Tuesday May 10th, 2011

Nearly every time White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn, a notorious pull-hitting lefty, steps to the plate, he can survey the field and find the opponents' shortstop playing either straight up the middle or on the opposite side of second base from where he's accustomed, joining the first and second basemen on the right side of the infield.

In a game two weeks ago against the Yankees, Dunn smacked a line drive past pitcher A.J. Burnett a few feet to the right of second, a surefire one-hop single into centerfield for the vast majority of batters -- only, as Dunn recounted ruefully, "[Yankees shortstop Derek] Jeter was standing right there waiting for it."

Overshifting on an extreme pull hitter by placing three of four infielders on the same side of second base has become a common defensive strategy against slugging lefthanded hitters like Dunn -- the Red Sox' David Ortiz, the Phillies' Ryan Howard and the Twins' Jim Thome are among those who also rarely bat against any other formation -- but remains underutilized against righthanded batters, despite there being no statistical evidence suggesting that lefties are more likely to pull the ball than righties.

So why do so few teams actually use an overshift on a righthanded hitter?

"I've been saying the same thing," Dunn said.

No manager would admit that baseball convention was holding him back, though undoubtedly that's part of the reason. The primary concern is probably one of finding the right threshold of pulled baseballs over which a manager felt comfortable having his second baseman abandon his normal territory. Even an outside-the-box thinker like Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, whose staff studies hit-location spray charts to prepare the defense, sounded reluctant to make such an overshift without the hitter pulling an exceptionally high percentage of balls.

"If the chart ever showed whatever the percentage that makes you comfortable -- like 90-something percent of the time -- of those groundballs go from second base over, then you can play him [like that]," La Russa said. "You could do it, it's just that hardly ever do you see that a righthand dead-pull hitter doesn't [hit] something to the right side of the field. What you do is play your second baseman hard to the middle. But it always seems like he's on the rightfield side of second."

Baseball Info Solutions founder John Dewan, author of The Fielding Bible series, argued in the 2009 Volume II of his book in favor of more shifts on righthanded hitters. His argument, on which he expounded in a phone interview, is that an appropriate number of infielders (i.e. three of four) probably should be placed where a corresponding number of balls are hit.

"If 75 percent of their groundballs and short line drives are hit to one side of the field," Dewan said, "should you consider playing 75 percent of your fielders on that side?"

Given that an overshift can add challenges to infield defense -- fielding a surprise bunt, turning a double play, etc. -- Dewan adds a few percentage points to that 75 percent figure and encourages managers to overshift when a lefty pulls the ball on the ground at least 80 percent of the time and righties pull 85 percent of the time. The latter figure is a bit higher because of the bigger hole on the right side created by the first baseman's inability to stray as far from first base as a third baseman can separate himself from third on a lefty shift.

There are a few isolated examples of the righthanded overshift -- the Rangers against Vladimir Guerrero, the Rays against Dan Uggla and Marcus Thames and increasingly the Brewers against any number of hitters -- but its use remains sporadic, even though it can prove valuable.

On Sunday, the Cardinals' Albert Pujols led off the bottom of the fourth inning by chopping a groundball up the middle to the second base side of the mound. Brewers pitcher Chris Narveson tried to backhand it but failed to stab it. Anyone watching on television probably assumed it was a single for the Cardinals' star.

But not only did Milwaukee second baseman Rickie Weeks make the play, he did so easily -- and by moving to his left. Weeks had been stationed just to the shortstop side of second base, part of a dramatic and rare overshift on a righthanded hitter.

"We're going on percentages," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said recently by telephone. We're going to get hurt once in a while, but hopefully in the long haul we'll save more hits."

Roenicke, after poring through spray charts of the batted-ball location tendencies of opposing hitters for five years as Angels bench coach, has been daring with his use of shifts on all types of batters early in his managerial career, joining Rays skipper Joe Maddon -- Roenicke's predecessor as L.A. bench coach -- as being one of the few willing to be unorthodox with defensive placement.

