Are Defensive Shifts Changing Hitters' Swing Level? With the increasing usage of defensive alignments, opposing batters search for opportunities to challenge the shifting fielders.
In a modern culture dominated by shifting defenses, Keeler's philosophy has been redefined in a manner the 5-foot-4, 140-pound outfielder couldn't have imagined. Certainly not without taking a crash course in Statcast[TM] jargon, which includes the spin rate of pitches and the launch angle and exit velocity of batted balls.
Whether the national pastime is on the upswing is debatable, but this much is certain: hitters have taken to swinging up, resulting in record home-run production, but also record strikeouts.
Hitting 'em where they ain't--avoiding the clutches of enemy fielders-remains the goal. But rather than try to ground singles through vacated infield holes, batters increasingly attempt to splinter outfield seats with rocket-like blasts. It is, they reason, the best way to beat the shift out of the opposition--and to win at a system of remuneration that favors pop over ping.
"If you're 10 years old and your coach says get on top of the ball, tell him no, because in the big leagues these things they call groundballs are outs," said Josh Donaldson, the 2015 A.L. MVP.
Donaldson is a poster child for baseball's swing revolution, which preaches upward mobility. It is changing the careers of many, including 30-something veterans such as Donaldson and the Washington Nationals' Daniel Murphy. In 2016, at age 31, Murphy transformed himself from a career .288, 10-homer-per-season hitter to a machine that since has averaged better than .330 with 25-homer power.
"They don't pay you for groundballs," explained Donaldson, who averaged 37 homers and 100 RBI from 2015-17. "They pay you for doubles; they pay you for homers--unless you go out and steal 80 bags a year like Billy Hamilton." Hamilton has yet to reach that total in the majors--he twice stole more than 100 bases in the minors--but the point is well taken. Singles may not necessarily be for sissies, but stolen bases have declined almost 30 percent since 2011--further indication that the one-base hit isn't in vogue. At age 23 this past season, Joey Gallo of the Texas Rangers followed Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds as the third player in history, with a minimum of 21 home runs, to hit more homers (41) than singles (32).
Donaldson, having lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in arbitration before the 2015 season, earned only $4.3 million while putting together his MVP year. But his 2015 numbers--highlighted by 41 doubles, 41 homers, 123 RBI and 122 runs scored--secured him a two-year contract extension worth $28.65 million. Small wonder the third baseman sees only upside to his batting approach.
"If you hit down on the ball, you over-spin it," Donaldson said. "The ball balloons. It just sits. And now the outfielder has it for an easy out. In order to get the trajectory that you want, with the right spin, you have to have a positive impact at the ball. And what positive means is that you're catching the ball on a slight up."
In 2014, home runs in the major leagues fell off more than 11 percent from the previous season, reaching their lowest point since drug testing with penalties began in 2004 and amphetamines were banned in 2006. Batting average slipped to .251, a two-point drop from 2013 and the lowest mark in 42 years.
Given the burgeoning focus on specialized pitching--higher velocity (the average fastball travels almost 93 mph), more in-game pitching changes (3.15 relievers per team per game) and obsessive attention to individual matchups--the diminished offense wasn't altogether astonishing. But what's happened since then is.
Two years later, in 2016, batting average inched back to .255, but home runs skyrocketed 34 percent and run production rose 10 percent. In 2014, each game produced an average of 1.7 home runs; by 2016, the pergame output was 2.3, and this past season, it rose to about 2.5. Why, the single-season home-run record of 5,693--set in 2000, at the height of the Steroids Era--was shattered in 2017 (6,105) by 412 homers.
As a result, commissioner Rob Manfred has faced a barrage of questions that sometimes makes Clayton Kershaw's pitch arsenal seem tame in comparison. Who's taking what? Who's doing what to the ball?
Even in the absence of substances, substantive answers are hard to come by. Confident in baseball's drug-testing regimen--as well as studies of the ball itself--Manfred feels secure in attributing the power surge to changes in the game and the way hitters approach it.
First, you can thank the growth over the last seven years of the defensive shift: namely, realigning players from their standard positions to blanket one side of the field or another. Next, you can thank technology. In 2015, Major League Baseball installed Statcast[TM] radar and optical cameras in all 30 ballparks to measure a myriad of phenomena, notably launch angle: i.e., the vertical angle at which the ball leaves a player's bat after being struck. Groundballs, for example, are rated at fewer than 10 degrees, line drives 10-25 degrees, fly-balls 25-50 degrees, and pop-ups greater than 50 degrees.
