Let’s Watch Brayan Pena Try to Beat the Shift

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:

piratespenashift

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:

PenaSwing0.gif.opt

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:

PenaBunt1.gif.opt

Would’ve beaten the shift, in cricket. Behind 0-and-1, Pena decided to give it another go:

PenaBunt2.gif.opt

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:

PenaSwing1.gif.opt

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:

PenaSwing2.gif.opt

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:

PenaSwing3.gif.opt

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:

PenaSwing4.gif.opt

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:

PenaBunt3.gif.opt

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:

PenaBunt4.gif.opt

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:

PenaHit.gif.opt

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


35 Responses to “Let’s Watch Brayan Pena Try to Beat the Shift”

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  1. vivalajeter says:

    Well done, Jeff. I’m not sure if all fans are like me, but I typically assume that bad hitters are pretty good bunters. Maybe because they’re called to sacrifice more often, or maybe because they need to learn to bunt to stick around. Either way, it looks like Pena didn’t get the memo.

    There’s no way for you to know this, but I wonder if he’s been practicing that swing during BP for a few weeks, or if it was a spur-of-the-moment decision he made.

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    • Iron says:

      I watched him in batting practice from the left side the other day ago and he wasn’t noticeably slapping balls to left or swinging like that, but that is hardly definitive.

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  2. Brett says:

    Is Brayan Pena a good hitter?

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  3. Schuxu says:

    Is it possible to review whether a hitter was out of the batting box when making contact? In all these bunts it seems like he steps out of the box with his back foot.

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    • RunTeddyRun says:

      Aren’t you allowed to do that, as long as your feet are within the box when the pitch is thrown? I’m not sure about that at all, but it’s what I always thought the rule was.

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  4. Sam says:

    I hate the differ with the oft-repeated chorus of the article, but Pena isn’t all that bad of a hitter. He put up an 800 OPS against lefties last year and he’s off to a good start this year as well. As catchers go he’s definitely above average with the bat. What’s really held him back is that he’s a mediocre at best defender.

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    • bdhudson says:

      Brayan Pena has a career wRC+ of 74, and a career slash of .260/.295/.361. For his career, his OPS against lefties is .606 and against righties it’s .684. Brayan Pena is not a good hitter.

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  5. Brendan says:

    What would have happened if he just switched to the right side of the plate after they set up the shift?

    It would force the umpire to make a decision eventually like that switch hitter v switch pitcher thing? As Pena could just keep switching endlessly while the infield was readjusting until either (1) he was batting as a LHH against a normal infield or (2) he was batting as a RHH against a righty using an infield shifted for a lefty to pull.

    I guess the most likely outcome is the pitcher coming set and the infield shifting during that time immediately before the pitch; and the ump stops letting the batter out of the box?

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    • Take One for the Team says:

      Looks like you beat me to this one. I was thinking the same thing.

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    • Schuxu says:

      I guess they would gladly accept a switch hitter hitting from the wrong side even with a wrongly shifted defense.

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    • Couth says:

      Give him a normal infield so he’ll bat left-handed, then throw a junk pitch. Now shift the infield back – by rule, Pena must bat left-handed for the duration of the at bat.

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      • Take One for the Team says:

        Can you cite the rule? I understand that a batter can switch sides during an at-bat as many times as he wants so long the pitcher is not in the ready position.

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  6. The Stranger says:

    To me, the interesting thing is that Bryan Price watched all this happen and didn’t discourage Pena from continuing to bunt and/or take odd swings. He may have even encouraged/ordered it. So presumably, Bryan Price at least thinks this is a good enough approach that he’s ok with Pena trying it again in the 9th despite failing twice. Or he thinks it’s the optimal approach, and he specifically wants Pena to be trying it.

    It will be interesting to see whether Pena continues to try to finesse his way on base when he faces the shift in the future, in which case we will know that Bryan Price, and perhaps the Reds as an organization, think that this is a good approach for Pena regardless of the decidedly underwhelming results in this particular game (or that they’re foolish enough to view the single in the 9th as a success, I suppose).

    That’s going to be an interesting thing to watch across the board as shifts get even more prevalent. We’re seeing some hitters swinging normally, some bunting, some trying to go opposite-field, etc. Over time, I wonder if the baseball world will get a sense of the “best” approach and we’ll start seeing more standardized counter-shift tactics.

