Beating the shift
Nobody does it better than Boston's David Ortiz
The game is shifting, literally. One by one, teams are moving their defenses around like an NFL team's secondary. We begin to wonder if we can even label what position a defender is playing since many of them are starting so far out of position. We also wonder if at some point the league may step in to decide that it is against the spirit of the game that the second baseman is playing right field or the shortstop is playing second base. But right now, teams that are using these tactics to defend hitters are on to something and are forcing historically good hitters to make quick adjustments.
It makes sense. Armed with more and more data on hitting patterns and trends, teams know more about when a hitter hits a ball to a certain area in great detail. Maybe he rolls over on sinkers, or with two strikes, he exclusively hits the ball the other way, or all his ground balls are pulled to the right side of the field. So if you have a pitcher who can execute, you can make the defense behind him more effective at neutralizing his opponent's offense.
But the idea of revolutionizing the game is nothing new, from mound height to even the glove itself. It is a game of adjustments, and some players adjust better than others.
Case in point: David Ortiz. Many big sluggers are getting the shift -- Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista, Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Brian McCann -- but Ortiz stands head and shoulders above the rest in his ability to beat the shift. When a team stacks one side of the field, clearly, the other side opens up with holes. Ortiz has gone to the opposite field with great success, including a 7-for-8 clip on ground balls against the shift and 6-for-8 clip on line drives the other way.
Boston's designated hitter seems to recognize how to adjust his approach when the shift is on versus when it is off. And the hits keep on coming.
Teixeira, however, has experienced the other side of that spectrum. His tendency to hit the vast majority of his ground balls to the right side of the infield when he is hitting left-handed has been defensed well by a shifted infield. This season, he has seen a 40-point drop-off in batting average on ground balls against right-handed pitchers, when the defense is shifted. Teixeira still hits, but the shift has limited the area where he can find hits on the ground. He is now losing those grounders that used to find holes.
Certainly, it matters who is pitching. It you have pitchers who can hit their spots and pitch to their defense, then you can trust that the patterns you tailor to defense to will continue. But if your pitcher is pitching outside when the catcher is set up inside, or not locating well in general, then the shift will not be as effective.
RISES AND FALLS
Who can explain the funk in which Albert Pujols has been so far? Who can explain the roll on which Josh Hamilton is right now? ESPN.com takes a look at slumps, hot streaks and other baseball mysteries in the first quarter of the season.• McDonald: Big Papi's advice for Pujols
• Howard: The Search for Answers
• BBTN: Breaking Out Of A Slump
• BP: A brand new Ortiz
• Glanville: Beating the shift
Ortiz had already increased the damage he was doing by hitting the other way. His opposite-field power numbers are better; he's killing left-handers; and now he's hitting for a higher average because he can go the other way when the shift is on. He is making adjustments faster than opponents are making adjustments to him -- the mark of a great hitter.
Yet "great" is not what we would have called him in 2010 when he was off to a dismal start. Pull-heavy, Ortiz left hits on the table by ignoring the left side of the field. This approach is all too common with power hitters, but Ortiz changed.
And that is the name of the game. Those who adapt, stay. Those who can't figure it out are flooring the accelerator pedal to their retirement party.
So what has Ortiz done, specifically?
He is taking inside pitches the other way -- a la Miguel Cabrera. When Cabrera is beat by a pitch, he still has a lot of barrel to get to the ball. When pitchers try to induce ground balls or force him to pull, he has an inside-out swing that gives him the ability to push the ball the other way.
Ortiz also is going the other way when the ball is away from him. When pitches are outside, he doesn't spend a lot of time trying to hook them to a shifted second baseman. He has been slashing those pitches to a vacant shortstop space with frequency.
Ortiz's timing could not be better as the Red Sox lost a lot of veteran leadership with the retirements of Tim Wakefield and captain Jason Varitek. Ortiz has put the Pesky Pole home run ego aside by peppering the Green Monster with dents. He looks like a new hitter, and shift or not, no one seems to be able to figure out how to defend him.