- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Deep in the right field grass Monday, Boston Red Sox second baseman Brock Holt scooped a hard bouncer off Bryce Harper’s bat and fired to first to nab the Washington Nationals star.

Without a shift, one which moved all four infielders to Harper’s pull side against a right-handed pitcher, Harper’s hit could’ve been a base knock, helping to raise a career-low .217 batting average. Harper’s 21 home runs are still tied for the National League lead, and his 439-foot blast later in the series opener displayed that threat. His 67 walks lead the NL, too.

So, while his slugging percentage and on-base percentage are worthy of a fourth-consecutive All-Star appearance, his agent, Scott Boras, told reporters Tuesday at Nationals Park that shifts are hurting his biggest client’s production, as well as other left-handed hitters.

“Shifting is grandly discriminatory in the game against power left-handed hitters,” Boras said. “You’re affecting baseball on many, many levels in the negative way.”

Boras argued that with batting deficiencies and injury risk for fielders playing out of position, a rule change should be in order. Two infielders should have to stay on the left field side of second base, Boras said.

When a right-handed hitter comes to the plate, shifts can’t be as extreme. The first baseman needs to stay home, and the second baseman can’t afford to play deep into left field. Since there’s a majority of right-handed pitchers, righty batters see more breaking pitches diving away, facilitating an opposite-field swing. Lefties don’t have that luxury, either.

“They’re getting sliders and breaking balls, a complement of pitches, that are naturally inclined for them to hit where the ball’s pitched and go the other way,” Boras said. “Whereas a left-hander, they’re saying, ‘You’re supposed to hit everything now the other way.’ And now the breaking ball’s coming in, and the slider’s coming in, the fastballs are in, and you’re now supposed to take an inside-out swing? That’s not how a power hitter’s trained.”

Harper began his contract year with the production expected of a player who could set an MLB record with the value of his next deal. In his first 12 at-bats, he was 5-for-12 with three homers, seven RBIs and six walks.

For the past several weeks, pitchers haven’t given Harper as much to hit. He leads the National League in walks and intentional walks. Boras doesn’t think the Las Vegas native feels any additional pressure with free agency looming, nor any burden with the All-Star game headed to D.C. on July 17.

“Guys get frustrated,” manager Dave Martinez said of shifts, “but it is leaving holes open. For me, it is part of the game.”

Last winter, Shohei Ohtani cooled the free agent market for nearly a month as teams jockeyed to land a low-price superstar before signing with the Angels. Fire sales from teams already not in contention made All-Star caliber players available in other ways. But Boras doesn’t anticipate that to carry over this year and diminish teams’ interest in Harper during free agency, despite last off-season’s drought of high-profile deals.

“Every person in the game wants somebody who hits the ball the hardest, the farthest, and gets on base the most,” Boras said.

And there’s signs Harper could be figuring out, slowly but surely, how to counteract a lack of strikes thrown to him and shifts often employed against him. Between June 21 and July 2, Harper hit .273. His solo shot against the Red Sox reinstalled the “fear,” as Boras called it, for pitchers facing Harper.

For Boras, though, that doesn’t rectify the role of shifts in baseball, especially in relation to Harper, when millions of dollars are on the line.

“If this continues, you’re going to see the absolute absorption by parents of left-handed hitters,” Boras said. “Because they want their kids to come in and have a routine that they can be consistent with. And they don’t want to go and say, ‘Well, when you’re facing a right-handed pitcher, you have an in-out swing. And then when you face a left-handed pitcher, you can take your full swing.’ You can’t do that to kids. So, the generation of this, I don’t think it’s good for the game.”

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