The companion stat to launch angle is exit velocity, the speed of the ball after it is hit. A launch angle of 25-35 degrees combined with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher is acknowledged as the general formula for a home run. The average major-league launch angle in 2017 was close to 12 degrees, up from 10.5 in 2015 and 11.5 in 2016. But Gallo, for example, was hammering away at a launch angle twice the big-league average.
So, after mastering the science of launch angles, why would a left-handed slugger hazard dropping a bunt down the third-base line? Why attempt to knock a one-hopper through the shortstop hole when he can launch a double or a homer over the entire shift and caboodle?
Especially when striking out seems to carry less stigma than texting at the dinner table. Strikeout totals have increased 12 years running. In 2011, just 78 players whiffed 100 or more times. By 2016, the number of offenders had increased to 139. That's a staggering 78 percent increase. In 2017, the number of batters who fanned 100-plus times in the majors was 140.
"I know there are teams that already in the minor leagues are concentrating on launch angles," acknowledged Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, the .306 career hitter who manages the Minnesota Twins. "They're not so much worried about strikeouts, with the philosophy that if you hit it over the fence enough, it doesn't matter what your average is."
That thinking has, of course, done nothing to cure another baseball bugaboo--the lengthy average game time, which hasn't been below three hours since 2011. From 2015 to 2016, the average number of pitches per plate appearance reached an all-time high of 3.88 per batter. It marked the largest single-season increase (0.05) on record.
No less a pro than Ben Zobrist admits to having stifled a yawn or two.
"I can't say that I've watched nine innings of a game as a fan, other than maybe a playoff game, in a long, long time," said the Cubs' 36-year-old veteran and MVP of the 2016 World Series. "But I would attribute some of the walks and strikeouts more to pitching than hitting, just because pitchers don't come right at you as much as they used to. There are a lot more offspeed pitches thrown early in counts, a lot more nibbling, even from guys who throw 99 mph. No one wants to give in. There's never an at-bat where a guy says, 'OK, here's my best fastball over the plate, let's see what you can do with it,' because there are too many home runs being hit."
Wee Willie would be the first to pipe up that hitters' thinking must shift along with changing defenses. For many, though, pride inhibits simply taking what the shifting defense gives them. Besides, it stands to reason that any pull hitter worth a shift hasn't spent his career practicing bunting or poking the ball the opposite way.
"I don't know if you can name very many lefties who hit the ball on the ground through the six-hole (shortstop) that also do a lot of damage," veteran southpaw slugger Jay Bruce said. "To me, it doesn't make sense when people are like, 'Oh, you just slap the ball through the six-hole.' Well, first of all, no one does that. Secondly, guys who are doing it aren't hitting for power."
In 1998, an Angels bench coach named Joe Maddon asked manager Terry Collins about shifting the shortstop to the right side of the infield to help defend against Seattle star Ken Griffey Jr. Collins approved. Seeing just one infielder on the left side, Griffey attempted a bunt that way with no outs and runners at first and second. He popped out.
"If you want to bunt every time up, that's fine with us," Maddon later told Griffey, who finished a 22-year career with eight successful sacrifice bunts to go with 630 homers.
The most famous shift was introduced against Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams 61 years ago. Reflecting on his 19-year, Hall of Fame career, "The Splendid Splinter" once speculated that shifts whittled 15 points off his batting average--in other words, a lifetime .344 easily could have been .359. And his estimate may have been conservative. Williams actually hit 16 points higher in the four seasons before the shift was instituted against him (.356) than in the 14 seasons after (.340).
"I think the shift costs extreme pull hitters 25 to 30 points off their batting average," said Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost, who has watched a host of his hitters battle the shift with varying success.
"There are just so many hits that you lose over the course of the season," lamented former Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, a left-handed pull hitter who batted .258 with 382 homers from 2004-16. "I'm talking about legitimate hits--one-hop line drives to the outfield where the guy is making a diving play, catching it and throwing you out at first."
The defensive shift actually dates back to the 1920s. It first made big headlines, however, in 1946, thanks to shortstop Lou Boudreau, the Cleveland Indians' player-manager. Boudreau--who himself became a Hall of Famer--stacked himself and the other three infielders on the right side of the field against Williams, who already had a .400 season (.406 in 1941) on the back of his baseball card.
