FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., March 14 -- The shift begins almost immediately after Baltimore Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro begins his slow walk from the on-deck circle to the batter's box. The second baseman moves several feet to his left. The shortstop jogs from his normal position to the right side of the infield or directly behind second base. The third baseman stands where the shortstop would stand.
It's an unusual sight to see so many players displaced. But the shift, used by almost every team against Palmeiro, has caused the likely Hall of Famer to reconsider his approach at the plate.
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"I'm not going to worry about it," Palmeiro said. "I'm not going to look out at the defense. I'm just going to hit the ball hard where it's pitched."
The Los Angeles Dodgers were the first team to use the shift against Palmeiro this spring, about a week ago. The Boston Red Sox used it on Monday.
Palmeiro is generally regarded as one of the most capable hitters in baseball, equally able to send a ball to left or right field. San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds and New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi are two other players who see the same type of shift used against them.
"There's not that many guys that they do it on," Palmeiro said. "I'm one of those guys. I don't quite understand it. I am a pull hitter, but I go the other way some. I hit the ball up the middle."
But the statistics certainly merit using such a dramatic shift against him.
Last season only four of Palmeiro's 25 extra-base hits at Oriole Park at Camden Yards were to the left side of the field. None of the four were home runs. Palmeiro hasn't hit an opposite-field home run at any park since 2002 and hit just 16 singles to left field at Camden Yards. Only 11 of his ground-ball outs at Camden Yards were hit to the left side.
Early in his career Palmeiro was not considered a power hitter. Instead, he spread the ball over all of the field. But as he developed power, Palmeiro began pulling the ball more. In 2003, when he played for Texas, only three of Palmeiro's 36 extra-base hits at home were to the opposite field. He grounded out eight times to the left side that year at home.
"He always stays disciplined, whether they put the shift or not," Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "More often than not when they shift, they pound the ball in, off the strike zone in, and they throw cutters in. It's very hard to do something the other way anyway on those particular pitches. Raffy can use the whole field, but he's primarily a pull hitter. Most of his home runs are pull.
"If they were to put the shift on him and pitch him low and away, two or three pitches in a row, well I guarantee you he'd knock a base hit to left field."
Palmeiro said he remembers the Anaheim Angels as the first team to use the shift on him several years ago. Then, only a few teams used it. But last season, almost every team employed it. The strategy worked. Palmeiro slumped badly during the middle of the year while trying to compensate for it, hitting .185 with three home runs in June.
"It got in my mind, but more than anything in my mechanics," Palmeiro said. "I changed my mechanics to try to compensate for the shift. You don't have to change your mechanics but just your approach."
By the end of the season, though, Palmeiro said he stopped trying to change his mechanics. He simply began to accept where the defense positioned itself. In September, he hit .318 with nine home runs.
Perhaps Monday's game against the Red Sox served as a perfect example of Palmeiro remaining true to his approach. In the fifth inning of the Orioles' 5-3 win, with runners on first and second, Palmeiro hit a scorching line drive up the middle that was caught by shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Had the Red Sox used a conventional defense, the ball would have gone up the middle for a single. But Palmeiro said he wasn't discouraged by the result.
"I hit a line drive up the middle, and the guy was right there," Palmeiro said. "But you know what, it could have easily have gone to his right or his left for a base hit."