Despite what we think about baseball being a timeless game, it’s a game that’s constantly changing. Base runners are stealing 100 bases a year and pitchers respond by creating the slide step — it’s not so easy to steal 100 bases anymore. The game does something about cleaning up PEDs and suddenly sitting around waiting for someone to hit a home run isn’t such a hot tactic.
And the latest step forward on the evolutionary scale would seem to be how hitters are responding to defensive shifts.
In recent years, teams started using spray charts to put their defenders in the spots where hitters were most likely to hit the ball. A left-handed hitter could step to the plate and see what looked like a team’s entire roster stationed between first and second base.
Last season, Mike Moustakas was facing those shifts, and when I asked him if he was going to go the other way — hit the ball to the lightly protected left side of the field — or go over and through the shifts, Mike said over and through.
Last season, Mike Moustakas hit .212.
This season, Moustakas has decided to take what the defense gives him and he’s currently hitting .340. After Moose successfully bunted against the shift on Thursday night, the Tigers modified their defensive positioning. Friday night, the guy on the left side of the infield was playing more toward third base.
But when Eric Hosmer stepped to the plate on Friday, the lone defender on the infield was way over by second base because Hosmer hadn’t shown he was willing to bunt against the shift. Two pitches later, Hosmer showed he was willing to play small ball and bunted for a single. That bunt single pushed Lorenzo Cain to second base and got Kendrys Morales to the plate with a runner in scoring position — heck, now that I think about it, Kendrys had two runners in scoring position.
Kendrys did what Kendrys does: he doubled and both runs scored — the Royals had a lead they’d never give up.
And after Eric Hosmer showed a willingness to bunt against an overloaded shift, the Tigers modified their defensive position; just like Moustakas, next time up Hosmer faced a defense that had the defender on the left side positioned closer to the third base line.
Baseball and ballplayers evolve; if we pay attention we can see it happening.
Chris Young: windup vs. the stretch
Friday night, Chris Young threw five no-hit innings and made the Detroit Tigers look a little silly while doing it. His slider was falling off the table and some of the best hitters in baseball were swinging and missing by healthy margins. Young got 15 outs and most of them came on sliders; and once he got the hitter looking slider, he could punch a fastball in the high-80s right past them.
Young was also working efficiently with good rhythm and pace — until he walked Ian Kinsler in the fourth inning.
When pitchers are dealing, one of the tactics that can be used against them is to find some way — any way — to get a runner on base. Force the pitcher to pitch out of the stretch, not the windup. Make the pitcher worry about a runner. Maybe having to vary the time the he holds the ball in the set position will mess him up. If the pitcher has to use a slide step, maybe that will throw him off.
And once Kinsler reached first base, it did look like Young was a lot less comfortable.
Friday night, Chris Young threw 81 pitches and 51 of them were strikes; about 63 percent. Break those numbers down just a bit and you find that Young threw strikes 66 percent of the time with no runners on base, but with runners on base Young’s strike percentage dropped to 53 percent.
To be sure, big-league pitchers aren’t always trying to throw strikes. In fact, after the game Young said: “They’re such a good hitting team it’s hard to live in the zone. They’ll crush you. You try to get ahead and expand.” In other words: throw a strike or two and then throw pitches just off the plate and see if the hitters will chase.
After Kinsler reached base, Young walked Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. But once the bases were loaded Young could go back to the full windup and after that he looked a lot more comfortable and struck out the next two hitters.
So next time Chris Young gets in a jam he can “try to get ahead and expand” and if that doesn’t work maybe he could just walk the bases loaded.