The St. Louis Cardinals went on to use a couple of shift alignments against Williams in the 46 World Series, the only Fall Classic of his career. Williams went a disappointing 5-for-25 with no extra-base hits and just one RBI. But it also should be noted that he entered the Series with a swollen arm, the result of a pitch that hit him in the elbow in an early-October exhibition game against an All-Star team.
It was not until 2010 that the shift became prevalent enough for statistics to be kept. By then, baseball had become infiltrated with metrics that provided in-depth detail on individual tendencies. Consequently, the shift strategy became a credible weapon, especially against left-handed pull hitters such as David Ortiz and Howard. That pair is 1-2 all-time in being shifted against since the advent of formal record-keeping.
Since 2011, when teams used the shift 2,463 times, employment of the tactic has increased almost 11-fold. In 2016, according to Baseball Info Solutions, shift usage saved teams 359 runs. The batting average on groundballs and short live drives against an unshifted infield was .266, compared with .229 against one that was fully shifted (three infielders on one side).
After becoming commissioner in 2015, Manfred suggested that maybe the shift should be outlawed, but the idea hasn't gained traction.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi agrees that shifts ideally should be banned, like illegal defenses in basketball. Meanwhile, however, his team uses them often enough to rank among the top third of major-league teams.
"I'm not ready to think they should do anything yet," the Twins' Molitor said of anti-shift legislation. "I'm not sure what they would (accomplish). It wouldn't involve pace of play or those type of things. Unless they gather data over the next decade that gives me a good reason why they should take that away from a team's options, I would just leave it as is."
Maddon was the king of the shift when he managed in Tampa Bay, leading all of baseball in frequency of use from 2010-14. His reasons were psychological as well as technical.
"As a hitter, when you look up and see the field presented differently than it's been since you were 5 or 6 years old, that could matter," Maddon said. "All of a sudden you pause and think, 'Do I actually hit the ball like that?' You don't even realize it sometimes. Any time you can raise the level of doubt, it's always a good thing."
Yet, in three years since taking over the Cubs, whom he led to a World Series championship in 2016, Maddon ranks last in the use of shifts. One reason, he says, is that his team doesn't face a lot of dead-pull lefties, though it has several of its own in Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward.
In addition, Maddon the maverick apparently doesn't find imitation especially flattering. "I much preferred it when all the other teams didn't want to do those things," he said.
Proving he hasn't lost his edge, Maddon used an unorthodox shift against Cincinnati Reds offensive icon Joey Votto in August. Kris Bryant moved from third base to left-center field to provide the Cubs a fourth outfielder. Maddon remembered having used that strategy in the A.L. against the likes of the left-handed-hitting Ortiz, Jim Thome and Travis Hafner. Reds manager Bryan Price speculated it was mostly a psychological ploy. But not much fazes Votto, who hits to all fields equally.
He routinely ripped a double down the right-field line.
"No matter the infield setup, no matter the alignment of the infield or outfield, I do the exact same thing," Votto said. "It's when I get caught up in what's going on defensively when I get myself in trouble, (like) changing my approach. If that turns out to be a detriment to hitting balls in the outfield, then I clearly have to hit it over the outfield and into the stands. That was also something I was thinking about doing."
Yet the funny thing is, not every pitcher who might benefit from a defensive shift actually likes the concept.
"I think just mentally, for me, I can live with a hard-hit ball getting through a hole as opposed to a soft, cheap groundball that goes through because no one is playing there because of a shift," said Kershaw, the Dodgers ace who entered the 2017 season with more Cy Young awards (3) than any other active pitcher.
Today, however, there are fewer Wee Willie Keelers--situational slap hitters capable, or shall we say desirous, of capitalizing on those holes. They'd rather play the angles--which is to say launch.
But wait. That might not be altogether bad.
"What do you think when you hear launch angle?" said Sean Casey, an analyst for MLB Network who hit .302 over a 12-year big-league career. "You're thinking upper cut, as in, 'I'm launching, I'm getting under the baseball.' But the numbers are being proven that when you hit the ball in the air with good bat speed, with authority, you're going to get more hits than when you hit it on the ground. Nowadays more guys are thinking about driving the ball in the air."
Desperate times calls for desperate measures. And despite the exploits of his own Jose Altuve--who's been running neck-and-neck with Detroit's Miguel Cabrera for the highest batting average (near .317) among active big leaguers--Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch maintains hitting is more difficult than ever.
