An important point to remember is that defensive shifting isn’t new. As much attention as the shift gets these days from broadcasts and other media, teams have been moving their defenders around for decades. What’s changed are two things: shifts now are a little more individualized, and shifts now are a hell of a lot more common than ever before, by leaps and bounds. Used to be a few guys would get shifted against. Now it isn’t even unusual to get shifted against, since it’s not like it’s only the elite hitters worth a bit of strategizing. Pull and spray tendencies, after all, are similar across the board.
It isn’t just the greats that get shifted against, which is how you end up with situations like the Pirates shifting against Brayan Pena. It doesn’t matter that Brayan Pena isn’t a good hitter — if there are ways to make him worse, any gain is a gain. It’s strategy, on the Pirates’ part, to shift against Pena. And for every strategy, there is a counter-strategy. What you’re about to observe is Brayan Pena trying to beat the Pirates’ shift, from Tuesday night. Did I already mention that Brayan Pena isn’t a good hitter? Yes, okay, good, that’s going to come up again.
Pena, if you didn’t know, is a switch-hitter, but against the Pirates he batted only lefty, facing only righties. As a lefty, Pena has shown a pretty ordinary distribution of groundballs, so this is the kind of Pirates infield he wound up looking at:
I’d call it an extreme shift if it weren’t for the fact this isn’t even that extreme anymore. What you see is the third baseman playing shortstop, and three infielders playing Pena to the pull side. Pretty standard heavy shift, and hitters notice when they’re being shifted. Sometimes, they try to stick to their guns. They swing away like normal, figuring that if they make a change, that’s already a victory for the opponent. Sometimes, they try to take what the defense is giving them. Brayan Pena was in a taking mood. He batted four times.
Plate Appearance No. 1
Pena batted in the second with a runner on and two out. The runner was on first, but Pena still got shifted. Because there was a runner on, Pena felt less inclined to try to beat the shift, but he did take a curious swing on the sixth pitch, which was the last pitch:
Pena inside-outed a full-count fastball, rolling a grounder to the left-most infielder. Pena kind of swatted at the ball, and though you can never easily read a particular swing’s intent, based on what happened later it isn’t far-fetched to believe Pena was trying to sneak a grounder into shallow left field. Unfortunately, while the shift reduces the number of infielders on that side, it doesn’t reduce the number to zero.
Plate Appearance No. 2
In the fifth inning, Pena batted with one out and the bases empty. With the infield shifted, Pena tried to beat the shift in the way we most commonly observe but still do not commonly observe:
Would’ve beaten the shift, in cricket. Behind 0-and-1, Pena decided to give it another go:
Over at Baseball Prospectus, Ben Lindbergh has started chronicling bunts against the shift. To my knowledge he is not chronicling unsuccessful bunts out of play against the shift. So that’s good news for Brayan Pena, if he wants to keep this all a secret.
You don’t bunt with two strikes, so Pena had to start swinging away. How the swinging began:
That’s an Ichiro swing. That’s a late swing on purpose, trying to pop the ball down the opposite line. Pena might’ve been done bunting, but he wasn’t done trying to take advantage of the hole. Another swing followed:
Same thing, with a hint of a running start. Once again, Pena tried to inside-out a ball down to left. The third swing of the showdown:
Don’t forget that Ichiro made a whole career out of this. Well, this, but a lot better. Finally, the at-bat ended with the sixth pitch:
Pena successfully came through with his opposite-field grounder…right to the shifted defender. As a hitter, you can tell yourself to wait, so that the ball gets deep, but you can only wait so long until your instincts kick in, and one can be blessed with only so much bat control. In that respect Brayan Pena is less than 100% blessed.
Plate Appearance No. 3
In the seventh inning, Pena batted with a man out and runners on the corners. What that meant was that the Pirates didn’t have him shifted, and on the first pitch Pena yanked a ball into right for a single and an RBI. His swing looked different — instead of slapping at the ball, Pena got out ahead and pulled it with some authority.
Plate Appearance No. 4
Finally, Pena came up again to lead off the ninth. He stared at the familiar shift again, and he resorted to an earlier strategy:
As a lefty, Pena has attempted nine bunts with men on base. He’s put five in play, and he’s put only two in play successfully. As a lefty, Pena has attempted 18 bunts with nobody on base. He’s put three in play, and he’s put two in play successfully. Presumably, these are attempted bunts against the shift. Of the 18 of them, 15 have been fouled or missed. I don’t know what good numbers would be, but these strike me as bad numbers.
Not that Pena was done for the evening:
Courtesy of Baseball Savant, we have data going back to 2008. On Tuesday, Pena had four failed bunts with the bases empty. Nobody else has had more than three of those in a game. Brayan Pena is the bunting leader in something.
It ended at 0-and-2:
Pena took another weak chop and tried to book it out of the box. Instead of slapping the ball down the third-base line, he bounced it back to the mound, but Stolmy Pimentel couldn’t make the play cleanly, and neither could Ike Davis. In that way, Pena was able to reach base against the shift, and he was even given credit for a single. Shortly thereafter Pena stole second, and he scored on a hit by the Reds’ pitcher. It was kind of a weird ninth inning.
Against Pittsburgh, Brayan Pena saw three shifts in four plate appearances. Four times, he tried to bunt against it, and four times the bunts were foul. Pena also took some curious swings, and while I’ll admit that I don’t have Brayan Pena’s usual left-handed swing memorized, it wouldn’t surprise me if Pena were specifically looking to shoot the ball past third, where nobody was. What he was able to do was not that, but he did reach once, and all he needed was for two different defenders to not be able to catch a baseball.
Brayan Pena isn’t a good hitter. As such, he deserves some credit for looking for ways to take advantage of a shifted defense. But to that end he’s also limited by the fact that Brayan Pena isn’t a good hitter. He doesn’t quite have the bat control to execute exactly what he wants, but God bless him, he’s trying. You want more bunts against the shift? Don’t go looking at the good hitters. The good hitters know they’re good hitters. It might be wiser to look at the guys like Pena. Those are the guys where the ego won’t get in the way.
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