- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Willie Keeler, a 19th-century right fielder who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939, coined an ambitious phrase that still holds true today: Keep your eye clear, and hit ‘em where they ain’t.

That advice still applies today, although it has recently become more strenuous for hitters to find holes in the infield. As baseball evolves, so does the mindset of having an idiosyncratic approach to every player.

Defensive shifting has become more frequent and individualized in the past few years. Infielders don’t just shift against the most powerful hitter anymore. They strategically position themselves in certain spots of the infield — and in some cases the outfield — to counter the bats of every hitter in a lineup.

Teams are more prone to shifting against lefties, probably because it’s more effortless for infielders to do so. Regardless of where a ball is hit, someone needs to cover first base — and it won’t be pitchers, who are notorious for sustaining injuries running to first base.

“You see more shifts with lefties,” San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford said. “I don’t know why. That’s just the way it is.”

Mark Simon, an ESPN statistician, recently compiled a list of which players pull the ball the most, but get shifted against the least.

As of July 18, Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, a righty, had pulled 82.9 percent of his ground balls this season, but had only been shifted against 35 percent of the time. The New York Mets’ left-handed first baseman Lucas Duda had pulled only 62.1 percent of his ground balls, yet has been shifted against 92.6 percent of the time.

Mark Weidemaier, the Washington Nationals’ defensive coordinator, believes the lefty predisposition is more coincidental than anything else.

“I think a lot of bigger and stronger guys in baseball right now are left-handed hitters,” Weidemaier said.

For example, Weidemaier said, with Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, the motive isn’t always to stop an extra-base hit by shifting the outfield, but rather by primarily shifting the infield and creating a shortage of singles.

There’s no stopping a ball past the outfield wall, so against a player like Howard, spray charts are checked on infield hits to specifically defend ground balls.

Over time, baseball has developed technologically, from video replay to more complex data and statistics. With additional data comes more definitive results.

“I think there’s more research available now that shows not only spray charts, but percentages,” Weidemaier said. “There’s more people studying that — where balls are hit and whatnot. … But along with data now, I think you have the ability to advance with certain scouts and guys like that seeing the same thing.”

Weidemaier defines a certain tactic known as “default positioning” — what a player’s normal positioning is against a batter, and adjusting from there. However, he warns against misconceptions with shifts, as well as a defensive adjustment known as shading.

“The mistake that people normally make is that when you move your infielders every which way — basically, when you shade — that it’s a shift,” said Weidemaier. “It isn’t. A shift is when there’s three infielders on one side of the [second-base] bag, which is basically more extreme.”

Former six-time all-star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, currently a television analyst for SportsNet LA, always had the question of shift preparation looming in his head.

“I remember Tampa Bay doing it so much when I was back with Boston,” Garciaparra said. “I always thought, do they practice it? Because that isn’t normal. Do you have your third baseman, who is usually taking grounders at third, taking them at second base? Maybe even behind second base? It’s a totally different angle and a totally different throw. All of that comes into play.”

Shifting itself has its ebbs and flows. It’s praised when it works and disregarded when inefficient. On June 20, the Nationals shifted against the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Pedro Alvarez, with Danny Espinosa perfectly positioned for a ground ball he otherwise may not have been able to field. That decision preserved Max Scherzer’s perfect game, which eventually ended as a no-hitter.

It’s a rare occurrence that shifting is fruitless. Entering July, three teams had a negative amount of runs saved via shifts, per the ESPN study. The Philadelphia Phillies were judged to have allowed an additional five runs. The St. Louis Cardinals allowed two and the Atlanta Braves allowed one.

From a pitcher’s perspective, shifting has its upside. However, it can throw off a pitcher’s approach to certain hitters based off of the placement of their fielders.

“When sifting through data, pitcher tendencies do come into play,” Garciaparra said. “It can also matter as to how that hitter has done against that pitcher and at the plate in general. … I’ve talked to Orel [Hershiser] about it and how certain pitchers don’t like it. It can change what they’re trying to do over the course of the at-bat against that particular batter. The game dictates how you want to attack the hitter.”

Garciaparra explained that he would read scouting reports of batters, but also run them by pitchers so that they were comfortable with his infield placement. Even so, Garciaparra would take note of how his pitcher had been pitching that day, which pitches he had been feeling comfortable with and where he had been throwing to certain hitters and pounding the strike zone.

A hitter’s perspective to shifts and shades varies. How does a hitter respond to infield realignment? It can change their approach at the plate both physically and mentally.

Weidemaier believes it depends on the type of hitter, but few have turned to bunting. With shifts, the third-base line is normally open. Laying down a bunt might be considered an option, but Weidemaier advises against this in most cases.

“It all depends,” said Weidemaier. “It’s a viable option if you need a base runner. The thing that needs to be considered is, when a guy has so much power with the longball, you’re basically taking him out of the game by doing so. So what if they bunt? They’re a double play waiting to happen. And then, really, they’re just clogging the bases by being on base, and you’ve taken away the ability of getting a run out of it.”

Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper has seen his fair share of shifts this season. Yet, in addition to Harper’s power numbers, he’s proven that he can smack the ball anywhere. As of July 23, Harper has the most home runs on outer-half pitches this season with 21, per the ESPN analysis.

Although they aren’t all to the left side of the field, Harper has displayed his power wherever he gets pitched, which can be perplexing to a defense. For players with power, that’s one potential solution to a shift.

“I don’t think Ted Williams would try to [bunt],” said Weidemaier. “Back in the day, he would try to hit it over — all the way over.”

Harper parroted Keeler’s advice from over a century ago in just as few words.

“I hope they keep doing it,” said Harper, “because that just means more hits.”

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