Somewhere along the line it occurred to the people who keep track of this stuff, that if a hitter spent most of his time pulling the ball, you might want to put more defenders on that side of the field.
It wasn’t exactly a new idea.
According to a story published by the New York Post, White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes shifted his infield with Ted Williams at the plate and did it back in 1941. According to the same story, the shift made Williams laugh: he doubled down the left-field line. Later, in a different game, Williams bunted down the left-field line and Dykes ultimately quit using that shift.
Five years later Lou Boudreau, manager of the Cleveland Indians, resurrected the shift against Williams and, for whatever reason, he’s the guy we remember using it.
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Now jump forward to Sept. 7, 2017.
Lorenzo Cain vs. the Twins
On Sept. 7 the Royals started a four-game series against the Minnesota Twins and the Twins were playing a right-handed shift against Lorenzo Cain — three infielders between second and third base and a very lonely first baseman, Joe Mauer, on the right side.
In the first game of the series Cain pulled the ball to the left side of second base every time he came to the plate and went 1 for 4 on an infield single.
But by the second game of the series Cain changed his approach and was trying to hit the ball to the opposite field: from that point on Cain hit .333 and slugged .500. After the series was over Cain said he was sorry the Royals would not see the Twins again this season: he liked hitting against that shift.
Here’s a lesson to be learned from that Twins-Royals series:
If you look at a spray chart and see a guy hits more ground balls between second and third base than first and second base, before you decide to put on a shift, go watch batting practice. Watch BP and you’ll see the guys who can take the ball to the opposite field work on it. Some guys pull the ball because they have no choice, other guys can go the other way when they want to.
And when Lorenzo Cain looked up and saw only one guy on the right side of the infield, he wanted to go the other way.
The unintended consequences of a defensive shift
Now here’s a quote from the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia:
“In the social sciences, unintended consequences (sometimes unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences) are outcomes that are not the ones foreseen and intended by a purposeful action. The term was popularised in the twentieth century by American sociologist Robert K. Merton.”
My computer seems to think Wikipedia misspelled “popularized” but for the moment let’s ignore that and stick to Bob’s point: every action has consequences and sometimes those consequences aren’t the ones you hope for.
On Sept. 13 the Royals were playing the Chicago White Sox and in the top of the eighth inning third baseman Yolmer Sanchez positioned himself well off third base with left-handed hitter Alex Gordon at the plate.
The problem with that positioning was the runner on second base: Terrance Gore.
If he tried to steal third base, Gore knew Sanchez would have a long run to cover the bag; it would be a footrace and when it comes to footraces, Gore like his odds.
Gore stole third standing up and then scored on a ground out.
This past Friday night the Royals were once again playing the White Sox and with left-handed Brandon Moss at the plate, third baseman Yolmer Sanchez was once again positioned over toward short.
This time the runner was Eric Hosmer and he was on third base.
Because no defender was in the vicinity, Hosmer could take an aggressive primary lead and a very aggressive secondary lead. When the pitcher threw a ball in the dirt, the catcher blocked it, but it rolled several feet away from home plate and because of his lead at third base, Hosmer scored standing up.
Putting on a defensive shift to stop the batter from getting a hit allowed two base runners to move up 90 feet and cost the White Sox two runs.
Pay attention to defensive shifts
As the season winds down teams will continue to play shifts and sometimes they’ll work and sometimes they won’t. When a hitter puts a ball in play away from an overloaded defense, announcers will say the hitter beat the shift, and he did.
But when a runner takes an extra 90 feet because of extreme infield positioning, the runner beat the shift as well.