August 23, 2017
The Mental Side of Shifting
Last week, Anthony Rizzo was the National League Player of the Week, batting .429 and driving in 13 runs. He hit two homers and had a fistful of clutch singles, many of them shot hard through the left side, even as teams persisted—and they will persist a while longer, until Rizzo really proves this is his permanent approach—in shifting or shading him toward the right side on the infield. It’s not why he won, but it’s dazzling to consider that he had that hot streak while handling the defensive responsibility of playing his 10th game at second base.
Obviously, that’s misleading. If you’ve paid much attention to the Cubs this year (or if you did so late last year, or if you just happen to play fantasy baseball), you know that the reason Rizzo has racked up brief appearances at second base is that he and the real second baseman switch spots in certain obvious sacrifice bunt situations. It involves Rizzo trading in his first baseman’s mitt (because the rules require as much), but it’s not a true position change. It’s just a defensive shift, with a little bit of extra pizzazz (or positional anarchy, if you will).
When the Cubs deployed that shift during their series against the Reds last week, it didn’t really even come into play. Asher Wojciechowski struck out, failing to get a bunt down, and Rizzo and Tommy La Stella went back to their initial positions. In a podcast recorded the following day, Zach Buchanan (a Reds beat writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer) asked why the Cubs even bother with the move. He and C. Trent Rosecrans turned it over briefly, with Rosecrans pointing out that (at the least) Rizzo is a left-handed thrower, and thus, is better set up to throw to second base after charging hard to field a bunt. Buchanan remained unconvinced that there was any real value to the move, though, and when he asked Rosecrans whether he saw any, Rosecrans demurred.
They fell for it. Rizzo, Joe Maddon, and the other architects of this particular defensive gambit successfully fooled two seasoned baseball watchers, just as they’ve fooled a healthy number of seasoned baseball players over the last year. What Buchanan and Rosecrans missed is that the Cubs’ famous bunt defense isn’t about putting anyone in any particular physical position to make a play. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that neither Jon Lester nor Jake Arrieta make the league’s most reliable throws to the bases on balls in play, but the shift isn’t about hiding them. It isn’t about Rizzo’s arm or his feel for the rhythm of bunts and similar plays, although all of those things make it extra effective. It’s a mental crush. It’s about creating divided attention, heightened anxiety, and general confusion.
The best it ever worked was with Johnny Cueto batting and Cole Gillaspie on first base during Game 1 of last year’s NLCS. The production unfolded, with Rizzo tossing in his own glove, catching the new one lobbed his way from offscreen, and measuring off a preposterously proximate position to Cueto, as Javier Baez took over at first base. Then, on the first pitch, Lester threw one of the Cubs’ patented disguised pitchouts, a high and outside fastball that led David Ross slightly out of his crouch, allowing him to make a perfect, full-strength throw to first. Baez applied a swift tag, and Gillaspie was out. It wasn’t even close. At a critical moment, the strangeness and claustrophobia of the situation had compromised a baserunner’s concentration.
That the Cubs don’t use that particular play in all bunt situations, or even all obvious ones (i.e., the pitcher batting and runners on first and/or second, less than two outs), underscores that. They use it only against batters they know are already uncomfortable or especially poor at handling the bat. The physical shifting makes good spatial sense, but it’s incidental to the concept and the execution of the play. Maybe that’s obvious, especially now that I’ve said it a few times. It’s worth hammering home, though, because I think that principle can be (and indeed, ought to be) integrated into our thinking about shifts as a broader and more conventional practice.