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September 16, 2013

Overthinking It

The Latest Attempts to Beat the Shift

by Ben Lindbergh

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A few minutes into the bottom of the first inning of Sunday night’s game between the Red Sox and Yankees, a Dustin Pedroia groundout and a Daniel Nava double brought up David Ortiz.

“He’s made a concerted effort to hit the ball the other way a lot more this season, that’s why the average is so high,” said ESPN’s Dan Shulman. Before he could finish the sentence, Ortiz grounded a single to left. “And there he goes,” Shulman said.

Over the replay, Shulman continued, “This is David Ortiz right now. He’s very content on driving in runs with singles. You see that swing. That’s not a pull swing, that’s not an ‘I’m going to try to hit a home run.’ I have a big hole with a runner on second base, if I hit a grounder to shortstop I’ve got an RBI and our team has a tie game.”

Ortiz’s groundball spray charts for 2012 and 2013 (which alternate in the following GIF) confirm that he’s going the other way more often:

It’s not a given that Ortiz’s average is high this year because his batted-ball distribution has changed. Ortiz is batting .311, but he hit .309 and .318, respectively, in each of the last two seasons. He has been known to bunt for a hit in previous years. And it’s not as if he strikes single every time he goes panning for an opposite-field hit—on the season, he has only one hit on a ball that stayed in the infield on the left side of second, and only a few that crept into left field.

That said, Ortiz is batting .242 on ground balls, essentially the same as the .244 AL average. His batting averages on ground balls over the past five seasons, in contrast: .198, .152, .219, .207, .200. He’s gotten more grounders to the outfield in 2013, particularly in center. And it could be because his less pull-oriented approach is either finding holes in the shift or forcing teams to shift less often against him.

Ortiz isn’t the only one attempting to take advantage of—or dissuade opponents from employing—the shift. In the same series, Robinson Cano bunted down an empty third-base line and got a double out of it:

Kyle Seager successfully tried the same trick against Boston last month, driving in a runner on a squeeze bunt toward a vacated third base:

Both Matt Joyce and Luke Scott have tried to steer the occasional grounder into an empty left-side lane. But the poster boy for the adaptive anti-shift approach is Adam Dunn, who’s had to deal with the shift as long as any active hitter. Through May, Dunn was hitting .156/.246/.387 with a .161 BABIP. In April, he hit 23 grounders, and not one of them went for a hit; in the first two months of the season, he batted .095 on ground balls. By early June, according to CSNChicago.com’s Dan Hayes, he’d “had enough and decided to take advantage of the holes the opposition provided at shortstop and down the line,” abandoning what he called his “stupid, stubborn ways.” Since the end of May, Dunn has hit .253/.358/.460 with a .297 BABIP on grounders, and the spray chart tells the tale:

Dunn’s power output has taken a hit since he evolved—he’s hit a home run every 20 at-bats with a .207 ISO since May, as opposed to every 14.4 at-bats with a .231 ISO before—but it remains strong, and all the extra singles have made him a much more productive player. Back in 2008, Bill James downplayed the value of the shift, saying, “I’m not sure I get the point of the over-shift against David Ortiz. It helps you if he hits a ground ball, but if the bomb goes off, you can put those infielders anywhere you want to, it doesn’t really do you any good.” The obvious response to that was to parrot his own words back to him: “Yes, but It helps you if he hits a ground ball.” Unless it made him more likely to homer, why not try it? (Granted, James was working for the Red Sox, so he had little incentive to tell teams the optimal alignment against Ortiz.)

Laying down a bunt or slapping grounders the other way does make a hitter less likely to homer, but only in that particular plate appearance. Dunn’s post-May performance proves that a hitter can become less pull-conscious with losing the ability to pull a ball out of the park (although Dunn always had plenty of power to spare). And with a good enough expected outcome when going against the shift, surrendering the chance to hit a homer makes sense.

At what point do a series of anecdotes constitute a trend? Unfortunately, we don’t have comprehensive, publicly available data on how often the shift is employed, which limits the amount of analysis we can do; I can’t tell you, for instance, exactly how often Ortiz and Dunn have enjoyed shift-free at-bats since taking a different tack at the plate. (Even the data providers who keep track of these things do so from the same TV feeds we see, which means that they can’t always tell when the shift is in effect.) We do know that anti-shift countermeasures aren’t new: Jason Giambi dropped bunts down the third-base line to beat the shift in 2005, and both Brian McCann and Carlos Pena have done it regularly, even (in Pena’s case) while leading the league in home runs. But use of the shift is on the rise, and one would expect efforts to defeat the shift to increase accordingly. A slugger can tell himself “I’m here to hit homers” when he’s shifted against only some of the time and loses only the occasional hit, but when the shift becomes his constant companion he’ll have greater incentive to adjust.

Not every hitter has the bat control necessary to get a bunt down or go the other way, but those who do might find it worth their while. Use of the shift is governed by game theory, and the more a defensive team gets burned by it, the less they’ll stick with it. Last season, Tom Tango made the case that “any hitter who can lay one down over 50% of the time against the shift should simply keep bunting,” noting that the breakeven point might be significantly lower than that for a below-average batter. If so, we’re going to be seeing much more of this.

Thanks to Rob McQuown and Colin Wyers for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Adam Dunn,  Defensive Shifts,  David Ortiz,  The Shift

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