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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