. Consider that the two lowest averages on that list belong to Miguel Tejada (.283) and Michael Young (.284). One is a former MVP who often had to be a power source in a middling Houston lineup, the other has a batting title to his name.
The rest are a mix of over-achievers who know that to use the whole field is to maximize not just their abilities but the geography of the game itself. Ryan Theriot fits the bill. And even Derek Jeter, long considered a natural, we forget was perhaps called as much because -- like the subject of our cover story, Evan Longoria -- he simple learned the value of pulling his hands in and driving the ball to right at an early age.
And maybe that's the key. Williams hit for his Triple Crown in 1941, before he ever went off to fly planes in the war, and five years before anybody ever decided to just make him truly hit it where they ain't.
The lesson of Longoria's success isn't that you'd never want to be Williams -- who would ever want that? -- but that you'd never have to shift your whole philosophy because someone else could simply shift theirs to neutralize you. Dealing with the pitcher is hard enough.
Just ask Williams, the guy who said "Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of 10 and be considered a good performer."