Just a Bit Outside: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Shift and Love the Long Ball

by Sam Stockton | 4/24/17 2:05am

The infield shift, once reserved for elite hitters, has become ubiquitous in professional baseball. In 2016, FiveThirtyEight called the shift “this decade’s defining baseball tactic.” As teams tap deeper into the analytics well, they have taken to using spray charts — diagrams indicating where a given batter tends to hit balls — to determine hitters’ tendencies and to adjust their fielders in response.

The shift is most commonly used against left-handed batters known to pull the ball regularly. Against these hitters, many managers have begun to move either the shortstop or third baseman over to the first-base side of the infield, making it more difficult for the lefty to pull a base hit into the outfield.

The tactic, however, is not without drawbacks. The most obvious is that if the hitter does hit the opposite way, there is only one infielder to field the ball, leaving large gaps that could allow an otherwise easy out to become a hit. In addition, the shift allows a lefty to bunt down the third-base line where there is no one to field it. Chicago Cubs’ lefty sluggers Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo, both of whom frequently face the shift, each laid down such bunts in an April 17 contest against the Milwaukee Brewers, and both reached base with relative ease.

Occasionally, the shift can also lead to trouble covering the bases. Imagine there is a runner on first when the shift is on. If that runner steals second, he may be able to advance immediately to third if the infielder on the third base-side is not covering the base.

The shift has been vocally criticized by a certain sect of “baseball purists,” who consider moving players away from their traditional positions a violation of some kind of unwritten rule. They see moving players around in this fashion as an unfair advantage and encroachment upon baseball’s tradition.

Personally, I see no reason to object to the tactic on the grounds that is a violation of tradition. The shift in fact, like everything in baseball, has a history of its own. The birth of the shift is often associated with Ted Williams in the ’40s. In reality, it was born to defend a different Williams: former Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Cy Williams in the ’20s. That being said, the shift was then revived for Ted Williams in 1946 by Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau and later St. Louis Cardinals manager Eddie Dyer in the 1946 World Series. The shift has been used sporadically ever since until its recent uptick in the last five years or so.

The issue with the argument that the shift is an unfair advantage lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of where offense comes from in professional baseball today. The reality of today’s game is that ground balls are outs, shift or no shift. In the years since baseball’s analytics revolution, Major League Baseball lineups no longer aim to generate offense from getting one man aboard and moving him around through sacrifice bunts or ground balls the other way. MLB executives value pitchers who get hitters to hit the ball on the ground because, again, ground balls translate to outs more often than not. Today’s successful hitters, generally speaking, put the ball in the air.

To understand this concept better, let’s return to Ted Williams, considered by some to be the greatest hitter in the history of the game. While many baseball coaches at the youth level advocate trying to hit the ball on the ground, this strategy really only makes sense at low levels of the game, where players have not yet developed the skill in the field to convert ground balls into outs. Conversely, Williams always advocated that players have an uppercut to their swing, allowing them to keep the barrel of the bat on the same plane as the baseball for longer and hit the ball in the air, which he considered the best way to generate offense.

In his book, “The Science of Hitting,” Williams wrote, “When the ball is on the ground, it puts a greater burden on the fielders; things can happen. But if you get the ball into the air with power, you have the gift to produce the most important hit in baseball — the home run.”

This approach more or less sums up the state of baseball offense. In 2017, the home run is king, so the fact that infield shifting is at an all-time high is immaterial. The defending World Series Champion Cubs were among the least frequent shifters in the league last year and simultaneously one of the best defensive teams in the history of the game. In short, fears about the shift ruining the game are overstated as these shifts have no bearing on the primary means of generating offense in today’s game.

While the 2016 Cubs may not have done much shifting, they can offer the best example of the value of the fly ball hitter. The Cubs are led offensively by Kris Bryant, author of the smoothest swing in Major League Baseball and a Williams disciple. Bryant’s father, Mike Bryant, once an outfielder in the Boston Red Sox farm system, received a lesson from Williams himself in spring training. In this lesson, Williams preached the value of the uppercut and the fly ball to Bryant and other young Red Sox. The elder Bryant ate up Williams’ lessons and adopted “The Science of Hitting” as his hitting gospel.

When it came time to teach his son to hit, Mike Bryant kept Williams’ words so strongly in mind that Kris Bryant arrived in the MLB singing a tune that seemed to beat against what all of us had been taught in Little League — Bryant wanted to hit the ball in the air, four fly balls a game.

Bryant’s numbers during rookie season in 2015 legitimized his radical ideology; the then-23-year-old rookie hit 26 homers and drove in 99 runs. The season marked a dominant emergence before the deeply critical eyes and notepads of MLB’s pundit class, as Bryant led the Cubs to a playoff run that few expected before the season began.

But, like the 2015 Cubs’ season, which ended in a disappointing National League Championship Series sweep at the hands of the New York Mets, Bryant’s swing and approach were impressive but imperfect.

Bryant and his father spent the offseason working out in the Las Vegas batting cage the younger Bryant bought for his father to replace the rundown one Mike Bryant had been giving lessons out of since Kris Bryant’s childhood, a dog-eared and annotated copy of “The Science of Hitting” never out of sight. When Kris Bryant discussed the changes he had worked on in the offseason, the media commonly reported it as an effort to flatten out his swing.

In fact, Kris Bryant had merely perfected the angle at which he wanted his uppercut to take. What Kris Bryant sought highlighted the other benefit of the uppercut. Because the pitcher fires from an elevated mound, in addition to the typically long frame of a major league pitcher, pitches come toward the plate at a downward trajectory. Therefore, a swing with an upward trajectory will remain on the same ball longer.

Thanks to this dynamic, Kris Bryant made more contact, while generating more power, and the swing change fueled a 2016 MVP season where the phenom hit 39 homers and struck out 45 times fewer than he did in 2015, while his Cubs brought the city of Chicago a championship it had been pining after for over a century.