When Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez was Tampa Bay’s bench coach in 2008 or 2009 — he doesn’t remember which year this happened — Evan Longoria, then the Rays’ star third baseman, hit a groundball in the hole between shortstop and third base. Martinez assumed Longoria had a single. There was no doubt. But he didn’t get a hit because the Milwaukee Brewers shortstop was standing in that spot. The Brewers had shifted their infield to the left, leaving Martinez dumbfounded.
The next season, the Rays, managed by Joe Maddon, began implementing shifts in spring training, quickly becoming the most aggressive team in baseball with the tactics. A decade later, every team shifts with regularity, some more aggressively than others, and a debate over whether Major League Baseball should implement rules to limit shift freedoms has surfaced.
“It’s taken away a lot of hits, obviously, and guys get frustrated,” Martinez said. “But it’s also leaving a lot of other holes open. I think, for me, players that have learned how to adjust with the shift are doing better as well. Players that keep hitting the ball into the shift . . . I think that’s why the batting average is really low a lot.”
Martinez has perhaps the best example playing for him every day. At least Scott Boras, baseball’s super agent, believes so. Boras has strong opinions on many baseball matters, and during a 25-minute session with reporters Tuesday, he espoused a few about why his client Bryce Harper — slated to sign perhaps the richest contract in American professional sports history this coming winter — is not enjoying a typical Harper season.
Harper is batting .215 after he went 0 for 4 in the Nationals’ 3-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox, but Boras insisted evaluating Harper through batting average is misguided because he has been the victim of unusual circumstances. One is how teams are pitching to him so carefully. The other is how opponents are shifting against him.
While other offensive stats have surfaced and gained popularity in recent years, batting average remains the basic measuring stick. It is the first number looked at, and Harper’s ugly number has drawn attention. But Boras looks at Harper’s hard-hit rate (41.3 percent entering Wednesday, which would be a career best). He looks at his walk rate (18.5 percent, which would be his second highest). And he looks at his batting average on balls in play, BABIP (.225, which would be the lowest of his career by a huge margin). He concludes that Harper, whose batting average has plummeted 53 points since May 3, is not performing as poorly as his batting average indicates.
“I’ve dealt with greatness in this game for a long time, and the great thing about trials in the game, that the game brings to great players, is that you have to look at what the game and the opponents are trying to do and what the game’s trying to do to prohibit greatness,” Boras said. “Because he gets off to a great start, what do they do? Well, they’re going to starve him from the strike zone. And remember they’re not doing this to a [Mike] Trout or a [Manny] Machado. Why is that? They’re great players. Why are they not doing it them, yet they’re doing it to Bryce? And the answer to that, I think, is largely that [the] power component carries a great fear.”
Further, Boras maintained that shifting essentially has broken the game and particularly hurt left-handed sluggers such as Harper. Boras believes shifts are “discriminatory” against left-handed batters because they can be more drastic against them than against right-handed hitters.
“The generation of this, I don’t think is good for the game,” Boras said. “I just think rules — you have rules in football, basketball, hockey that have all been adjusted to these dynamics. And it’s clear that hard-hit balls have almost [a] 100-, 115-point lower average for left-handed hitters versus right-handed hitters with exit velocities of above 93 miles an hour.
“We see that’s an effect just by merely being right-handed versus left-handed. So when you see stats like that, you know there’s reason for change because the game should be equal for both sides, whether you’re a left-handed or right-handed hitter.”
On June 24, Sports Info Solutions tweeted that Harper was 6 for 44 when he hit a groundball or a short line drive against a full shift this season. The service considers full shifts to be when three fielders are to the right of second base.
Asked whether the way teams are shifting against left-handed sluggers will diminish Harper’s value in free agency, Boras said no and expounded.
“No, because, again, every person in the game wants somebody who hits the ball the hardest, the farthest and gets on base the most,” Boras said. “Because you talk about teams and their [runs created-plus], all the analytics that they look at. It deals with . . . getting on base and moving runners. And it also deals a lot with[on-base-plus-slugging percentage] and slugging and power and all these tools that a guy has. And remember, too, that if the treatment of greatness is to walk and that they believe that that really stops the player from doing well, why don’t they do it with other players? We [have] three or four really unbelievable players in this game. Why are they not walking them at those rates?”
Harper actually ranks second in walk rate across baseball — Trout, considered the best player in baseball by many followers of the sport, is first — but his offensive numbers remain perplexing. Entering Wednesday, Harper had a 125 OPS+ — 100 is average, so Harper was 25 percent above average — and a .217 batting average. According to Baseball Reference, only one player in baseball history — the Oakland Athletics’ Gene Tenace in 1974 — finished a season with a lower batting average while posting an OPS+ of at least 125.
That OPS+ dipped with Wednesday’s performance, but the point remains. Evaluating Harper’s season thus far is, in some ways, an unprecedented exercise. He’s having a season few have ever assembled, at least 85 games into it. Shifts have played a role — though to what extent is difficult to gauge. But Boras believes his client has made the proper adjustments — he pointed to his success over the previous 10 games before Tuesday — and hasn’t seen his value dip a few months before he will hit free agency and turn 26 years old.
“A player like Bryce Harper is unique in the sense that he makes you money in addition to the service he provides,” Boras said. “He’s iconic. And so these are opportunities for teams who are looking at … something that they rarely will ever have an opportunity to obtain.”
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