Photo by Ed Sheahin for The Sports Capitol
Lots of debate, but no consensus on The Shift
BY TODD DYBAS | JULY 18, 2018
NATIONALS PARK — Adaptation and refusal are tangled in a tug-of-war around baseball. The Shift is here, irritating hitters, garnering defensive outs, contorting the game. It skews the field when left-handed Joey Gallo is up and six of a possible seven defenders are sent to the right side of second base. It is subject to eye rolls or swear words when taking away a hit up the middle.
The Shift has become a proper noun, an entity that has gained steam for years before its current peak. Like anything effective for one side and detrimental to the other, The Shift is now subject to scrutiny. Uber-agent Scott Boras wants to ban it. That decision would directly benefit his client, Bryce Harper, who rarely hits the ball the other way and is losing hits because of The Shift. Others are in between. They don’t like it, but feel it is their responsibility to adapt. Still others are happy to be provided free open space. Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman verbally kicked-up his heels when asked about it. Then, finally, there are the rigid non-adapters. That’s where Harper falls.
“You can’t,” he said when asked how you beat The Shift. “If you hit a ball in the hole, then you’re out. If you hit a ball up the middle, you’re out. If I have a kid, I’m not going to tell him to stay through the middle anymore because if you hit a ball up the middle, you’re out. I guess guys could bunt down the first-base line or third-base line if they shift you the other way. But you don’t get paid to bunt. If you hit it over all of them, that’s how you beat it.”
Alternatively, if you keep hitting pull-side ground balls into it, your average also plummets. Harper is hitting .214.
The entire process has moved into time-tested debates with sports. When is a rule change appropriate? When is a within-the-rules strategy detrimental to the “good of the game”? This, after all, is about revenue, first, foremost and last. Boras and Harper are focused on personal revenue. The league is locked into general revenue. The Shift may help win games, the way repeatedly fouling a bad shooter at the end of an NBA game did. However, if it is providing bloodshot optics for the paying customer, what then?
Baseball’s daily operating system and difficulty makes finding a solution for hitters against The Shift a challenge. For years, almost every day, a hitter has been taught specific mechanics. Those mechanics brought him to the major leagues, where, arguably, it has never been more difficult to put the ball in play on a regular basis. And now the suggestion is to possibly change them to derail The Shift? That’s a hard ask.
“I’m seeing a lot more outs because of the shift,” Rockies star Charlie Blackmon told The Sports Capitol. “It seems like every time someone hits a bullet back up the middle, there’s a shortstop standing there and it makes me really mad. For my entire career and growing up, if you hit a bullet up the middle that’s a hit and that’s considered a good swing and now it’s an out. I’m not sure I’m ready to weigh-in officially with an opinion one way or the other on the shift. I do think it’s great the teams are finding every avenue to get an edge to win games. I think that is a commitment from the organizations themselves.
“At the same time, you know what’s super-boring? Watching a guy like Joey Gallo trying to slap a 19-hopper the other other way. That’s super-boring. I want to see that guy try to hit a homer. At the same time, I can kind of see both sides of it. I’m not really sure what’s right or wrong. I’m not generally in favor of changing the game. Currently, there’s no rule that says you can’t put seven infielders on the right side. I don’t know. I think it’s interesting. Anything that’s controversial, as long as it’s not hurting people in the game, can help promote it.”
Blackmon is no longer shifted against often despite his stellar offensive ability. The league average for shifts this season is 17.4 percent of at-bats. Blackmon faces the shift 26.7 percent of the time. That’s 99th in the league despite him being among the game’s best hitters. Why is he treated that way? Because his wOBA (weighted on-base average) is higher when the defense shifts instead of plays him straight. That means his raggedy hair is flying around the bases more often when teams provide him a gap. Also helping: His .735 OPS in a count with two strikes, a situation when shifts are dialed down. Contrast that with Harper’s .581.
No players faces The Shift more than Baltimore’s Chris Davis. Fielders swing around for 91.2 percent of his plate appearances. Harper is 38th in the league at 59.6 percent. He’s hardly a high-end victim of the tactic. His teammate Matt Adams encounters The Shift more often at 68.9 percent of the time. As does Harper’s new pal, Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman.