"The smarter that defenses get and the more precise they get on where to play, it's getting harder and harder to get the cheap hit," said Hinch, whose team is near the top of the majors in employing shifts. "You have to earn all of your hits nowadays. I think it's pretty commonplace now that when you hit a ball up the middle and you're a pull hitter, there's going to be somebody standing there. Hitters are more surprised when they get a groundball that actually gets through. They're so used to groundballs being caught because of fielders stationed in an optimal position."
Despite all the talk about elevation, Hinch notes that flyballs still represent just more than one-third of all batted balls. (Line drives have been holding steady at about 20 percent, groundballs at about 45 percent.) However, the percentage of flyballs that go for homers has increased from 9.5 percent in 2014 to almost 14 percent this past season.
"I think there's been an emphasis on two parts," Hinch said. "One is pitch selection and the other is trying to get the ball in the air. The balls that are getting in the air are going out of the ballpark at a higher rate, so there must be another part that hitting coaches are doing that's not about just getting the ball in the air. It's about getting your body in a position to drive the ball in the air."
None of this is necessarily meant to devalue the old-school approach.
"Really, if you stick with the philosophy of what it always has been--let's be able to use the whole field--there's nothing wrong with one-hopping it through the dirt or hitting a liner the opposite way," said Todd Steverson, hitting coach for the Chicago White Sox. "Why not just take your single the opposite way if they're giving it to you? Certain teams would prefer you to take that opposite-field single than hit one off or over a wall. But some guys have the attitude that I'm not here to hit singles through the 4-hole. Still, if the name of the game is getting guys on base to score runs, then let's do it."
You might ask how special it is to hit 20 or more home runs if more than 100 players do it, as occurred the past two seasons. Would you believe there were more 20-homer guys in 2016 and 2017 than in 2000, the most prolific season of the Steroids Era?
In 1961--when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season record by hitting 61 and Yankees teammate Mickey Mantle added 54--just 41 major leaguers hit 20 or more homers.
Alas, some 29 percent of all major-league position players have become 20-homer-or-better producers.
Potentially, on a given day, 44 percent of the players who start for the 30 teams could be 20-homer sluggers.
For every .300 hitter, there are more than four players who hit 20 or more homers.
But Gallo, who didn't stay above .200 consistently until Aug. 1, takes some air out of the argument that batting average remains a vital statistic. His OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) was close to .900, ranking him 33rd in the majors and five notches ahead of the San Francisco Giants' Buster Posey, who hit .320. Gallo was also near the top 30 major leaguers in walks, while Posey ranked 61st.
As for having more singles than homers, what else is new? Gallo did the same thing his first two seasons in the minors.
"That's just the player I am," Gallo said. "You look at the way the field is shaped for me. I hit a line drive to the right side, I'm out. If I hit a ground-ball to the right side, I'm out. As long as I'm putting together good at-bats or drawing walks, then for me that's what's important. Getting on base and doing damage when I can and playing good defense."
Gallo and the Cubs' Bryant, the 2016 N.L. MVP, grew up together in Las Vegas under the watchful eyes of their fathers, who both played professional baseball. Bryant's dad Mike was a former Red Sox farmhand who viewed Ted Williams' 1971 book, The Science of Hitting, as the bible.
"When I watched Kris and Joey for the first time, the very first time they swung the bat, they swung up," Mike Bryant said. "That's what the body wants to do. It wants to swing up. It starts in a certain position, you finish above your shoulders, and the bat has a natural upswing to it. Nobody's ever explained it better than Ted Williams: hit it hard and hit it in the air. I got his book when I was 14 years old, and it was talking about angles and the degree of the flight, how curveballs have more depth in terms of degrees on them. What's being taught to the kids--they just talk about hitting it on the ground, swinging down on the ball, hitting the top of the ball, all that stuff. It never made any sense to me."
For the record, the Red Sox, with all due respect to Williams' philosophy, believe the approach must vary according to the individual player. "To get into angles, lift and launch--I mean, we've got some smart guys, but they might not be going to Harvard," manager John Farrell said.
"I'm as open as anybody to some of the new data we have in regards to hitting and defenses and other analytics," the Twins manager said. "But I think it's a bit early to have enough data and feedback on what's the best philosophy. Obviously, due to the varying skill sets, you can't clone everybody to be a certain type of hitter. The key is identifying whom to focus on to give that individual a chance to become a major-league contributor. With a guy who's been up-and-down, inconsistent, not really sure what his identity is as a hitter, maybe you should be open-minded about finding ways to increase OPS, power numbers and slugging percentage to make him a more valuable commodity. But I'm a little skeptical about trying to make everybody the same guy."