"Everyone talks about taking risks on offense," Maddon said, "but we want to be aggressive on defense."

Maddon and Roenicke both said they use 80 percent as their threshold to consider pulling a third infielder to one side of second base. Rangers manager Ron Washington began using one on Guerrero, a noted Texas killer, after the then-Angel went 4-for-4 on April 3, 2007. The next day Guerrero was greeted with the overshift and went 1-for-4.

Before the shift, Guerrero was 96-for-218 (.440) with 21 home runs against the Rangers; since Texas began using the shift, he still hits exceedingly well but more than 100 points lower, going 62-for-183 (.339) with only three homers, suggesting that he's had to settle for singles to beat the defense rather than trying to crush the ball for extra bases.

"We started taking hits from him and made him push the ball to rightfield," Washington said.

Not every hitter, of course, will change his approach. Thames, now a Dodgers outfielder, also faced the shift against the Padres earlier this season. He said he didn't change his approach at the plate and added, "I don't pay too much attention to it. But I was surprised that they were that far over."

There are certain logistical challenges that exist when overshifting on a righthanded batter rather than a lefthanded one that could cause managers to be reluctant to employ such a strategy. But for each there is enough of a counterpoint that a shift shouldn't be completely ruled out.

Point: When shifting against a righty, the lone infielder remaining on the right side of the infield is the first baseman, who can't stray very far from first base, lest he be unable to retreat to the bag to receive a throw.

Counterpoint: Proper positioning. The first baseman should still be able to cover some lateral ground if he's in the right place when the ball is pitched. Asked about this situation in spring training, La Russa acted out one solution. Using a stray catcher's mask as an imaginary first base, he stood 10 yards away at about a 45-degree angle in what would be a normal first baseman's fielding position. He then walked in an arc, keeping the same 10-yard distance from the mask but now making a 90-degree angle, so that he was standing in the baseline, closer to second base than before and "still only 10 yards from the bag," he said.

Being closer to home plate limits a first baseman's reaction time, but having a nimble, Gold Glove fielder like Pujols would obviously help.

Point: As Dewan surmised, righties "have a little more skill to push the ball the other way" from prior experience because grounding a ball to the right side of the infield is often a good tactical play even if there is no shift. It's a skill used in hit-and-run situations and in advancing a runner from second base to third with no outs.

Counterpoint: Pick your battles. In other words, don't use the shift against a singles hitter who tends to pull the ball, but it's certainly a worthwhile option against power hitters. If someone like Pujols is going to single every time up, that's little different than granting him an intentional walk. A single isn't an ideal result for the defense, but if nothing else it keeps the ball in the ballpark.

Point: Against a lefty, the second baseman is often positioned in shallow rightfield to take away line drives or especially sharp grounders, but against a righty, the shortstop can't backpedal quite as far into leftfield because he'd no longer be able to throw out the batter at first on a groundball.

Counterpoint: Understand the situation by only having the shortstop play back against slower runners. Many many pull-happy hitters are lumbering runners and because part of the objective is to snare shallow line drives as well as fielding grounders, the shortstop can play a little deeper than normal.

Point: Astros manager Brad Mills noted that it's typically a little easier for a hitter to pull the ball if it has been thrown from a pitcher of the opposite handedness. A hitter can more easily pull a ball that's tailing or breaking toward him, so, for example, that there are so many more righthanded pitchers, it's easier for a lefthanded batter to pull the ball.

Counterpoint: Not every expert consulted for the story agreed that handedness was a strong determinant of whether a hitter was likely to pull the ball -- pitch type, location and speed are probably more important. Most importantly, if or when it does matter, a manager or bench coach can use his judgment about how exaggerated of a shift to use -- it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing decision.

Given these counterarguments, why are today's managers still so reluctant to try something creative?

"Anytime you do something a little differently you're going to get criticized for doing it," Roenicke said, noting that it'll be easy to point fingers when it backfires. "They're going to write, 'That's a bad play.' Well, they didn't see the other games. So I am going to get criticized. I know I am. But it's part of me thinking, if it's the right thing to do, just go ahead and do it."

