Matt Adams Cares Not For Your Shift

The shift! It’s the hot new thing, even if it’s not necessarily a new thing. (There’s evidence Ted Williams had to deal with it decades ago.) Some teams use it a lot, and some not so much, but it’s impossible to argue that it hasn’t had an increasing impact on the game over the last few years. It may not be the only reason that major leaguers have a .212 BABIP and .230 wOBA on ground balls so far this year as opposed to .222 and .239, respectively, in 2007 (and decreasing steadily since), but it’s certainly a part of it. We are all but certain to see more shifts across the sport in 2014 than we ever have before. “Hit ’em where they ain’t,” Wee Willie Keeler was purported to have said over a century ago, and it’s good advice. The only problem is, where they are — or ain’t — is changing.

What’s interesting, then, is not so much about which teams employ the shift, but how batters react to it. Thanks to the work of Jeff Zimmerman at The Hardball Times earlier this year, we’re able to get a look at how certain batters hit in 2013 with the shift both on and off, and the results were often more extreme than expected. (Ryan Howard‘s .533 BABIP without the shift as compared to .312 with it stand out immediately.) It stands to reason that if you were one of the hitters on the list with a large split between being shifted and not, you should expect to see it even more this season.

One of those hitters is St. Louis first baseman Matt Adams, who had nearly a 100-point difference in BABIP while being shifted against approximately 21 percent of the time last year. Adams hit only 319 times last season and just 91 the year before that, meaning that he entered 2014 with 410 plate appearances, still less than a full season of play. Now that he’s St. Louis’ full-time first baseman with Carlos Beltran in New York and Allen Craig in right, and the minimal amount of data teams had on him headed into 2013 has become at least somewhat more substantial, Adams knew he’d be seeing more shifts this year. (For example, here’s a March article where Mike Matheny suggests Adams bunt against the shift. Obviously, they were thinking about it.)

But just about no one really bunts against the shift, especially not power hitters like Adams. (So far as I can tell, he has never successfully done so in the regular season, though he has tried in spring training.) Instead, he’s just taken advantage of it in a simpler way. In all of 2013, he had 17 hits to the left side of the field. In 2014, in less than 10 percent of the season, he already has 11.

For example, on Opening Day, the Reds set up against him like this:


You can’t see third base, but you don’t need to. All four infielders are clearly in the shot, expecting a ball to the right side. Later in the game, this otherwise ordinary grounder to third turns into a double, because Todd Frazier is so far shifted that he’s beyond even the regular shortstop position:


In that opening series against the Reds, four of Adams’ five hits were to the left side, and he’s added seven more in the barely two weeks since, including once against Milwaukee on Tuesday night — and remember, he had 17 all of last year — and so that raises a question: Is he doing this on purpose? To have nearly one-third of his entire 2013 left-side output in one series seems to be unlikely to be a complete and total coincidence, yet we know that the ability of hitters to control where the ball is going on a regular basis is limited at best. For his part, Adams says he’s not doing anything special:

“After my first at-bat against [Johnny] Cueto [on Monday], all pitches were away and there was nobody over there at third base,” Adams said. “It kind of surprised me a little bit. But maybe their feeling was to throw it out there and try to get me to pull it. I’ve just got to stick with my approach and hit the ball where it was pitched.”

So if Adams is convinced that it’s just the way he’s being pitched, maybe we can test that. So far in 2014, he’s put the ball in play 45 times. 20 of those went to the left side, a rate of 44.4 percent. Last year, it was 67 of 216, a rate of only 31 percent. He’s clearly putting the ball into play more to the left side this year, but it doesn’t seem as though teams are really throwing him a highly increased number of outside pitches. Last year, 56.7 percent of the pitches he saw went to the three outside quadrants of the zone or further beyond for balls. This year, not including last night, it’s 59.1. That’s a bit higher, though not insanely so.

Let’s ditch the strikes and just look at the balls. Last year, Adams saw 572 pitches marked as being balls away from him. (Zones 11 and 13 on Baseball Savant, which is where this is all coming from.) He offered at 175 of them, good for a 30.5 percent swing rate. This year, not including last night, he’s seen 92, and gone after 32 of them, a 34.7 percent rate. Again, slightly higher, not massively so. If we limit it to just balls put in play, regardless of outcome but not including fouls, he connected with 52 of those 572 pitches last year. That’s a nine percent rate. This year, it’s 13 of the 92, good for 14.1 percent, again an increase.