The two yucked it up during the All-Star festivities. Harper requested their lockers be next to each other. They exchanged texts leading up to the event. They have a bond in their division, left-handed prowess and reduction of strikes to hit. Freeman’s laid-back California persona may have appealed to Harper. Perhaps he found them brothers in boos. Harper is loathed in Atlanta, in part because of his foot swipe over the “A” behind home plate in 2014. Freeman is booed during the regular season in Washington because of his ongoing demolishment of Nationals pitching. Fans at Nationals Park booed him more than any other player during the Home Run Derby or All-Star Game.
If you’re Boras, or Davey Martinez, you hope Harper talked about The Shift with Freeman. He’s a fan of it.
“That’s more hits for me,” Freeman said with a laugh. “I like when people shift me. That leaves a hole open on the left side. Am I trying to hit the ball over? No. But, my approach is over there, so it makes me stay inside the ball and backspin more balls for me. I’m not going to comment on what the league needs to do. That’s not my job. My job is to play and adjust to what the rules there are. Right now, there’s a shift and I’m trying to beat the shift.”
Freeman uses batting practice every day to hit to left field. That’s all he does. Swing to left, swing to left, swing to left. He faces the shift more often than Harper and rarely has strikes thrown to him. Yet, his results this season are superior and they are largely the same offensive player in their careers. That may be hard to be believe, but the evidence is simple: Freeman’s career OPS is .878 and OPS-plus 139; Harper is .894 and 138. The caveat, as always with Harper, is the age discrepancy. Freeman is roughly three years older. The reason Freeman has gained ground this season can be seen in a comparison of spray charts. Note the distribution of red — line drives — in Freeman’s spray chart via Fangraphs on the left versus Harper’s on the bottom:
A philosophical issue also comes from dealing with The Shift. As in, who is responsible for countering its existence? Boras claims it is up to the league. Harper has used an it-is-what-it-is approach while also showing his displeasure with it. Joey Votto, ever the intense self-disciplinarian, thinks it is up to him to solve the equation, even if he is not a fan of its existence.
“At some point in time, I don’t get excited about a lot of rule changes in the game,” Votto said. “I’ve witnessed changes with collisions at home plate. Double plays. They’ve removed contact at second base. They’ve added replays. Hey, I’ll roll with it, we all roll with it. If they make any sort of adjustment to the shift — let me says this: My response has to be because I hit against the shift so often, my response has to be I don’t want it and I assume that it won’t be a part of the league. Because if I all of sudden started embracing or leaning on potential switch of …or mandate of two defenders on either side of the base, then I’m way ahead of myself. I think as a discipline I wouldn’t want to get into,’Yeah, we should do that,’ sort of thing.
“I don’t know what other way to say it than we currently allow the shift, so I feel a responsibility to make an adjustment. Ground balls to the right side are never good. If you ask any right-handed hitter, ground balls to the left side are never good. I know the argument is, well, if they turn into hits, sure they’re good…. We’re all chasing hits. We’re all trying to do the best we can. Ultimately, in the big picture we all want to hit a certain way and that’s usually a line drive or a ball over the fence.”
Those who run the league are contemplating consequences. As Votto referenced, recent legislation has muted aspects of the game. Here, lack of action has squeezed a portion of it, leading, in part, to the all-or-nothing era baseball currently operates in with strikeouts, homers and dwindling batting averages.
“I think the real question is what sort of rule will produce the outcome that people are looking for,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “In other words, is there a change that we can make with respect to defensive alignment that’s going to get away from the three true outcomes, and I’m not sure — I’m not sure there is.
“I think it’s something we need to discuss more and I think it’s something where we need to get a lot of player input, but if you think about it, right now players have made a decision that the home run, trying to hit it over the shift, is more valuable than the hit to the opposite field. So even if you move players back to the opposite side of the diamond, it’s unclear that they are going to change their approach at the plate. So we’ve got to think that one all the way through.”
If Boras and Harper get their way, The Shift will scamper back to where it came from. Freeman has countered it. Votto has taken on the fight. Overall on-field action is down. Right now, it feels like no one is quite winning, which leaves a decision for MLB.
Todd Dybas is the managing editor and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He has spent 17 years in the sports editorial industry, working as a writer and layout editor, winning multiple awards in both positions. He has been an NFL beat writer, has worked as a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for seven years, and is a member of the Pro Basketball Writers Association.