About a week ago I wrote a column asking readers whether Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas should bunt against infield shifts—I guess I should have asked Mike Moustakas.
In Saturday’s game against the Diamondbacks, Mike came to the plate in the fourth inning with Eric Hosmer on first base and three Diamondback defenders between first and second base. Moose laid down a perfect bunt to the largely unpopulated left side of the field and picked up a single while moving Eric Hosmer into scoring position. Paulo Orlando followed that with another single and—bingo—the Royals picked up a run when Hosmer came around to score.
According to the Sacramento Bee and Baseball Info Solutions, big league teams used infield shifts 13,000 times in 2014. My memory may be slightly faulty, but it seemed like about 12,999 of those shifts were used when Moose was at the plate and Mike hit .212 on the season.
If you’re a Royals fan you probably saw Moustakas lose a number of hits last season when he pulled a baseball to the right side of the field, directly into an overloaded infield shift. This season Royals fans may see something different.
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On Wednesday afternoon I watched Mike take batting practice and he spent the first round hitting the ball to the opposite field. That night, against the Chicago White Sox Mike drove a deep fly ball to left; once again hitting the ball to the opposite field. Friday afternoon Moose took more opposite field BP and Friday night he doubled to left center and lined out to left.
I asked Royals manager Ned Yost if we were going to see Moose hitting the ball the other way more often in 2015, but, as Ned pointed out to me, changing your swing at the big league level isn’t easy.
Some ballplayers grow up pulling the ball and being rewarded for it. Those players have pop and their high school and college coaches wanted them to use it: pull the ball for power, let the little guys worry about singles the other way.
According to Yost it’s hard for some players to overcome a lifetime habit of pulling the ball. Ned said hitting the ball the other way was a skill he could never master; he’d been pulling the ball all his life and learning to wait and take the ball to the opposite field was difficult for him.
Players who have spent their entire careers being rewarded for pulling the ball can make it all the way to the big leagues before facing a level of competition that makes hitting the ball the other way a necessity.
And bunting against the shift (which once again sounds simple) can be tough as well. If you’re a left-handed hitter with pop—like Moustakas—you haven’t been asked to do a whole lot of bunting in your career. Now you’re learning to bunt against pitchers who throw 96 with movement.
Friday afternoon I got to talk to Mike about hitting the ball to the opposite field when teams put a shift on him and he said he was going to try it, but it would depend on the situation.
If the guy on the mound was a tough lefty, taking a single to left would probably make some sense, but if the pitcher were a righty who Mike had hit well in the past, Moose still might try to pull for power.
In baseball there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Situations change nightly and the game is too complex to say a hitter should bunt or go the other way every time he faces a shift. If your team needs a runner that’s one thing; if your team needs you to drive in some runs that’s another.
Pitcher Luke Hochevar was listening in on the conversation and said it might also depend on how well Mike was seeing the ball; when a hitter gets in a good groove—when the game slows down and he sees the ball well—he feels like he can hit anybody and for a week or two he can. Unfortunately, being in that kind of zone never lasts long, but if Moose is seeing the ball well it might change his approach.
The game continues to evolve.
Speed is in, then on-base percentage and power; then the pendulum swings and teams start stealing bases. To stop those base stealers pitchers develop slide steps. Nobody throws a cutter, then everybody throws a cutter.
In 2014 infield shifts were the next big thing; Saturday afternoon, in the fourth inning of a spring training game, we may have seen the pendulum start its swing back the other way.