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    • He failed in one game–that doesn’t mean that he’s doomed to consistent failure. If any one of those bunts is just a little more to the right, he’s on base. He didn’t have barnstorming success in his first game, sure, but if he’s able to succeed in the next few then that’s something valuable he has going.

      Now if he’s tried this for five games and failed in 15 at-bats in a row, then it’s probably time to put the experiment to bed. But we’re not there yet.

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      • The Stranger says:

        Oh, absolutely. I agree that a single game tells you next to nothing, and this kind of drastically altered approach might indeed give a hitter like Pena the best odds of beating the shift. I’m just pointing out that this looks like a considered tactic with some organizational support, not just Pena going up there and deciding to give bunting a shot. The possibility that the Reds, and other teams, are developing and implementing counter-shift strategies (which I hope Jeff will then critique on a league-wide level) is more interesting to me than what Brayan Pena did over the course of a few at bats.

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        • maguro says:

          Jay Bruce (!) tried to bunt against the shift last night, so I think you’re right that this is something the Reds are doing on purpose.

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        • Redlegs says:

          Yeah, I specifically remember reading an article with Price’s thoughts about the shift and trying to beat it. The Reds seem to be implementing the shift themselves much more often than I recall, though I don’t see as many games as I would like. But yeah, I think it is an organizational/philosophy thing with the Reds and/or Price.

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  7. Take One for the Team says:

    I’m curious what kind of dance would ensue if Pena hopped to the other batter’s box just before the pitcher was set in the ready position. He could certainly pull a weak ground ball down the line righty on righty. Would the pitcher step off the rubber and wait for the fielders to re-align? If so, could Pena not step to the other batter’s box just before the pitcher got re-set? Would the infielders then shift back? If Pena does this a couple of times he will surely be plunked by the pitcher, reaching base, and thus “beating the shift”.

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  8. AK7007 says:

    Random thought – do teams that employ the shift super often have increased opportunity to leverage corner infielders with above average range? Jeff, I think this might be an article! Or maybe there’s no data! Either way – seems interesting.

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    • RunTeddyRun says:

      Can’t be. The Yankees are one of the shiftiest teams in the league this year, and their infielders are basically planks with gloves stapled to them.

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      • AK7007 says:

        That in no way proves can’t – just that you can shift with statues. I’m asking, is shifting especially awesome for teams that have rangy 1B/3B players? As in, even better than you would expect? Does Machado’s range provide greater value than you would expect during shifts? Brandon Belt if Bochy was willing to do that righty shift? Just because the Yanks aren’t leveraging this, doesn’t mean that it’s not possible, or even desirable. Asking a question.

        Also – I’m not sure the Yanks actually staple the gloves to their infielders – they wouldn’t fall off nearly as often. Velcro? Like, worn out velcro?

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  9. cass says:

    Loved the article, Jeff.

    Could you possibly add a gif for plate appearance no. 3? I know it’s not against a shift. but it’d be interesting to compare it to his inside-out swings.

    Two favorite lines:

    “Would’ve beaten the shift, in cricket.”

    “So that’s good news for Brayan Pena, if he wants to keep this all a secret.”

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  10. tz says:

    My review of Pena’ work here:

    – Bunting needs WAY more work. Should get this fine-tuned before trying again under game conditions.

    – Inside-out swing not too shabby, especially for a guy who hits like a backup catcher. But, Pena’s problem is that he runs like a backup catcher. Even with a quick jump and good hustle out of the batters box, he’d have to hit the ball basically to where the 3B would normally be.

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  11. Brownie says:

    Pena must have small feet. It sure looks like he’s damn close to stepping on the plate in a few of those bunt attempts.

    Sure looks like the shift worked…

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  12. Helladecimal says:

    That was dope

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  13. carp1185 says:

    Did anyone notice both Davis and Wieters hit against the shift in the 7th against Toronto for a combined 4 rbi?

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  14. oldbopper says:

    Jeff, you said that even with the shift the number of infielders on the left side isn’t zero. Well, it was zero yesterday when the Cardinals put everybody on the first base side of second against Lucas Duda who grounded the first pitch weakly into the shift. Brayan Pena, all you need to do is spend some extra time in the cage because it is something all low average hitters should do against the shift.

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