There Is No Easy Counter-Shift

Usage of the defensive shift has exploded in recent years, most especially against left-handed bats. More and more teams are shifting more and more often, and there’s a reason this trend shows no signs of slowing down: hitters have been incapable of killing it dead. We celebrate Mike Moustakas for his victory over opposing alignments. Moustakas is the exception.

I’ve been thinking about the shift because of Jimmy Rollins. Or maybe it’s because of Ken Rosenthal, I don’t know, but Rosenthal had a Rollins section in his latest notes article. I’ll excerpt:

Rollins, a switch-hitter, said he needed to adjust to the shifts that he faced batting left-handed. McGwire and Valentin advised him to let the ball travel deeper into the zone, but Rollins said it was difficult to make that correction while facing 90-mph fastballs in the middle of the season.
[…]
“We worked on taking advantage of the overshift,” Rollins said. “You don’t have to crush the ball. You can dribble the ball sometimes and put them in a position where they have to go far for it. They’ll straighten up then. They’ll get tired of that game.”

Think quickly, and it all makes sense. As a lefty, Rollins pulls a ton of his grounders, and teams have increasingly responded by shifting the infield. Rollins doesn’t like that — Rollins doesn’t like losing hits — so he’s set about trying to beat the shift by slapping the ball the other direction. Do that often enough, and successfully enough, and in theory the shift goes away. Then you can try to drive the ball, and get some of the hits the shift had been stealing.

The biggest problem is right there in the excerpt. A hitter can have whatever intentions he likes. But in the flow of a major-league game, it’s not nearly so simple to customize your approach and swing. For the most part, a hitter’s swing is his swing. It can be tweaked, but it is what it is, having been crafted over the course of several seasons. Even the best hitters don’t have both a good pull swing and a good push swing. Going back and forth is difficult, if not impossible, and this is one of the reasons teams love shifting in the first place: If the hitter tries to change his approach, they already count it as a win. When you try to beat the shift by swinging, you’re not swinging how you always have, and you’re cutting down on your own power.

It’s suggested that Rollins could let the ball travel, and then he’ll hit more to left. And then defenses would have to play him more straight-up, so Rollins could go back to pulling. And then on and on. It’s just far simpler in theory than in practice. It’s too much to ask most hitters to have multiple effective swings. Many hitters have enough trouble with one.

The better strategy should be obvious. Rollins wants to beat the shift, but it’s challenging to do so while swinging away. So, Rollins should bunt. Rollins has a history of bunting, and he can still run a little bit. If he were to bunt more, he wouldn’t have to mess around with multiple swings. He could keep the same swing, the familiar swing, and from time to time, he could go up, observe the defense, and put one down. With the overshift alignment, a good bunt is an automatic single. The issue here is that bunting is underratedly hard, even for the experienced bunters. Rollins last year had one bunt single as a lefty. He had zero in 2014, and zero in 2013. Bunting well isn’t as easy as sticking the bat out in front of you, and even if it were, then what? If the defense were to adjust by moving the third baseman closer to the bag, that still doesn’t exactly open up a lot of space for swing-away hits.

In this article from C. Trent Rosecrans, Jay Bruce and Joey Votto talk some about improving their bunts. Bruce acknowledges how hard it is to execute, referring to bunting as an art form. Votto says a bunter has to be perceived as a bunting threat, and he thinks he’s been inconsistent. Votto adds that he doesn’t want to embarrass himself, and that trying to bunt if you’re not a good bunter is wasteful. There’s valuable substance here, I think: Votto’s bat control is as good as you’ll find. He has three bunt hits in his life. If it were an easy thing to do, Votto would do it with far more confidence.

Defenses shift the pull hitters. They knowingly open up plenty of real estate to the opposite field. They proceed because they know it’s a tough alignment to beat. It’s incredibly difficult as a pull hitter to learn how to not be a pull hitter, and while it’s less difficult to learn how to drop down a bunt, it’s far harder than it’s given credit for. It’s not like bunting is some revolutionary idea — it occurs to everyone just the same when they see all that empty space. Bunts against the shift haven’t exactly taken off, and it’s not an accident. Pitches are flying 95 miles per hour, unless they’re flying 80 miles per hour, and all of them are moving, and you never know where the next one’s going to go. A hitter can desire to beat the shift, but we all desire lots of things.

To many, it’s a question of how to beat the shift. To me, it’s a question of why shifting took so long to spread. In retrospect, it seems like it should’ve been a thing almost from the get-go, and now that it’s here, it’s impossible to picture baseball without it. Because frequent shifting is still somewhat new, there’s the idea that it can be overcome, that hitters can fight to get back the hits that they’ve lost. It’s the whole action/reaction thing, based upon the notion that the game is cyclical. To me, it seems people are just psychologically anchored to how the game was. I think there’s a misconception that the shift can be defeated. It’s always going to be a problem. It’s so common we probably shouldn’t even think of it as shifting anymore. More optimal defensive alignment will always be better for defenders than hitters, and hitters just aren’t good enough to pick where they want to hit the baseball. Not now, not consistently, not productively.

Long-term, I’m sure things will find some sort of balance. Teams will be incentivized to find spray hitters, guys who put the ball all over the place unpredictably, and it stands to reason that’ll eventually be reflected in the stats. Teams will want to draft those players, and teams will want to develop those players. The majors will probably end up more selective for the all-fields type. That’s not something that happens overnight, and for players already high up in the professional ranks, it’s usually too late to make a massive adjustment. There are years upon years of repetition in place. It’s a considerable undertaking to re-work a swing, and as easy as it can look to drop down a bunt, they’ll all assure you it’s almost impossible. It’s not as impossible as actually hitting, but, few things are.

From time to time, this year and next year and in so many years ahead, a ball will be put in play in an area a shift leaves vacant. In those specific instances, the shift will have been defeated. The frequency of shifting will also continue to rise, and already, we practically take the shift for granted. It’s just not a thing the hitters can kill. There is no proven counter-attack against defensive optimization.

We hoped you liked reading There Is No Easy Counter-Shift by Jeff Sullivan!

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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.

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HappyFunBall
Member
HappyFunBall

I’m thinking that the developmental point here is younger players who aren’t projected to be major power threats. The 40-HR hitters of tomorrow aren’t going to mess with their power stroke, but if you’re only going to be a 15 HR guy at best, there’s probably a good deal to be gained by learning to lay down a good bunt now and again.

John Wick
Member
Member
John Wick

One of the primary points of this article is that it’s exceedingly difficult to bunt well. My guess is that for a vast majority of players you simply can’t teach this skill effectively. In the future, the 15-HR power pull hitter is likely just a lousy hitter.

Famous Mortimer
Member

Still a bit easier than actually hitting though, I’d have thought?

HappyFunBall
Member
HappyFunBall

Agreed.

What I am suggesting is that there is a category of hitter who might benefit from working more on bunting during an early developmental period, rather than waiting until they’re in the majors and getting shifted to death.