Baseball making big shift in defensive strategy

As Stephen Vogt strode to the plate in the first inning Tuesday night, the Milwaukee Brewers’ infield underwent a change. Shortstop Jonathan Villar positioned himself almost directly behind second base, heels on the outfield grass. Second baseman Scooter Gennett backpedaled a dozen steps into shallow right field. Third baseman Aaron Hill settled in the baseline nearly halfway between second and third.

Vogt, the A’s left-handed hitting catcher, is seeing these types of defensive shifts more than ever this season, and he’s not alone. The strategy of overloading one side of the infield against certain hitters goes back decades, to Boston’s Ted Williams and possibly further, but it’s more prevalent than ever in today’s game.

Major-league teams used 17,744 shifts last season, nearly eight times more than 2,350 in 2011, according to Baseball Info Solutions. This season, teams already are on pace to shatter that mark with more than 28,000 shifts.

The trend has coincided with wider availability and acceptance of data and analytics on hitters’ tendencies. It has also irked some, such as Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who early this season said he would make shifts “illegal” if he were commissioner.

With no such change imminent, though, and with defenses shifting more than ever, how do hitters like Vogt respond? If baseball is, as often is said, a game of adjustments, is there a way for hitters to adjust?

The seemingly logical counter would be to hit away from the shift. When a left-handed hitter, for example, hits a grounder through a vacated left side of the infield for a single, it’s often said that he “beat the shift.” But is that a strategy hitters actually try to employ?

“It depends on the situation, for sure,” Vogt said recently. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try to hit the ball the other way a little. But I think you’ve got to stick with what your strength is. And for me that’s driving the ball in the middle of the field or pull-side.

“You try not to get away from that, because that’s also what teams want you to do. They want you to try to go the other way, to try and beat the shift, so you’re not looking to drive the baseball to the pull side.”

Vogt was batting .315 on balls in play against the shift entering Tuesday, according to FanGraphs, compared with .255 last season. He was pulling fewer of those pitches, 38.9 percent compared with 42.7 percent in 2015. But his ground-ball rate also was down from 46.3 to 37.7 percent, which would help neutralize a repositioned infield.

A’s seeing lots of shifts

The A’s hitter most frequently shifted against last season, Josh Reddick, said “you try not to” change your approach against the shift, but it depends on game situations.

“If there’s one guy on the left side of the infield and the pitcher’s pitching you away, then why not just go ahead and take that little knock, especially when you got a (runner) on?” said Reddick, who often hits behind speedy players such as Coco Crisp and Billy Burns.

“In that situation you can, depending on how they’re pitching you. But obviously leading off an inning you’re not really going to try to shoot one as a single until you get to probably two strikes – and then you’re still not trying to get out of your approach. You’re just trying to hit the ball.”

Entering Tuesday, the A’s led the majors in putting the most balls in play against shifts, according to FanGraphs, indicating opponents are shifting against them a lot. Manager Bob Melvin said that for the first time this spring training the A’s talked to their hitters about sometimes trying to go away from the shift.

“It feels like we do have quite a few guys who are being shifted, and it’s their job to combat that and get the field swung back in their direction,” Melvin said.

“It’s the left-handed hitter that has a (shift like Vogt). Those are the guys we were trying to work with in spring on just tracking the ball a little bit longer, staying on top and trying to hit it on the ground, because you have a whole side of the infield that’s open.”

Some hitters don’t want to adjust

Some hitters think such adjustments are unnecessary. Detroit’s Victor Martinez, a career .303 hitter, pulled 40.9 percent of pitches he put in play against the shift last season and hit .235. This season he’s pulling 42.6 percent – and batting .331 against the shift.

“I don’t care about the shift, period,” Martinez said. “I’m going to hit the ball where it’s pitched.”

Martinez said he finds it “really dumb” when defenses play a hitter to pull but pitch him away, something he sees happen “a lot.”

Vogt, in fact, said despite the increase in shifts this year, he’s “not seeing anything on the inner half of the plate at all.”

“A lot of major leaguers have a hit pattern, but they also have an out pattern,” Vogt said. “And a lot of times they might be in the same spot. You’re kind of taking your chances if you go into somebody’s hot zone (inside).”

Adrian Gonzalez, the Dodgers’ most-shifted-for hitter, said: “For the most part, I don’t think about it. If you need to hit the ball for power, you don’t care about the shift.”

But he added: “If I’m leading off an inning and we’re down and I need to get on base and they give me a fastball away, I’m definitely going to try to hit the ball the other way.”

In a recent game against the Giants, Gonzalez led off the top of the ninth inning with the Dodgers trailing by a run. With the Giants in a shift, Gonzalez attempted to bunt for a hit – and bunted straight back to pitcher Javier Lopez for an out.

Trying to beat shift can be futile

The unfamiliarity of such shift-beating measures is one argument against hitters trying to change. Giants first baseman Brandon Belt gave another.

“I think the biggest part about beating the shift is the mental part,” Belt said. “I think they want you to know that’s where they are. They want you to think about where they’re positioning. Me, I just don’t even care about it. I go up there and stick with my approach, and if I hit line drives, more than likely I’m going to beat it.”

Belt said when defenses first started shifting against him, he tried to go the other way more and “just started getting myself out. I tried hitting pitches over there that you wouldn’t normally try to hit over there, and next thing you know you’re walking back to the dugout.”

Now, Belt said, he thinks about the shift “probably zero percent of the time.”

That does not mean it’s altogether ignored. Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said that in recent years he noticed Belt making outs against the shift by rolling over pitches that were lower and over the outer half of the plate. So Meulens had Belt work on hitting off of a short tee, driving those pitches back up the middle or toward shortstop.

“For me, a lot of times that’s why they shift on (left-handed hitters), because they can’t hit that ball down and away the other way,” Meulens said. “He’s still going to hit some ground balls (to the right side), because he’s left-handed. There’s no way around that. But what are you going to do?”

Muelens has simple solution

Meulens is blunt about his feelings on the shift.

“It should be illegal, really,” he said. “Why should there be a guy standing in (shallow) right field?”

Well, for a defense, because it works. Baseball Info Solutions calculates shifts saved 267 runs last season and already have saved 194 this year. But while it’s easy for defenses to reposition an infielder or two, Meulens argues, it’s not so easy for hitters to adjust.

“It’s hard for guys to change their swings on 90-plus-mph fastballs, or on cutters inside,” Meulens said. “How are you going to hit that the other way? You’re going to pull it as a left-hander.”

Somewhat resignedly, Meulens said, that’s how the game has changed. Hitters may try to beat the shift with the occasional bunt, but many don’t feel comfortable doing so. Mostly, Meulens said, changing your approach against the shift is “the last thing you want to do.”

His advice to those hitters, then?

“Just hit the ball as hard as you can.”