On July 14, 1946, in the first game of a doubleheader between the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox, at Fenway Park, Ted Williams went four for five, with three homers, and eight runs batted in as the Sox won, 11-10. His first time up in Game 2, Ted doubled to right field.
When he came to the plate the second time, Cleveland Manager Lou Boudreau moved his entire infield onto the right field side of the field to try to stop Ted. Even third baseman, Ken Keltner, was behind second base. This was supposedly the first use of a defensive shift in Major League baseball.
Last Sunday night, I was watching the Yankees play the St. Louis Cardinals, in an inter league game, in Yankee Stadium on national television. In the top of the first inning, Michael Pineda was pitching for the Yankees and he got the first two batters out. The next batter, Matt Carpenter, drew a walk.
Stephen Piscotty, the Cardinals’ clean up hitting slugger was next up. With the count 0-1, and the Yankee infield shifted to the left, with everybody but the first baseman on the left side of the infield, for the right handed hitting Piscotty, he dropped a bunt between the pitcher’s mound and first base. By the time Pineda and first baseman Bird could get to the ball, Piscotty was safe on first and Carpenter was standing on second. With two out, the Cards had a runner in scoring position with Matt Adams at the plate. Adams then struck out and the inning was over.
If Piscotty had lined a single to left field, sending Carpenter to second, instead of bunting, we would have heard what a nice piece of hitting it was. Instead, a discussion ensued about whether it was wise to have a slugger like Piscotty bunt rather than swing away. The usual argument is that you take the bat out of a slugger’s hand when you have him bunt, after all he might get an extra base hit.
In his career, prior to that at bat, Piscotty had 843 at bats and had gotten 89 extra base hits. In other words, he could be expected to get an extra base hit 10.6 percent of the time. To me, dropping that bunt down the first base line was a good investment of his time. With the defensive configuration, the odds of a fair bunt resulting in the same thing as a line drive single are pretty good.
That supposes that he bunts it fair. Suppose he doesn’t? Now you’ve got your slugger back at the plate with a 1-1 count ready to go for his extra base hit. Add to that the fact that now the defense has to worry about him bunting and this obviously reduces their willingness to shift when he comes up.
The next day, Kyle Schwarber, perhaps the least typical lead off hitter in baseball, leading off the first inning for the Cubs against the Brewers, dropped a perfect bunt down the third base line for a single on the first pitch. Schwarber, the 6′, 235 pound, left handed hitting left fielder, placed a perfect bunt that rolled right down the line and actually hit the third base bag.
Schwarber ended up on first, went to second on a passed ball, and after Chris Bryant grounded out to third and Anthony Rizzo struck out, scored on a single by Ben Zobrist.
This bunt, because of Schwarber size and slugging ability, in addition to the fact that it was a perfectly placed bunt, got national headlines. As with Piscotty’s bunt, everyone questioned whether having a slugger bunt was wise. Again, if it had been a line drive base hit, it would have had the same result. Of course, the same arguments were made about taking the bat out of the slugger’s hands.
Schwarber, prior to ‘THE BUNT’ had batted 281 times in the major leagues and had had 28 extra base hits. Ten percent of the time, he could be expected to get an extra base hit. Is bunting the ball in this situation a poor use of his time and talent? I think not. As with Piscotty’s bunt, if it were bunted foul he’d still be at the plate with a chance to hit and the bunt itself makes the defense at least think about adjusting its alignment. If it were a line drive single, it would be praised as good hitting, but would have achieved the same result.
With the defensive alignments as extreme and frequent as they have become, the odds of a fair bunt being beaten out have increased tremendously. From 2010 until the start of the 2016 season, the Rays and Astros, who use the shift most often, had shifted over 4,200 times each.
The ‘Moneyball’, Sabermetrics and other so called experts would have you believe that a bunt is always a waste of time but their reasoning is often based on statistical analysis of events that took place before the extreme shifts began.
I don’t think that the bunt will ever do away with defensive shifts but it does and will continue to require adjustments which, in themselves, are good from a hitter’s point of view.
Of course, these shifts are based upon statistics which show where a batter is most apt to hit a pitch and the defense adjusts accordingly. Most often, it is used against pull hitters, more often against left handers than right handers because the need for the first baseman to stay close to the base to receive throws makes a larger hole on that side with the shift on.
Because of the resulting defensive configuration, pitchers try to locate their pitches to reduce the chance of a ball going to the opposite field. A pitch on the inside of the plate is harder to hit to the opposite field than an outside pitch so pitchers generally throw inside with the shift in place. The pitcher still has to throw the ball over the plate but, because of the shift, less of the plate is available to him as he has to stay away from the outside pitch.
Batters, traditionally have located themselves in the batter’s box, close enough to the plate to be able to easily reach a pitch on the outside corner to avoid hitting it toward the end of the bat which reduces their power and often results in hitting to the opposite field.
If a batter moves back from the plate, it tends to put the part of the plate available to the pitcher in the middle of the strike zone instead of on the inside while, at the same time, encouraging the pitcher to use that outside part of the plate, thereby increasing the chance that the ball will not be pulled into the shift. The less the hitter pulls the ball into the shift, the less effective the shift becomes.
Defensive shifts are here to stay in various shapes and forms. The offense has to make adjustments to discourage its use by beating it. The bunt and hitting the ball to the opposite field more frequently are the best ways available to do that.