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.
Let’s get back to Rizzo, but look at him as a batter. He’s a guy who faces the shift (the much more common version) more often than anyone else in baseball, and at times, it’s eaten him up. He had a weird season in 2013, when he was still really finding himself as a hitter. He had an impressive walk rate and good power that year, and a good strikeout rate for such a player. His BABIP was awful, though, and much of that was because he hit so many balls into the shift for outs. He hit just .238 against the shift that year. In the three succeeding seasons, though, he hit an aggregate .295 against it.
He’d found the approach that suited him, that allowed him to work around the disadvantage of opposing fielders’ positioning. He actually pulled the ball significantly more often against the shift in those successful seasons than he did in 2013, but he also lifted it more, and (most importantly) he didn’t focus on trying to either blast through the shift or burn it by going the other way. He reminded himself not to let the externality of the defense’s choices intrude on his primary goal at the plate: seeing the ball well, and hitting it hard.
Then, in the first half of this season, he got on the wrong side of the mental wrestling match again. He pulled fully half of all batted balls in 126 shifted plate appearances during April and May, hit it on the ground too often, and batted .211 (with a 17 wRC+) in those trips. Again, though, he adjusted. Since early June, he’s hitting .320 against the shift, largely thanks to a focus on hitting the ball where it’s pitched—he’s gone the other way much more often, even more often than he had since 2013, but only because that’s what the pitches he’s been seeing have dictated—and to a renewed concentration on hitting the ball hard.
Teammate Kyle Schwarber had a 34 wRC+ against the shift in the first half. It’s a minute sample, but in the second half, he’s posted a 134 wRC+ against it. He did make some minor mechanical changes during his brief goodwill tour in Iowa, but a lot of that improvement has come from simply getting the shift out of his way, mentally. He’s hit a number of hard singles right through the shift over the last month, a privilege afforded to players who can hit the ball harder than just about anyone else in the league, as Schwarber does. He’s still not getting as many hits as he would get if the defense were forbidden to deviate from traditional alignments, but by clearing his head of things beyond his control and rededicating himself to seeing the ball and squaring it up, Schwarber is moving past many of his problems.
There’s an ugly flipside to this. Some guys let the shift get into their head, and never find their way past it. Brandon Moss is a smart guy, and a good-hearted one. He’s not a mentally strong hitter right now, though. Moss sees the shift more often with each passing season, it seems, and he’s never exactly found his way past it. Sure, he still has very good power, and that’s the focus of his game anyway, but when he does hit into the shift, it kills him. He’s hitting .235 with a 31 wRC+ against the shift this year, which would be his worst performance against the shift to date.
You can see where his problems are coming from by listening to him. In an Eno Sarris piece earlier this month, on how the league could encourage more balls in play, Moss was a key voice. At various points, he told Sarris:
- Analytical advancements within the sport have helped the pitchers at the extreme expense of hitters. “Just because I know that you throw a curveball 70 percent [of the time] in a 2-1 count, that doesn’t help me. I don’t want to hit a curveball. I’m still going to look for my pitch,” he said about some information available to batters. “Not one single time have I wondered what my exit velocity was. The only thing that matters is if it’s a hit or an out.”
- The shift is driving up the global strikeout rate, because hitters have to look for a pitch they can drive, not merely put into play. Frustrated, Moss noted that the league’s tendency with him has been to load the right side with defenders, then pound him with curveballs (which he feels he can only hit on the ground), such that he has to wait for a mistake or pounce on every possible fastball in order to get the ball in the air and find success.
First of all, while Moss is to be admired for his candor, a hitter who fesses up to being only a fastball hitter isn’t only being honest. He’s also being closed-minded and self-defeating. By telling himself, and even telling members of the media, that he can’t do anything valuable with a curveball, Moss is creating a feedback loop that discourages and damages his own efforts to improve on that front. Hitting quality breaking stuff is a prerequisite for success in today’s MLB, especially for any player who doesn’t stand to add much value except at the plate.
Secondly, the notion that the only thing about a plate appearance that matters is its outcome almost precludes a successful mental approach to hitting against the shift. It’s exactly the problem Rizzo has intermittently had, and that Schwarber had earlier this year. When Lou Boudreau first started shifting against Ted Williams, there was almost no one else in baseball who ever saw such a defensive alignment. It would have been wildly effective on most of the league, really, because back then, it felt even more radical than it feels now. The enormous majority of players would have radically changed their swing or their approach in response to it, and that would have played directly into the defense’s hands.
The most remarkable thing about The Williams Shift is that it was unleashed on perhaps the single player most prepared to combat it. Williams didn’t start looking to loft the ball off the Green Monster every time he came up, and he very rarely bunted or pushed the ball against the shift. The weapon he used to defeat that tactic was his confidence, which grew from extremely meticulous preparation and blossomed into mental discipline so airtight that he could attack pitchers exactly the same way, no matter where the defenders lined up. If Williams lost any significant number of hits to Boudreau and his Cleveland club, he didn’t sweat them, because he knew his process and knew how to hone in on the most important thing: did he see the ball well, and hit it squarely?
Outcomes flow from processes. A refusal to evaluate a plate appearance based on process, rather than the ultimate outcome, is a failure to understand the mental process that leads to success in baseball. By adjusting his approach to chase hits, instead of trusting good pitch-to-pitch processes to produce solid contact and (eventually) plenty of hits, Moss is playing right into pitchers’ hands. He’s making himself extremely vulnerable to breaking balls. He’s accepting anxiety and pressure, and he’s allowing his focus to stray from the simple objective that needs to be at the center of every plate appearance. See the ball well, and meet it squarely. Even bunters with Anthony Rizzo breathing down the end of their bat need to do that. Shifts are physical, spatial strategies, but they work largely because of the mental hurdles they put between hitters and their goals.