All these minor differences begin to add up. Adams is seeing a higher percentage of pitches on the outside of the plate, he’s swinging at more of them, and he’s making contact with more of those — and overall, he’s got a .425 BABIP across all pitches. So maybe this is small sample size noise, but considering how close he is to matching his 2013 opposite field hit total, maybe there’s some amount of signal to it. Adams probably can’t exert a huge amount of control over where the ball goes — this isn’t billiards — but he can exercise some choice on which balls he chooses to swing at. Understandably, more outside pitches lead to more balls the other way. (And raises questions about whether teams choosing to shift should be more in tune with their pitchers about where their pitches go.)

The downside to all of this is that while Adams is making teams pay for shifting, he may also be playing into their hands. Adams is a power threat, yet he has only one homer this year. He’s driven in only two runs, and that’s the trade-off. Each and every one of his 20 career homers have gone to center or right field. Every time he takes advantage of going for a likely easier single to left, that’s an opportunity for a home run all but certainly passed up. As long as he’s hitting .370/.404/.537, as he currently is, maybe the Cardinals won’t care. At some point, though, things are going to change. Teams are going to pitch him differently, or his BABIP will come down or maybe — and maybe this is the ideal outcome for him — he does enough damage going the other way that they’ll stop shifting him, freeing him up to take aim for his power zones to right field again. It’s a complicated game of cat and mouse, really. For now, Adams is taking advantage of what’s being given to him.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

44 Responses to “Matt Adams Cares Not For Your Shift”

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  1. Joe says:

    another guy who seems to be trying to hit a different way against particular alignments is Bryce Harper- he seems to be bunting more for hits against a shift, and even though it’s a small sample size, seemed pretty successful against the Braves.

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  2. Emcee Peepants says:

    I think this was said in another article that mentioned Adams going the other way, but the pitches that he is hitting the other way against the shift are not pitches he would be expected to launch out of the ballpark anyway. It looks like it only took him ~400 PAs to make the adjustment Ryan Howard still hasn’t made after >5,000. Kudos to him (because they are delicious).

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    • Dan Greer says:

      Pretty sure I said that. Glad someone thinks it’s a decent point.

      I am an Adams owner and I *want* to believe he’s adjusted. He also appears to be in better shape than last season.

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  3. tehzachatak says:

    Two comments.

    1. This is, in fact, not actually new this season. While I don’t have a specific cutoff date for you to look at, Adams started going the other way dramatically more often at some point in the playoffs last season. My memory says NLCS Game 6, but that’s likely wrong. I am not sure if this coincided with an increased incidence of the shift- it seemed that way, but I can’t be sure. Now, my interpretation of that, and what we had heard from some beat writers, is that Adams had an injured elbow and it had affected his swing. He wasn’t hitting the ball with a hell of a lot of authority either, which kind of jived with that.

    So assuming the above is true and not something my mind’s made up, I wonder about a couple of possibilities. First: He’s still injured (maybe something essentially permanent) and therefore still hitting the ball the other way. I discount this possibility. Second: This injury caused some kind of mechanical change in his swing (I know nothing about swing mechanics so I am not the person to analyze this) that has led to him hitting the ball to the left side more, and has not gone back to “normal” once the injury healed.

    2. No GIF? Really???

    Yes. He’s saying what you think he’s saying.

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  4. dklcr says:

    It was inevitable that players would begin adjusting. I think shifts are probably here to stay, but I’m also excited to see what the next edge will be

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  5. John says:

    I love that you used “swang” instead of “swung”. Is that proper tense? Do I care? The answer to the second question is ‘no’, regardless of the answer to the first one. I don’t know why, I just really enjoyed reading it and then saying it over and over again in my head for the next three minutes.

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      True story: I stared at that for 3 minutes wondering if it was right or not, and ended up going with it.

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    • frivoflava29 says:

      They’re both correct. Swung when referring to bats, swang when you’re talking about gold chain necklaces

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    • joser says:

      While we’re dwelling on terminology / grammar, I had to say I stopped dead at “three outside quadrants of the zone.” There can be only four quadrants, so (assuming they’re arranged in a sensible fashion) there can be at most two “outside.” I quickly realized you were talking about the common heatmap diagram; but it has nine sectors, so shouldn’t we be saying “three outside nonants“?

