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To shift or not to shift, that is the question

To shift or not to shift, that is the question
The defensive shift for a pull-oriented left-handed hitter (Photo: AP)
November 21, 2014
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The Minnesota Twins recently hired Paul Molitor to manage their club as they take another step in trying to rebuild and get back into the mix of the AL Central. Molitor hopes to bring some new ideas to the team in an effort to turn things around in the Twin Cities. As a big advocate of the over-shift, Molitor says players need to be open to change.

But is it really a good idea?

As Carlos Santana demonstrated this past year, a bunt anywhere close to the third base line is an easy hit. Well, the strategy is that a guy of Santana's stature is all pull, and at least he didn't hit one out because he gave himself up in that at bat. Yet the truth is Santana only homered 27 times in 660 at bats, making the likelihood of a homer in that particular at bat about 1 in 25.

As power becomes less prevalent in today's game (a remarkable coincidence along with tighter drug testing and penalties), there is great value to an at bat when you can basically have a free base runner. I'm guessing that, just as a sacrifice bunt gives the opposition a free out (one of a premium 27), giving a team a free base runner for no apparent reason is a bad idea.

MLB players and coaches should adjust to this way of thinking, and like the Royals, the game should get back to its roots and players should re-learn the intricate nuances of the game of baseball, such as adjusting approaches, situational hitting, moving runners, etc. So, the shift may be coming, but can it be a sign of things to come?

Gaudy numbers no longer rule the day. It's a fading aspect of the game. It’s time to bring back the fading art which is baseball itself -- a brand of ball similar to that is played by the World Champion San Francisco Giants, that a team beats an individual every time.

But is the shift really a viable strategy?

How many times have you seen someone rocket a hard shot to right field only to have the second baseman, positioned in the shallow outfield, who scoops it up and throw the batter out at first? Pretty often and it seemingly robs the hitter of a base hit. So, it’s a good idea, right?

It appears as though it can be. But think back to when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick burst upon the scene in the NFL terrorizing defenses with the read option and gaining huge chunks on the ground. Everyone thought the zone-read was the next big thing…until the defensive coordinators had one offseason to study and counter it.

It could be the same for the over-shift in baseball. How long are teams going to stay in that alignment when time after time they give up easy bunt singles down the third base line? My guess is not very long.

If today’s modern players would just get back to a time where giving themselves up at the plate and making “a good baseball play’ for the team was one of the most valued results they could seek from an at bat, then they would be making some progress. But that won’t happen. Why?


The home runs and big power is where the action is, so it’s highly unlikely that most will revert to the time where doing what it takes to win was the most important thing on their minds.

According to an article in USA Today, the shift does work to the tune of taking the league batting average from .253 to .250. The article describes that the shift giveth, and the shift taketh away, meaning that it does rob batters of hits, but the realignment also gives them back more often than you would believe.

One would surmise that if hitters were a bit more savvy and reacquired the skill of dropping down a bunt on a regular basis, this paltry .003 defensive advantage would not only disappear, but would make the shift not worth the time and effort it takes to get players moved around the diamond. Not to mention the risk of having guys out of position, such as having a third baseman trying to turn the pivot at second base on a double play.

In the end, trending toward more shifting is more of an annoyance than anything else. Yes, it still has its applications in certain situations, such as having two outs and the winning run on second. But to have it become a larger part of the game isn’t worth it, and truth be told, it’s somewhat of a travesty to the essence of the game.

User Comments

November 23, 2014 - 6:44 AM EST
Shifting or not shifting players positions is not the answer and neither is bringing in yet another cheap reliever (Charles Brewer). We need a hitter,an impact hitter for the middle of the lineup and we need one YESTERDAY! Didn't we waste enough good pitching last season by not being able to score more than 1 or 2 runs in so many games? What good is bringing in more cheap relievers and improving the defense...when we have no lead to protect? They need to stop the nonsense with these cheap non-impactful moves and bring in a hitter...Please!
November 23, 2014 - 5:11 AM EST
Bunting to beat the shift is a good idea. Unfortunately, bunting isn't easy. It seems like it should be, it's a thing that a lot of people say every major leaguer should be able to do. But against major league pitching, it's not easy. Failed bunts happen quite a bit, and those failed bunts represent a strike on a hittable pitch usually.

