Big Swing to the Right
Sunday, July 30, 2006
The first time he saw Tampa Bay's third baseman take off toward left field, Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz went into your basic sniper-on-the-roof mode -- ducking for cover, flinging his hands up to his face, looking around to see where the shots were coming from and where he could go to hide.
"I didn't know what was going on -- the dude just took off," Ortiz said. "I thought maybe somebody was shooting. So I was ready to get out of there. And the security guy [near one of the dugouts] was fooled, too, because he came out on the field."
However, what Ortiz was witnessing was not sniper fire, but the latest and most drastic wrinkle in Operation Infield Storm, whereby teams around the major leagues go to any lengths necessary to neutralize the enemy, namely left-handed sluggers with a propensity for pulling the ball to the right side.
Its targets are mostly obvious: In addition to Ortiz, shifts are frequently deployed against Barry Bonds, Carlos Delgado, Adam Dunn, Jason Giambi, Ryan Howard and Jim Thome. In the standard shift, teams load up the right side of the infield with three infielders (the second baseman typically plays on the outfield grass in shallow right), and the outfielders also shift to the right.
Many teams also shift the other way for Albert Pujols, the most feared right-handed hitter in the game.
"You go about it thinking, 'Let's put something in the hitter's head to see if he [will] take the base hit [to the opposite field] or take the bunt over there,' " said Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, who used the shift successfully this past week against Bonds. "You want to keep him from swinging the bat and going for his natural power, keep him from hitting one out, or hitting one to the gap."
Former Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau is credited with inventing the shift in 1946 as a way to defend against Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. Other teams soon followed suit, and in subsequent years, it was widely used against Roger Maris, Willie McCovey and others.
But in this era of increasing sophistication of statistical analysis, in which all it takes is a "spray chart" -- showing a hitter's tendencies to each part of the field -- to indicate which hitters should require a shift, there are a dozen or more players who see some type of shift against at least some teams.
"We even shift against some guys that most people leave alone," said Red Sox Manager Terry Francona, naming Philadelphia Phillies reserve outfielder David Dellucci as an example.
Although shifts are now commonplace, no one had ever recalled seeing anything as radical as the one Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon deployed against Ortiz the first time the teams played each other this season -- the one with the third baseman playing left field and everybody else on the right side. After several games, Maddon eventually went to a more conventional shift.
"I try not to think about it -- they're trying to mess with my mind," said Ortiz, who figures the shifts have cost him between 20 and 40 points off his batting average this season, which is .285, including a game-winning hit yesterday that beat the Angels' shift.
Ortiz said he sometimes makes a bigger effort to hit to the opposite field against the shift, but teams pitch to him in such a way as to make that difficult.
"They pitch me soft away, and hard inside," Ortiz said. "And when it's soft away, I can only hit that in the air, not on the ground."
"The guys who you use it against, you're just trying to take away the extra-base hits," San Diego Padres shortstop Khalil Greene said. "If they laid down a bunt for a single, you'd take that from them every time."
Ortiz does have two bunt singles this season against the shift. But of course, the best way to beat the shift is the same as it ever was.
"They're not going to stop him every time," Francona said, "unless they decide to put somebody in the stands."