Last week on Episode 900 of Effectively Wild, there was a discussion of the meaning of the phrase “beat the shift.” A listener noted that the phrase’s application is both inconsistent and overly broad across major-league broadcasts. Some take it to describe a batter hitting or bunting the opposite way. Others use it to describe a batter hitting to the pull side, putting the ball either over or through the shift. Since then, I’ve noticed it on every broadcast and I’ve been wondering: What exactly do we mean when we say a batter is beating the shift?
I think we mean nothing because we mean everything. Let us recognize something, right off the top: You really, finally beat the shift when fielders no longer shift on you. If you were at a cocktail party, and discussing military tactics (you never know who you’ll meet, I guess), and were looking for a word to make you sound fancier than you are to describe a decisive military victory, you might use “vanquish.” Or “conquer.” Or “rout” or “defeat.” You’d pick something that indicated Army A had beaten Army B not just in this contest, but for all the foreseeable contests to come. They would have won the war, by winning a bunch of battles within it. You might wonder if you should hang out with different people. This sort of existential defeat is not what broadcasters mean when they say a bloop single or a well-placed bunt has beaten the shift, but it is the final, important means of beating the shift.
Of course, we see the proliferation of “beat” to describe other baseball actions. A runner can beat out the throw to first on an infield single, just as he can when he gets a good jump and beats a tag on a steal attempt. A team can beat their opponents, or themselves. A particularly good batter can beat up on a pitcher. Heck, sometimes a particularly bad batter can do that. Rookies can beat out veterans for a starting job. All of these variations describe a victory of some sort (except when a team beats itself), but they are free of some of the terminological confusion of “beating the shift” because the how of thing is normally fairly obvious. How did he beat the throw? He ran fast! How did he beat the tag? He slid crazily! A player might have gotten on base because the throw was wide, but then we wouldn’t say he beat the throw so much as the fielder’s throw was bad. Maybe a pitcher threw really well-placed pitches and whoopsadooble Mike Trout hits those sometimes, but then we wouldn’t say he beat up on the opposing pitcher.
The shift is something different. The means of defeating it are multiple. As of Thursday, there are 74 different highlights on MLB.com tagged with “beat the shift.” Just 16 described hits that went to the pull side. Forty-four went the opposite way; 23 of those were bunt singles. Six went up the middle. One was a defensive highlight of a hustling Robinson Cano taking a hit way. And one was of Johnny Damon stealing second and third base in Game Four of the 2009 World Series because of a vacated bag at third base.
Shifting is a peculiar bit of strategy, because it is laid bare at different moments for different sides. If you were back at that cocktail party discussing military strategy, it would be like Army A taking their battle positions and then making camp for the evening. As the batter, you have choices. That’s always true, and even with the shift on, the most important piece of information (what the pitcher is going to do) is obscured. You still have work the at bat and do your normal game theory. But the batter has a bit more information, and their choices have a slightly wider margin for error (sometimes quite literally) than they normally might. And that allows us to ascribe some intentionality to their choices. Will they bunt? If they get an offering they think they can handle, will they take on the ferocity of the shift directly, or try to employ covert tactics?
And this is where we get into trouble with “beat.” Every piece of hitting contains elements of strategy and strength. More or less of each depending on the batter and the circumstance, but normally bits of both. And how much of each is really what determines what sort of “beat” we mean. They are all included in the definition, but the meaning is incomplete. Do we mean that the batter has done something a bit more heavily weighted toward the the strategic? Do we mean, for example, the simplicity of bunting one’s way on?
We could say Chase Headley beat the shift, but didn’t he outfox it? Didn’t he show he was wily, and a bit devious? Didn’t he really subvert it, flip it the bird, slither around it? Confronted with the opponent's strategy, didn’t he outmaneuver it more than anything else? Does simply saying “beat the shift” account for all that?
Or do we mean the daring-do of actually hitting the opposite way, going against one’s own tendencies as a batter, and managing to do that thing the defense expects you won’t because often you don’t. Like here, with Jose Bautista going the other way, perhaps we might best describe the batter as flipping the script on the shift. Or taking an alternative route home so as to avoid nasty traffic. The thumb is still on the “strategy” side of the scale, with a touch more strength. But here the shift is outflanked, circumvented.
Or do we mean muscle and grit? Does it mean facing it on its own turf, advancing on it like a boxer might, only to strike at its heart and poke one through or over? The batter is beating the shift by wresting a portion of the field from it, entering enemy territory and reclaiming it as its own. The batter is conquering the shift, overcoming it, forcing his way through. It is tipped toward strength. He is breaking the shift open, using his bat as his weapon. He’s doing what He’s always done, just with the courage (or stupidity) to keep doing it knowing they’ll keep shift on him. He’s won the shift battle, only to lose the war.
“Beat” can describe so many things, and be associated with so many different actions and strategies, each of which evokes a different, subtle variation in the sort of hitting players are doing. They all mean victory, small or possibly quite large. Sometimes they slowly move the batter toward that ultimate vanquishing we described above: the right to be left alone to do one’s work against a traditional defensive alignment, at least for a time. Sometimes, they’re the opening salvo of a much longer war. But as a term, it’s definitional heft is at once vast, and almost unusably squishy. All of these things, the outflanking and subverting and outmaneuvering and overpowering, are all “beating the shift.” There is a case to be made for each depending on the sort of victory we wish to privilege, but we do so leaving bits and pieces by the wayside. Brevity is a virtue but doesn’t always serve specificity. The answer doesn’t seem to be picking one definition, but exploding all of the definitions we have, and using a bunch more words. What do we mean when we say “beating the shift?” Everything, and possibly nothing at all. No wonder it was so hard to sort out.
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