Indeed, despite the current climate, it wouldn't be fair to say MLB is fostering the development of more Rob Deers (.179, 25 HR, 175 Ks in 1991), Adam Dunns (.159, 11 HR, 177 Ks in 2011) and Dan Ugglas (.179, 22 HR, 171 Ks in 2013).
Steverson wasn't with the White Sox for the first three of Dunn's four seasons with the team--notably that inaugural campaign when Dunn missed the Mendoza Line (.200) by 41 points.
"I can't speak for 29 other organizations, but nobody here gives anybody a hall pass to dip your back shoulder, swing up and strike out," Steverson said. "If you're telling me you're changing your plane to hit it over the defense on a line, that's fine, but what's the difference between that and other philosophies of the past, like let's get the barrel to the ball and hit line drives around the field? On a strikeout, nobody has to make a play on you. We want to put pressure on the defense. On a four-hopper to the shortstop, you're going to be out 95 percent of the time, but let's make him make the play."
Over the past couple of seasons, promising power sources, such as the New York Mets' Michael Conforto, the St. Louis Cardinals' Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, the Cubs' Kyle Schwarber and the Dodgers' Joc Pederson, have been sent down for additional minor-league seasoning despite having already had some success at the big-league level.
As a 28-year-old rookie in 2016, the San Diego Padres' Ryan Schimpf hit 20 homers in 276 at-bats and, despite a .217 batting average, got on base at a .336 clip. He was back in Triple-A, however, by early June 2017. With a massive launch angle of 30.31, up from a major-league high of 27.70 the previous year, he popped 14 homers in 165 at-bats but was hitting .158 and striking out almost 36 percent of the time.
Going back even further, the Royals' Mike Moustakas wound up in the minors early in 2014--his fourth big-league season and two years after he'd hit 20 homers and driven in 73 runs. Moustakas had faced hardly any shifts until that 2014 season, which included an eight-game minor-league stint after he got off to a .152 start. He never totally recovered, finishing at .212.
Embarrassed, Moustakas worked tirelessly to become an all-fields hitter. The following year, he lifted his average to .284 and hit 22 homers. Today, two years later, as a more skilled and confident player, he's joined the new wave. Pulling the ball more--as well as elevating it (launch angle of almost 20.00)--he already had hit his 36th home run on Sept. 1. That tied Steve Balboni's 32-year-old Royals single-season home-run record, which Moustakas broke 19 days later.
"He's the only player I've ever seen that's made that big an adjustment," said Yost, who has managed Moustakas for the third baseman's entire seven-year big-league career.
"The first year they started extreme-shifting him; he just kept hitting into and hitting into it. That winter, he said, 'I'm going to do something about this.' He started really driving the ball the other way and did a really, really good job with it."
The Cubs hope Schwarber can respond similarly. A 2016 World Series hero--he hit .412 with a .500 OBP in the Fall Classic--Schwarber batted just .171 with 12 homers, 28 RBI and a 28.7 strikeout rate in his first 64 games this season. The Cubs finally sent him to Triple-A Iowa for an 11-game reboot, but Schwarber would be the first to admit he still has a long way to go.
Despite Schwarber's power, the Cubs want him to combat the shift with situational hitting, not just the longball.
"Kyle's a hitter first," said Theo Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations. "If you go back and look, he had 600 plate appearances in the minor leagues and was a .333 hitter. He's not just some all-or-nothing slugger. He's a hitter who has power. The answer is not home runs. It's more how consistent his approach is, how hitter-ish it is, his ability to handle different parts of the zone, hit the ball to all fields, hit line drives, be a tough out--just start to resemble the hitter he's been his entire life."
The scary part about the game in general is that very little seems to look the same for very long.
"The game has changed so much in the past 10 years," said Yost. "(Regulating) the slide at second base, the slide at home plate. Then you have the (slower) pace of games . . . They don't call balks anymore... The invention of the shifts and everybody doing it. And they're talking about limiting bullpen usage and (catchers') trips to the mound and eliminating shifts. I don't know if we're getting away from the game that we grew up knowing."
The immediate future, you'd have to say, is up in the air.
By Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig
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|Author:||Levine, Bruce; Bierig, Joel|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2017|
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