Ah, the Hot Stove League. With spring training just around the corner, the best shape of his life stories and the tales of mistaken identity will soon be replaced by odes to Arizona mornings and pulled hamstrings.
But don't mourn the Hot Stove League just yet; the old girl's still got a few bizarre little tricks up her sleeve. Like the Yankees' $180 million first baseman giving up his penchant for swinging for the right-field fence every time up. Here's Mark Teixeira, via MLB.com:
"If they're playing a big shift, I might lay some bunts down this year," Teixeira said. "I've been so against it my entire career, [but] I might lay down a few bunts. If I can beat the shift that way, that's important."
Teixeira said that he came to the decision on his own this winter, though he has discussed squaring up his stance with hitting coach Kevin Long. Teixeira said that the shifts have been "very frustrating" for him, noting that he also needs to work on not hooking the ball as much from the left side of the plate.
"When you have a 1-2 pitch, instead of trying to drive the ball in the gap and drive in the runs, take that single to left," Teixeira said. "It's easier than it sounds, but one hit a week really adds up.
While one hit a week might not sound like much, it really does add up; just ask Crash Davis. Teixeira batted just .248 last season. The baseball season is roughly 26 weeks long. If Teixeira had picked up 26 extra hits last season, he would have batted .292, which coincidentally or not is almost exactly the same as his career batting average before these last two seasons, in which he's batted just .252.
Is the shift to blame for Teixeira's incredible shrinking batting average?
Perhaps. But Teixeira gets some of the blame, too. These last two seasons, his line-drive percentage is down slightly, his infield-pop percentage up significantly. That's not the shift. That's just Teixeira not striking the ball as well as he used to. A trend which, if continued, will leave Teixeira's annual contributions well short of his annual $22.5 million salaries.
But that's a rich man's problem. The Yankees aren't going bust because they're overpaying their first baseman by $5 million or whatever. It's only going to hurt them if some truly fantastic first baseman comes on the market and they can't sign him because they've already got a first baseman.
What? Oh. Right. I think the Yankees will still come out okay in the end.
It's really really really hard to just add one more hit per week. If it weren't, I promise you that a lot of guys would be doing it.
In a FanGraphs article inspired by Teixeira's comments, Matt Klaassen asks, "Should sluggers ever bunt?"
His answer is the one you probably would expect: Yes, because a base hit's nearly always a good thing.
But of course the devil's in the details. Klaassen looks at a group of sluggers, but that really doesn't tell us much about Teixeira. Can he bunt? Can he learn to bunt? He's never laid down a sacrifice bunt in the major leagues, and he claims he hasn't bunted at all in a game since high school.
And of course the game-theory aspect plays into the equation, too, if unaccountably. If Teixeira starts batting .400 against the shift because he's bunting half the time, I promise you that teams will simply stop shifting against him, which of course is what he prefers.
None of that is likely to happen. I would say it will never happen, as it's never happened before. No big left-handed slugger has just kept bunting until managers stopped shifting against him. But managers are shifting against those guys more than ever, and perhaps at some point this somewhat radical change in tactics will result in a somewhat radical response.
Ballplayers are stubborn cusses, though. Don't bet on Mark Teixeira for more than ... oh, two or three bunt singles in those 26 weeks.