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  6. Gabriel says:

    At what point did teams start playing the extreme shift on Adams? Obviously, he wouldn’t have been getting as many opposite field hits before the shift was used on him.

    In other words, he may have been hitting the ball the opposite field a fair amount last year, but had fewer hits to show for it if the shift weren’t being used as much.

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  7. Jerry says:

    I think teams pitch Adams away because he crushes inside pitching, especially low and inside. I usually have MLB Tonight on my TV while watching the game on my ipad and going back to the final month of last season, Mitch Williams repeatedly said “I don’t know why teams ever pitch this guy inside” during MLB Tonight after each of Adams’ HR. So it could be a fine line teams have to play with him, where the shift would work more often if they were willing to pitch him inside….which happens to be his power zone.

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    • Jerry says:

      Also, he had a hard time laying off low and away as well (as evidenced by Boston in the WS), which he seems to be doing a better job of this season.

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    • chuckb says:

      And we all know that if Mitch Williams said it, it has to be taken as gospel.

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      • Jerry says:

        If he was talking about something he clearly doesn’t know about, sure, but noticing where a hitter loves the ball is something he’d be pretty familiar with. Not to mention, he wasn’t wrong, as each time he’d mentioned it, it was on an inside pitch.

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  8. kylecthomas says:

    this is why i have never put a whole lot of faith in babip. when hitters are hot, they can hit the ball where they want. its not a random event once you make contact.

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      ” when hitters are hot, they can hit the ball where they want. ”

      I think I’d have to fundamentally disagree with that.

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      • Chris says:

        To have nearly one-third of his entire 2013 left-side output in one series seems to be unlikely to be a complete and total coincidence, yet we know that the ability of hitters to control where the ball is going on a regular basis is limited at best.

        What the article you linked to actually suggests is the ability to hit the ball to left or right field is actually a skill that baseball players possess. Given the limitations of the data analysis—largely the inherent inability for us to know what hitters intended to do based solely on what they did do—the difference between 41% and 36% is not the least bit trivial.

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    • joser says:

      Went I get hot at coin flipping, I can make the coin come heads a bunch of times in a row. Then it comes up tails, and I know I’m no longer hot. But if you give me enough coin flips, I’ll get hot again.

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    • charityslave says:

      Puzzling. A person who reads Fangraphs said this.

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  9. derflotr says:

    This quasi-argument is wholly unresearched and reactive, but Adams definitely stung consecutive line drive singles THROUGH the shift into right field on Monday evening in Milwaukee. Not sure how absolutist he is in his apparently newfound proclivity to beat the shift (I’d be curious to see where those particular pitches were in the strike zone).

    But he’s definitely smart in hitting towards a hole if that’s what a pitcher is giving him. Seems like pitchers continue to pitch away even when the exaggerated shift is on because they just don’t expect the batter to adjust even when there’s a lot of incentive to do so.

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  10. JMo37 says:

    Small sample size, but is Adams headed the way of A. Craig’s power decline?

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    • Jay says:

      It’s 2 weeks. He has the same number of HRs as Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis, Yasiel Puig, Bryce Harper etc. etc. Also he’s slugging .537 with a .167 ISO (both numbers higher than any of those players). I know we all love to prognosticate over small sample sizes, but I think is one fear we can safely ignore right now.

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  11. Baltar says:

    I have been writing for some time in comments that a player doesn’t have to bunt to counter the shift–merely hit to the opposite side by holding back on the swing.
    It looks like Adams is doing this now. I expect others to follow.

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  12. TKDC says:

    RBIs? Really?

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  13. Roger Craig says:

    One issue that is worth considering in addition to the effect on batter performance is the effect on defensive measurements. The measurements were already a black box of randomness. My understanding is that they ignore plays where the defense is shifted. Well, the Yankees shift on almost every single play. There is nothing left! The mythological 3 years for meaningful data will go up to about 6!

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    • joser says:

      They’re not exactly black boxes of randomness, but they are black boxes (containing a significant amount of noise and possible bias). My understanding (as of a couple of years ago) is that DRS and UZR (which both use BIS data) do exclude defensive plays involving shifts from their data (because BIS does), but FRAA and TotalZone do not. (Of course whether FRAA and TZ account for them “properly” is a separate question)

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  14. Chris says:

    or his BABIP will come down or maybe

    Call me crazy, but I think a .425 BABIP is more than sustainable for a guy hitting the side of the field where there’s no infield defense. (Whether or not he accumulates RBIs!)

