Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas was seeing a lot of infield shifts in 2014. When he came to the plate, three defenders were arranging themselves between first and second base, one defender between second and third.
Asked about bunting or hitting the ball to the open side of the infield, Moustakas said he wasn’t going to change. He was going to continue to pull the ball and hit it through or over the shifts.
That season, Moustakas hit .212.
The next spring, Royals bench coach Dale Sveum, then the team's hitting coach, went to work on changing Moustakas’ approach. Sveum thought Moustakas needed to take advantage of what the shift was giving him ... and after hitting .212 the previous season, Moustakas was willing to listen.
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When a hitter consistently pulls the ball, pitchers can pitch him on the outside part of the plate knowing the hitter will reach out and hit a weak grounder to the pull-side of the field. Because the hitter is reaching for the outside pitch, it robs him of power.
Instead of pulling the ball into the overloaded right side of the infield, Sveum wanted Moustakas to learn to wait a touch longer, let the ball travel deeper in the zone, and then drive that outside pitch to the lightly defended left side of the infield.
In 2015 Moustakas hit .284.
Why don't more hitters make the same adjustment Moustakas made? Sveum says a lot of them just can’t do it; their swing mechanics won’t allow it. And this is where things get a bit complicated.
All swings have rotation (spinning motion) and weight shift (back-to-front motion). Hitters who emphasize rotation tend to stay in one place and spin. That means their bat isn’t in the zone that long, but because their swings are short they have an easier time making contact out in front of the plate. That means they can pull the ball into the short parts of the park — the corners — and that can increase home runs.
Hitters who emphasize weight shift tend to have longer swings, leave the bat in the zone longer and have an easier time waiting and driving the ball up the middle and to the opposite field. And that can increase batting average.
Moustakas, one of the best all-around athletes on the Royals, was able to make the necessary adjustment. Other hitters find it much more difficult.
As Sveum put it, you can tell those hitters they ought to hit the ball to the opposite field, but it’s not in their DNA.
The logical question becomes: So why not bunt?
In 2014, Moustakas was 0-for-1 when bunting for a hit. In 2015, he was 3-for-4. Moustakas says you don’t have to be a great bunter to bunt against a shift: just bunt the ball hard enough to get it past the pitcher’s mound and you’ve got a hit.
But when Royals manager Ned Yost was asked why more of his players don’t bunt against the shift, he said it’s not as easy as it looks.
Some players practice bunting but still don’t have a feel for doing it in a game. It’s one thing to bunt against a pitching machine or a coach throwing batting practice, but it's quite another to do it against a 96 mph fastball with movement.
This season, when a player has tried to bunt against the shift but misses or fouls the ball off, and the count goes 0-1, the Royals have hit .224 as a team. If a guy isn’t confident about bunting, he might be afraid to try it, get down in the count and then go on to have a bad at-bat.
But if a hitter does bunt successfully against a shift, didn’t the shift still work?
That’s one of the arguments for shifting: Maybe getting a power hitter to accept a bunt single is better than the threat of a home run.
Yost doesn’t buy that argument. He uses Moustakas as an example. Last year, Moustakas had 598 plate appearances and hit 38 home runs. Yost says he doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about something that only happens 6 percent of the time.
If an opposing player bunts unsuccessfully against a Royals shift, Yost says he wouldn’t change a thing. The player needs to show the Royals manager he can make a bunt work before Yost would realign his defense.
But if a player were to bunt successfully against the shift — and do it more than once — he says he’d have to rethink his defense. Giving the other team an easy bunt single — especially to lead off an inning — is a good way to help an opponent start a rally.
A few more stats, staying with Moustakas as an example:
In 2014, Moustakas put 47 balls in play to the opposite field and hit .234 and slugged .298 when the ball went in that direction.
In 2015, Moustakas put 78 balls in play to the opposite field and hit .436 and slugged .603 when the ball went in that direction.
The Royals infielder says the goal is to show the other team that you can hurt them when they put on a shift and force them to go back to playing you straight up. But even though Moustakas has hit over .300 and slugged well over .400 on balls hit to left field this season, you still see teams shift on him.
Moustakas says he doesn’t see a shift and decide to hit the ball the other way; he still has to get the right pitch to do that. But since changing his approach in 2015, Moustakas now has the skill-set to take advantage of outside pitches and drive them to left field instead of rolling over and hitting weak grounders into the shift.
Some people think the shift is changing, if not ruining, the game. But the game has always been changing and always will. And if hitters don’t like facing shifts, it’s up to them to show they can beat them.
In fact, one could argue that the shift will eventually improve the game because it’s forcing dead-pull hitters to become more complete players.
And until those hitters make an adjustment, or until they're outlawed, we’re going to continue seeing infield shifts.