Maddon believes that, had such technology and data existed back in the 1940s that baseball pioneer Branch Rickey would have made such innovative defensive shifts commonplace. Maddon decries reluctance to implement something just because it's new.

"It's just that many people are so hesitant to try new things," he said. "It baffles me that even as an organization that you would file all that data, work all that data, send out your scouts, get all this information and not use it. I don't get that. This stuff is available now. It wasn't available back in 1940 the way it is now. Don't give me the old-school answer that, 'I'm old school so I don't do that.' Don't give me that. That holds no water with me whatsoever. That actually is a lame excuse.

"Either you don't want to take a chance or you just don't understand it or you don't want to grow or whatever. Just don't tell me that, 'Because it wasn't done in 1940, I can't do it now.' Then I want you to throw your HDTV out the window, I want you to disconnect your air conditioning from your car and how about the power steering too. I don't want anybody born before 1950 ever using a cell phone. Don't give me that as an answer."

Shifting against lefties was itself once considered a radical move. The screensaver on Dewan's office computer is a snapshot from an Indians-Red Sox game on July 14, 1946 in which all four Cleveland infielders are to the first-base side of second base in a drastic shift to combat Boston's Hall of Fame lefty, Ted Williams.

In the first game of a doubleheader that day, Williams smashed three home runs and drove in eight runs. In his first at bat of the second, he stroked a double. In Williams' next three plate appearances, Cleveland player-manager Lou Boudreau shifted all but the Indians' leftfielder to the right side of second base. Williams finished the day with two walks and a groundout.

So who should be the recipients of these drastic overshifts on righties? Most of the data is proprietary -- Baseball Info Solutions and Inside Edge are among the companies that provide the service to major league team clients -- in Vol. II of the Fielding Bible, Dewan identified a group of extreme pull righties that included Jason Bay (now with the Mets), Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox and Ben Francisco of the Phillies.

More recently, Dewan pointed to data from his company's Defensive Positioning software, and noted that Youkilis and Pujols make for prime overshift candidates. Based on their 120 most recent grounders and short line drives -- that's an average sample size coaches use in spray charts to make sure the data is simultaneously ample and recent -- Youkilis pulls 89 percent of grounders and shallow liners and Pujols pulls 85 percent.

The data's emphasis, of course, is only on balls on which an infielder might make a reasonable play. Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista has hit 123 home runs in his career -- including a majors-leading 54 last year and 10 so far this season -- but only one has ever been hit to rightfield (his 54th homer of 2010). But his tendency to pull balls in the infield isn't quite as extreme. Dewan noted that Bautista hits 82 percent of his grounders and short liners to the left side of second base, three ticks below Dewan's recommended threshold for shifting.

Of course, the next frontier of exaggerated defense would be to move one infielder to the outfield for extreme flyball hitters, and that's what Bautista could see in the future. Much as Dewan surmised about moving 75 percent of infielders to the side where that rate of groundballs and line drives were hit, wouldn't a team want four of their seven moveable fielders -- 57 percent -- in the outfield expanse when a player hits flyballs on roughly that rate of at bats?

"Absolutely," said Roenicke. "We talked about it with Barry Bonds when we played [the Giants] back in the 2002 World Series. I think Joe Maddon did it. It's a legitimate thing to do against a certain type of hitter, no doubt."

Indeed, Maddon has done it, deploying a four-outfielder set against Ortiz in April 2006. That was the only instance in recent memory, even though batted balls to the outfield carry higher stakes because they are also more likely to go for extra bases if they land uncaught. In 2010 six hitters -- the Cubs' Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano, the Blue Jays' Bautista and Aaron Hill, the Reds' Johnny Gomes and the Diamondbacks' Mark Reynolds, who is now with the Orioles -- all hit flyballs on more than 50 percent of their at bats, suggesting they could be defended that way.

But perhaps that's a lot to ask for a manager to defy a second convention when he should take it one step at a time -- by having his second baseman take a few steps to his right.

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