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Will hitters ever adjust to the big infield shifts?


Last week at the Winter Meetings, two subjects that kept coming up were collisions at home plate, and extreme infield shifts, the latter of which were way, way, way up last season. Also last week, someone asked Bill James if power hitters should bunt more often (sub. required) ...

If you can bunt for a hit, it almost always makes sense to do it. That's why this era we are in, with the great frequency of defensive shifts, will probably end in about five years. Young power hitters will figure out that they can hit .700 against it by bunting, and they'll start bunting, and force managers to abandon the shift. It only works because people don't bunt. By the way, I made a similar point this spring, and added that "sometime this year, I expect to see some hitter bunt for a double." I didn't see it all year, and I was thinking I would have to acknowledge my error on that one, and then, the last time the Red Sox played the Yankees, Robby Cano bunted for a double up the left field line.

Here's that bunt double!

This is obviously an isolated incident. You're not going to get all the way to second base unless you're reasonably fast and you place the bunt perfectly. The great majority of successful against-the-shift bunts will result in mere singles, which I think does help explain why nearly everyone eschews them. That words single just sounds so unmanly.

Then again, when the numbers become overwhelming enough, maybe something has to change. Bill thinks five years. I have no idea if it's one year or 10 years, so maybe five's just the easy compromise. We're talking about a culture change here. If teams continue to shift on Canó and he continues to bunt successfully, they'll stop shifting on him ... but will that alone lead to other players bunting? Probably not enough to change the culture.

What will it take to change the culture? Information. The more teams shift, the more information there will be. The more information there is, the more difficult it will be for other teams and their hitters to ignore it. And more teams are going to shift. There's zero doubt about that. Jim Leyland didn't shift much at all; Brad Ausmus will shift more. As other managers retire or get fired, they'll be replaced by peope who are hired, at least in part, because they're interested in the information.

SB Nation's Charlie Wilmoth recently spoke with Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, who discussed the big defensive shifts (the Pirates shifted a lot last season):

How do hitters counteract the shifts? We're not quite sure. It's almost like, when you play the third baseman on the right-field side of second base, and one of those big left-handed boppers bunts for a hit, sometimes you say thank you, because it's so awkward. Now he gives you a strike, or he lays a bunt down and he drops it right back to the pitcher. So sometimes they play right into your hands when they try to adjust to the shift.

The biggest thing is, what's the next part of the shift? What's the next element to the shift? How individualistic does it become, or is there something else we can do to maximize the shift even more than we've already done?

Plenty to chew on there. He's probably right about those big left-handed boppers. I don't think you thank them for successfully bunting because singles are almost never a good thing. But you might thank them for trying to bunt, because, as Huntington suggests, their success rate probably isn't real good. The guys in the TV booth think bunting's easy, but it's probably not so easy if you haven't been training for it. I suppose David Ortiz could become a good bunter ... but how much time do you want him practicing that?

As more and more teams shift, though, that equation changes. If you haven't already, you might ultimately reach a point where it makes sense for Papi to practice bunting for 30 minutes every day. Which he probably won't do, because he doesn't have to. But maybe Chris Davis does, or Freddie Freeman or Jay Bruce. Maybe they all do. Especially when teams like the Pirates begin introducing "the next element to the shift." People who really believe in the shift think it could be done even more often.

Right now the decision to shift is largely based on spray charts for individuals ... but what if they were based on groups of hitters? Maybe instead of waiting a few years to see if guys like Freeman or Anthony Rizzo are shift-worthy, you just place them into a bucket of similar hitters and shift against all of them.

There are other ways to refine the decision. The shift has become so common that teams should have more than just spray charts; they'll have information about how hitters react to the shift. Some hitters will change their approach against the shift, and beat it; for those guys, you can just back off some. Some hitters won't change their approach at all; for those guys, you can keep shifting or shift even more.

SB Nation's Tyler Bleszinski says the big shifts should be outlawed. That's not as radical as you might think. I just don't believe it's necessary, because I think the game will eventually find a healthy balance. It's just going to take some time. Maybe five years, maybe more. The big shifts will never go away, and we'll see a lot more of them in the short term. But in the long term, the hitters will get serious about making adjustments. I don't think the defensive shifts will end in five years. But the trend might be arrested by then.

Either way, it's going to be a lot of fun to watch.

(hat tip: TangoTiger)