In the bottom of the second inning Tuesday, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz stepped to the plate and saw three Royals infielders shifted to the right side. Ortiz is a pull hitter with 10 home runs and 33 RBIs this season; so if he wanted to continue pulling the ball, he would have to do it through or over three infielders.
The count went to 2-0, a fastball count. Yordano Ventura threw a fastball inside. Ortiz let it go; if he put that fastball in play, it would be pulled into the shift. Ortiz got another fastball and he was running out of options, so he swung and fouled it off.
Now Ventura had painted Ortiz in a corner; with two strikes Big Papi would have to swing at anything close.
Ortiz saw two off-speed pitches, a changeup and a curve. He fouled the first one off and pulled the second one into the shift for a ground-ball out. He went hitless Tuesday in game one of the series.
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How the shift works
The first part of a defensive shift is obvious: three infielders are swung around to one side of the field. The less obvious part is how the hitter is pitched; throw off-speed pitches or inside fastballs and force the hitter to pull the ball.
And if the hitter is extremely pull-prone, you can throw those fastballs wherever you like and count on the hitter pulling the ball into an overloaded defense.
Combating the shift
So that’s how a shift works; how does a hitter combat it?
Ask Eric Hosmer what adjustment he’s making against those shifts and the answer is not much. Hosmer is just ignoring the shifts, which is probably a good idea when you’re hitting .336. And if you can hit a baseball 406 feet over the shift — and that’s what Hosmer did for his seventh home run of the season Tuesday — that works too.
When you’re going good, don’t let the shifts get in your head and don’t change a thing.
But switch-hitting Kendrys Morales is in a different situation. He is hitting .196 and it’s even worse when you look at his numbers from the left side of the plate; then his average drops to .147.
Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello threw Morales almost nothing but off-speed pitches Tuesday. In his first three at-bats, Morales saw 11 pitches and only two were fastballs. And when Morales sees a fastball it’s likely to be inside.
It’s easy to say hitters should hit the ball toward the lightly-defended side of the infield, but the other team is doing everything they can to make that difficult. Tuesday night there were times when it was clear Morales was trying to hit the ball to left field, but if you don’t get a pitch out over the plate, that’s tough to do.
Should power hitters bunt against the shift?
Once again, easier said than done.
Shifts are mainly used against left-handed power hitters and generally speaking left-handed power hitters don’t spend a lot of time bunting — it’s just not part of their game. And even guys who do spend a lot of time on bunting can find it difficult to do against big-league pitching.
Bunting off a pitching machine at 3 in the afternoon is a whole lot different than bunting a 95 mph fastball with movement at 9 that night.
And one of the reasons teams shift is to get a power hitter to accept a bunt single; much better than letting that power hitter put one in the cheap seats. And once the power hitter is on first base, he tends to clog up the base paths. Take the bunt single and you still might be three more singles away from a run.
So what’s the answer?
If you can’t do what Eric Hosmer is doing, maybe it’s time to copy Mike Moustakas. After he hit .212 in 2014 Moustakas changed his game; he worked on his bunting and opposite-field hitting.
And not only did he hit for average, Moustakas hit for power. He found he could look for fastballs out over the plate and take those to left field, but still pull a hanging off-speed pitch, hit it over the shift and with any luck, over the right-field wall.
In any case, it will be interesting to see what Morales does next, because as long as he’s hitting .147 from the left side, teams will not stop shifting.