Hark back to April Fool’s Day, and a game between the Twins and the Orioles, in which the Orioles were in the hole 7-0 in the ninth and their catcher, Chance Sisco, came to the plate against the Twins’ Jose Berrios, who was two outs from a one-hitter. The hit belonged to Sisco himself, in fact, a third-inning double. Now, with one out, and the Twins smothering the right side of the infield while leaving the left side unoccupied, in a defensive shift, Sisco bunted the first pitch toward third base.
He was as safe at first as a baby in its mother’s arms. Berrios walked Chris Davis unintentionally to follow, and Manny Machado lined one to center for a followup hit to load the bases, but Jonathan Schoop popped out foul to catcher Mitch Garver ambling toward first base before Berrios struck Adam Jones out swinging to end the game with the 7-0 win and settle for a mere 2-hitter. And Berrios was distinctly unamused over the denouement when talking to reporters after the game.
“I don’t care if he’s bunting,” the right-hander began, before exposing that promptly as a lie. “I just know it’s not good for baseball in that situation. That’s it.”
The exact situation was the Orioles seven runs down, their catcher at the plate, facing a defensive overshift the logic behind which was obscure enough, in light of a pitcher two outs from a shutout, against a team doomed to a season of sub-mediocrity. Sisco ended up with a .288 on-base percentage for the season and a batting average for the year seven points below his playing weight. Writing elsewhere, I wondered at the time whether the Twins thought Sisco was supposed to take it as an April Fool’s Day joke and then thank the nice Twins for the laugh by hitting it right into their packed right side making his out like a good boy.
Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, subsequently traded to the Dodgers mid-season, was a little more blunt than his pitcher. “Obviously, we’re not a fan of it. He’s a young kid. I could’ve said something at second base but they have tremendous veteran leadership over there.” I thought then and still believe that it’s to wonder whether the Twins’ tremendous veteran leadership thought for a moment that overshifting with a 7-0 lead against a sub-mediocre hitter was less criminal than the kid seeing a big fat hole into which to hit and doing just that.
There are those who think that way even as they join the argument now animating against baseball’s defensive shifting trend on the grounds that it’s choking offense in a generation where nobody seems to teach anyone about hitting the opposite way. If Sisco did as the Twins ordered, instead, and hit right into that packed first base side of the field, I’d have hoped as I also wrote at the time, that the Orioles’ tremendous veteran leadership would take him aside afterward, convene a kangaroo court, convict him for not making the Twins pay for such a foolish overshift, and fine him carfare, dinner, and drinks for the entire team.
Those who think the defensive shifts threaten to put baseball on life support should be counseled that, in the big picture, the shifts really aren’t as shifty as you fear. Overall, teams put those shifts on 17 percent of the time in 2018. When they did, the hitters got a lot smarter about them than when the shifts began crawling back into the game. FanGraphs conjugated that the five teams who shifted the most averaged 11.9 shifts a game and surrendered 3.3 hits against those shifts for a .277 batting average against them. The five teams who shifted the least, FanGraphs says, averaged five shifts a game and surrendered an average hit and a half against those shifts for a .300 average against them.
But Commissioner Rob Manfred talks yet again about limiting or banning shifts, and Major League Baseball Players’ Association executive director Tony Clark talks about players having no known position (his words) one or the other way about the shifts, though they’re “willing to talk about it as part of a much broader conversation.” How about letting some facts get in the way? Baseball’s .244 batting average for 2018 had far less to do with defensive shifts and far more to do with hitters trying to hit six-run homers most trips to the plate. Or hadn’t you noticed or remembered the yammering about metastasizing strikeouts, of which there were more than there were hits last season?
Now, let’s be a little more real: a strikeout is only one out, and I don’t think you’d prefer to see hitters grounding into more double plays, but it wasn’t the shifts suppressing hitting in 2018. And there isn’t a shift on earth that can prevent walks, of which there were about three per game in 2018.
Which takes us back to another early April game, in which Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, who may yet find new employers for 2019, had a no-hitter in the making against the Angels as he opened the fifth with one out, a 2-0 lead, and Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons coming to the plate. The Indians didn’t put a full shift on against Simmons, but third baseman Jose Ramirez played so deep in the infield there might as well have been a blue plate special sign sitting around his neck. And Simmons accepted the gift heartily, dropping a bunt right up the third base line.
All the hustle on the planet wasn’t going to get Simmons out at first. Kluber struck out Luis Valbuena to follow up, though not without a little hiccup when he wild pitched Simmons to second before nailing the strikeout. The next Angel hitter was American League Rookie of the Year-to-be Shohei Ohtani. On 1-1, Ohtani caught hold of Kluber’s up-and-away fastball and drove it over the left center field fence. The purists to whom the Sacred Unwritten Rules are as canonical as defensive shifts seem to be blasphemous screamed bloody murder, never mind that the game a) wasn’t even close to the ninth inning at the time of Simmons’s bunt and b) the game needed thirteen innings before the Angels’ Zack Cozart hit the game-ending home run.
Simmons committed no crime other than spotting a big defensive hole, something that should be second nature to him considering his own prowess playing shortstop, where he’s one of the best and the smartest in the business. If he’s at the plate with a chance to help his team get on the scoreboard in the fifth inning, neither he, nor you, should give two that the other guy may have a no-hitter in the making that isn’t as close to being consummated as it would be in the eighth or the ninth.
If Kluber’s defense made a mistake and gave Simmons a little too open a place to reach, whether it’s a complete overshift to one side or a big fat infield alley up the third base line, they should have spent less time raging against that rat bastard at the plate than getting it into their heads that — forget that good hitting beats good pitching, smart hitting beats it a little more often. With a lifetime .269 hitter at the plate, who doesn’t earn half the living with his bat that he does with his glove, but who gets what extra base hits he gets with his legs as much as his bat, Kluber should have wondered instead why Ramirez played Simmons as though that .269 lifetime average suggested the prospect of (lifetime .267-hitting) Mike Schmidt-style destruction.
Nobody but a purist or a Yankee fan feels terribly sorry for Joe DiMaggio losing so many home runs to Yankee Stadium’s cavernous left center field, when the right-handed-swinging DiMaggio rejected opposite-field hitting where he might have parked quite a lot of those lost bombs otherwise. “I could piss those over that wall,” DiMaggio huffed, when someone suggested he try going with more outside pitches. “That’s not hitting.” Tell that to Ted Williams, who finally got the a-ha! against what was then known as the Boudreau Shift.
If the shifts didn’t really suppress hitting in 2018, what on earth is the problem? Are Manfred and Clark trepidatious about encouraging organizations to teach batters how to go with the pitch again and quit just trying to pull everything whether or not it can be pulled? Are they, too, in thrall enough to the Sacred Unwritten Rules that they’re unwilling to say Sisco and Simmons showed what to do against the overshifts, so kiwtcherbeefin’ about smart hitters outsmarting smart defense?
They could also tell teams like the Twins and the Indians not to come crying when their guys lost one- or no-hitters regardless of the inning because they were fool enough to overshift with the chance of a smart hitter taking advantage of a big fat open spread. And they could throw in something about the courtesies due through the SUR rendered null and void when you leave a batter a hitting region large enough to send an earth mover unobstructed. But that would deprive Manfred and Clark of one of baseball’s older sub-professions, calling the repairman to fix what isn’t broken.
This essay was published in slightly different form by Sports Central.