Besides, most guys who get the shift treatment are guys who aren't very fast. Guys like Santana, Thome, Ortiz, etc... these guys aren't going to beat out a basehit if the pitcher or catcher get to it. And those guys aren't well trained in bunting either. For some of them, the shift-beating bunt wouldn't necessarily be a better bet than just to swing away.
November 22, 2014 - 11:38 PM EST
The shift is an interesting discussion. Sort of reminds me of the traditional stats versus the advanced stats crowd. I think both sides have their own merits.....but neither side is right or the end all be all. I think both have a place in the game to provide data and help being insight and more educated decisions. Same goes with the shift. When used properly, it can really change the way a big time power hitter impacts an at bat or game. But I also think sometimes it is overused. I think a balance will eventually be struck by managers as they gather more data on it.
John M
November 22, 2014 - 8:11 PM EST
Mike, shoot, I would have had one person actually agree with me.
November 22, 2014 - 11:19 AM EST
I was with you all the way until your travesty to the essence of the game comment.
John M
November 22, 2014 - 11:17 AM EST
OK, you guys win. I don't like the shift, and it's my opinion, just as you have yours. It's a situational thing at best in its usefulness.
November 22, 2014 - 11:13 AM EST
When, if, hitters get smart and make adjustments to the shift, then teams will stop using the shift against them. It is up to the hitters to adjust. Shifts are just another adjustment hitters need to make, just like adjusting to the way pitchers approach them. I agree shifts are over employed, but they do have their place, and until hitters get smarter and make adjustments they can expected to see it every time they bat. As a batter seeing the shift only occasionally would play with my mind and do more damage to my approach that seeing it every time I bat.
November 21, 2014 - 11:50 PM EST
Shifting is smart baseball. You like up the defense to the strengths and tendencies of a hitter. If Carlos Santana or Miguel Cabrera want to try and drop a bunt down third base, then fine. Be my guest. Because it is not the home runs the shift defends (no defense can defend a home run), it is playing to the percentages and trying to take away some of the lanes for extra base hits and of course groundball singles. Carlos Santana may get a bunt hit once in a while, but a lot of times he will bunt a ball foul or not put down a very good bunt, so it is not a sure thing every time.

Shifting has been a part of the game for years. Look at the outfield shifts. Teams have been shifting outfielders to varying degrees for year. Sometimes some very dramatic outfield shifts for dead pull guys. Teams just got smart that it makes just as much sense to shift in the infield than the outfield to defend to the player's strengths....
November 21, 2014 - 10:57 PM EST
The larger issue that hitting coaches usually talk about is that you're dealing with power hitters who have been conditioned since they became professionals to pull the ball. A guy like Santana turning on a ball when he's hitting left-handed, that's what he's been trained to do. You can talk all you want about going the other way, but you're dealing with muscle memory, or as Trevor Bauer said, "neurological programming." So there will be an adjustment, but it's not as simple as designing a defensive scheme to combat a football strategy.
November 21, 2014 - 10:00 PM EST
Very interesting John. To connect the shift with greed for money is something I hadn't thought of. And I kinda doubt that I'll think of it again either, but maybe the next time I see the shift that's what I'll think of! The truth is, the "truth be told" is merely your opinion. And frankly, its an opinion I don't share. I have a hard time seeing how its "a travesty to the essence of the game," and I can imagine that if you said that to Tito he would just laugh really hard... 8--)
November 21, 2014 - 6:38 PM EST
I think the shift also has a signicant psychological effect. In Carlos' case, the guys behind him were no as productive in making teams pay for either letting Carlos bunt for a single or in many cases walk.

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