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The Problem With the Shift

The concept of “the shift” has become more widely used throughout major-league baseball. While some teams shift more than most, others are shifted against more than most. The Shift Era is still relatively new as teams dive deeper and deeper into the analytical realm to increase winning percentage. However, is using the shift actually effective?

I believe that there are certainly situations where the shift should be utilized. Players such as David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Brian McCann, etc. generally are the style of players to shift against. Older players generally rely more on pulling the ball because they are able to generate more power. These styles of pull-only hitters are usually prime targets for shifting against. My question is, why haven’t these players adapted their swing against the shift?

When learning swing mechanics, you’re taught to square up the baseball and drive the ball where it’s pitched. When shifting, pitchers are forced to make very selective pitches to avoid batters driving the ball the other way through the shift. This is hard for pitchers because it takes away some of their effectiveness. Hitters are beginning to find ways to beat the shift and steal easy hits. If a batter is in a shift situation, they can essentially eliminate pitches towards the outside half of the plate. Knowing the pitcher’s pitch arsenal, the batter can then be selective in his approach. Depending on the count, the batter can determine the next pitch, whether it’s offspeed or a fastball. Obviously a tailing fastball in on the hands is hard not to roll over into the shift, but that’s just good pitching.

Batters are finally beginning to grasp that they can beat the shift by simply putting down a bunt down the line. Or, they can create longer bat lag from their hands letting the ball travel deeper in the zone and taking the ball to the opposite field. The best hitters in baseball are those who can hit to all areas of the field. Charlie Blackmon was shifted against 121 times this year; he hit .412 against the shift. Why in the world would teams shift against him 121 times? Kris Bryant was shifted against 210 times; he hit .364. Players like this who are able to adapt their swing progressions at the plate should not be shifted against this often. Teams are simply giving them easy hits, which lead to runs. The whole point of the shift is to avoid baserunners, right?

Again, there are some batters against whom shifting works. Brian McCann was shifted against 248 times and still hit .243 against the shift, which is still pretty good considering it’s towards the bottom of the league. Lucas Duda was shifted against 241 times, hitting .243; still not terrible. Again, there are situations you can get away with shifting. The only time teams should shift should be with no runners on, strict pull hitters, and with a pitcher who’s comfortable with pitching inside.

When teams shift with runners on, I believe it’s a terrible strategy. It’s considerably difficult turning a routine double play with players out of their positions. Also, it’s difficult to catch runners stealing when you have a third baseman trying to find the bag and make the tag. Players like Dustin Pedroia have taken advantage of teams using the shift with runners on to take the extra base with the third baseman out of position. Players are beginning to find holes in the shift and are taking advantage, leading to runs.

When shifting, I believe the best option is to leave the shortstop between 2nd and 3rd, the second baseman shaded up the middle towards the bag, and the third baseman moving into right field between 1st and 2nd. With the third baseman in this position, he can create the same angle to 1st as when he’s at 3rd. This way players are in more comfortable standard positions, keeping the double play a more viable option. Shifting works in certain situations, but teams need to be more careful as hitters begin to adapt their approaches and steal easy hits, using the shift against the enemy.

Cody Bellinger’s Ability to Be Great

Cody Bellinger was called up by the Dodgers to the big leagues on April 25th of this year. Coming in at only 21 years of age, Bellinger was looking to make a name for himself. Toward the beginning of the season he would split starts between left field and first base. Eventually Adrian Gonzalez would go down to injury, giving Bellinger the opportunity of being an everyday first baseman. Bellinger rose to the occasion, cementing himself in the history books, as he will be the National League Rookie of the Year. Not only will he achieve this award, but he helped bring his team to the World Series. Before Bellinger’s arrival to the team, the Dodgers were 9 for their first 20 games. The Dodgers would go on to win 104 of their 162 games.

During the course of the season, Bellinger put up incredible numbers. He played in 132 games throughout the year, driving in 97 runs, scoring 87 times, and belting an astonishing 39 home runs, finishing only behind the powerful Giancarlo Stanton (with 59). Bellinger had a respectable .267 batting average while maintaining a .352 on-base percentage and .581 slugging percentage. He was a force at the plate, putting fear into the eyes of many pitchers. Although he didn’t walk so much — only 11.7% of the time — he still managed to have a wOBA of .380, staying in the top 30 for the MLB. On average, he would draw a walk for about every two strikeouts; not the best, but still better than most players belting over 30 homers. His plate discipline was above average for power hitters throughout the season, but come postseason, this would all change.