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    • LithiumLi3 says:

      And if they do finally stop or relax the shift, he stands a good chance of still exceeding last year’s BABIP.

      Advantage: Adams

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  15. SucramRenrut says:

    I can’t remember what game it was last week, either Toronto or the Yankees were playing I think, and their opponent was in the shift with runners on and with 2 outs, and the batter (of course) proceeded to hit a grounder to short which went through. Surely with forces available at more than just first base, and two outs, shifting can’t be statistically sound? Blew my mind.

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  16. The Dude Abides says:

    FYI, Tanaka gave up two hits in eight innings today against the Cubs. The only two hits were bunts by Rizzo down the third base line against the shift.

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    • The Dude Abides says:

      Correction — one of the bunts was by Junior Lake, but the one by Rizzo was definitely against the shift.

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    • Al Dimond says:

      Rizzo has done that at least one other time this year, and I think he was quoted somewhere as saying he worked on going to left against the shift and using a shorter, no-stride swing sometimes. Sounds like a fine idea to me. It might not be the right strategy for Williams, Bonds, and Thome, but… not every lefty with power is one of those guys.

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  17. Bobby Melody says:

    I saw the Mets play the Angels last Sat. night. Curtis Granderson was walked twice (it should have been three, but he took a rip at a chest-high 3 and 0 pitch and popped up). They put a a shift on him and considering he is hitting 170, he could have and should have taken advantage of the shift and dribble a ball down the third base line.

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  18. Chris says:

    He’s driven in only two runs, and that’s the trade-off.

    Mike should be thrilled to learn that Matt Adams drove in a run tonight with a ground ball to second base. See what happened? He abandoned the crazy efforts to hit opposite-field, and now he’s FINALLY producing runs!! /snark

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  19. John H says:

    So we argue that shifts should be employed because we have hundreds of at bats that say a hitter hits a certain way. Now after a tenth of season we should over react to a guy going against our data?

    I watched all of the Cinci-St. Louis opening series, and most/if not all of Adams hits the opposite way, including that GIF, were not by skill. On that double off of Cueto he completely cue balls that down the line.

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    • Chris says:

      Actually, I argue that we don’t know what you think that “our data” say. Why should we act like the 278 balls that Matt Adams put into play as a major leaguer in 2012 and 2013 have cemented, for all eternity, his hitting profile—especially since we now have 53 from 2014 that are suggesting otherwise? Should we be so attached to a certain interpretation of (very limited) data that we’re blinded to the (very real) possibility that a 25-year old hitter might be able to adjust his approach at the plate?… over an offseason when he’s transitioning from a platoon/pinch-hitting role to an everyday position?… while looking over his shoulder at a highly-touted AAA outfielder that might end up depriving him of his everyday spot in the lineup if he can’t hack it?… and given the fact that most teams seem perfectly content to give him free hits as a reward for hitting routine ground balls to the left side?

      Second, the batted ball data from 2012 and 2013 don’t even make as strong an argument for Adams being a dead pull hitter as many people seem to think! The Cardinals blog on SB Nation actually wrote this up over the offseason, and found that Adams-2013 tended to pull the ball at about a league average rate for lefties, and hit opposite field at a slightly lesser rate. Why does “league average” location profile automatically justify leaving the left side of the infield undefended?

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  20. oldbopper says:

    As a long time proponent of the bunt to beat the shift I have seen statistics that show it was successful in 56 out of 90 attempts in 2012 and 2013. In addition the 34 unsuccessful attempts did not, and I emphasize did not, result in outs. The OBP plus SLG of this approach appears to produce an OPS of 1,500 or even higher. Why wouldn’t every player use this tactic when facing the shift if baseball is truly a team game, but do the egos of the players get in the way of success of the team. The leadoff man should always bunt into the shift, even Big Papi, and when there is a man on 1st and less than 2 outs every hitter should bunt. Failing to do so yells at the next hitter in the lineup , You Stink, and I can’t rely on you to drive in the runners. Every run scoring metric screams the value of base runners and here the defense is conceding a runner yet old school baseball men, very few with much education, are too stubborn to change.

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