Throughout much of the postseason, most people were reflecting on Aaron Judge’s struggles, after having himself a historic season at the plate. Judge would break the record for strikeouts in a postseason until Bellinger would then beat this unfavorable record with 29. Through Bellinger’s 15 postseason games, he would belt three home runs, driving in nine runs and scoring 10 times while walking only three times. Most of these statistics happened during the NLDS and NLCS. His wOBA would fall to .295, with a .219 batting average, walking 4.5% of the time, while striking out in an astounding 43.3% of his plate appearances. In fact, in the World Series alone, he would achieve 17 of his 29 strikeouts. Bellinger would struggle immensely at the plate throughout the World Series, with the exceptions of Games 4 and 5.

During the series, the Astros pitching staff would focus on beating Bellinger in on the hands with curveballs falling out of the zone, and with fastballs tailing up and away. Amazingly, Bellinger during the regular season only chased pitches out of the zone 29.7% of the time. This would change immensely as the Astros pitching staff’s effective deception would often pull Bellinger’s bat out of the zone.

In Game 4, Bellinger would face Astros pitcher Charlie Morton in the top of the 5th with no outs in a 1-2 count. Bellinger’s stance is in a more upright position with his bat also in a vertical position. This makes creating torque through his hands a little more awkward, as he rolls his hands into a hitting position. When this curveball begins to spin further in on his hands, it becomes too difficult to bring his hands in further, leading to this awful swing and follow-through shown. His approach on this pitch looks as if he’s trying to hit the ball 500 feet over the right-field wall; not an optimal mindset in a 1-2 count when you know the curveball is coming. His head was nowhere near the zone; he may as well have swung with his eyes closed. This is the position we often saw Bellinger in throughout the World Series when thrown an inside curveball. However, Bellinger would use this at-bat for his next plate appearance.

Now we see later in the game Bellinger is in a 1-1 count facing Morton in the top of the 7th. He knows he’s going to see a curveball in on his hands and adjusts accordingly. His body is in a lower position with his bat in a more angled approach, with his hands staying back, anticipating curveball, looking to stay in on the ball with his hands and drive it to right field. Bellinger manages to fight this pitch off, fouling it back, showing his adjustment helped. His follow-through is also in a significantly better position, with his head staying back looking at the ball, and his body stays in a more balanced stance. This approach, showing that he’s able to make even a small adjustment to making contact with the low and in curveball, led pitchers to start targeting the outside upper half of the zone with the fastball again.

Here we see in Game 4, Bellinger faces Astros pitcher Charlie Morton with a 1-1 count and 0 outs in the top of the 5th. Bellinger’s body is not in an effective hitting position for hitting this outside fastball. His body is falling out away from the zone, his pivot foot is not providing any power, and his hands reach out from his body too far. Bellinger would acknowledge this issue and had this to say before Game 4:

“I hit every ball in BP today to the left side of the infield,” Bellinger said. “I’ve never done that before in my life. Usually I try to lift. I needed to make an adjustment and saw some results today. I’m pulling off everything. Usually in BP I just try to lift, have fun in BP. But today I tried to make an adjustment. I needed to make an adjustment, and so I decided I’m hitting every ball to left field today.”

This is exactly what Bellinger would do.

In the top of the 9th in Game 4 with a 1-0 count and no outs, Bellinger faces Astros closer Ken Giles with runners on. Bellinger has his eyes locked in on the ball as he’s seen this pitch before. He’s using his approach from batting practice earlier to drill this ball into the gap. He keeps his body in an athletic hitting position, keeping his hands in and generating all his power through his lower half, creating torque through his strong hands. We see him drive this ball into the left-center gap, keeping his eyes on the ball the whole way and maintaining a strong follow-through. Bellinger did exactly what he said he would do and helped his team win this game. He would then carry on this adjustment into Game 5, showing people why he will be this year’s NL RoY.

Although Bellinger would fall into his old habits in Games 6 and 7, his ability to recognize where the problem is and the ability he has to adjust is what makes him an effective hitter. Through this, Bellinger will only continue to become better and will continue to become one of the most feared hitters in the league this next season. At only 22 years old now, Bellinger will become the next big star in this great sport we call Baseball.