According to baseball historians, shifting fielders to one side to stifle a pull hitter dates to the 1920’s, when the approach was used for Cy Williams, a left-handed hitter for the Philadelphia Athletics. While creative defenses have deep roots in baseball, players said they have become more prevalent in recent years because of the continued evolution of scouting and statistical information.
Ted Williams, a Hall of Famer from the Red Sox, encountered one of the most radical shifts ever after he hammered three homers against the Cleveland Indians in the first game of a doubleheader on July 14, 1946. Lou Boudreau, the Indians’ player-manager, installed a shift in which almost his entire team was on the right side of the field against Williams in the second game.
Boudreau, a shortstop, put the third baseman behind second base, shifted himself to the right of second, had the second baseman back into short right field and closer to first and had the first baseman move to the foul line. He also had the center fielder play toward right and the right fielder crowd the line. The only player remaining on the left side was the left fielder, who was positioned behind shortstop. Williams went 0 for 1 with two walks.
“Isn’t that unbelievably ingenuous?” said Brian Butterfield, the third-base coach for the Blue Jays, who positions their defense.
Butterfield was impressed that anyone from more than half a century ago installed defensive adjustments because teams did not have the detailed scouting reports and computer capabilities that are in vogue today.
Butterfield plots Toronto’s defense using a spray chart, which is a diagram of the field with color-coded lines showing where a player’s hits have landed. Butterfield said Giambi’s chart had most of the lines piled on the right side.
In addition, Butterfield studies computer files catalogued into segments that break down Giambi’s ground balls against left-handed and right-handed pitchers. When power hitters like Ortiz and Giambi hit to the left side, Butterfield said, the charts show that they usually hit the ball in the air or dribble a grounder, so it is sensible to have one infielder on the left side and three on the right.
“The only way to combat it would be to start hitting grounders to third, but I don’t think the Yankees would be happy,” Giambi said. “I’m here to drive in runs.”
Giambi said he hoped before every at-bat that the Yankee player batting ahead of him got on base. If Giambi hits with a man on first, the second baseman cannot shift to shallow right because he needs to be closer to the base for the chance of a double play.
But if Giambi bats with a man on second, the second baseman retreats to his deeper perch in right. Derek Jeter, who often bats in front of Giambi, does not try to steal second early in the count so that Giambi can hit without facing a shift.
“Sometimes it gets a little ridiculous,” Giambi said. “When you go to Toronto and the guy is playing so far out, it should be a putout by the right fielder, not the second baseman.”
Aaron Hill, Toronto’s full-time second baseman and part-time short right fielder, said hitters could become irritated that he played deep enough to whisper to the right fielder.“They’ll say, ‘What are you doing out there in right field?’ ” Hill said. “We’re playing the percentages. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.”
While Butterfield said the shift was a matter of studying information to increase the chances of producing outs, he added that it could have an added impact by unnerving hitters. Ortiz admitted to being perplexed when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays used four outfielders against him this season, although that did not keep him from hitting a game-winning home run against them Friday night and for bunting for that base hit Saturday.
Giambi said a hitter had to remain mentally strong.
“They want to see that frustration level and that, ‘Hey, we’re getting to him with this,’ ” Giambi said. “They think that, later in the game, when you do get that mistake pitch, you’ll still be thinking about that and miss it.”
Right-handed pull hitters do not see the same shifts as their left-handed counterparts, mostly because a first baseman cannot stray far from first. A third baseman has more freedom to move when no one is one base.
Furthermore, a second baseman can throw runners out at first from shallow right, but a shortstop would have a tougher time doing it from shallow left because of the longer throw.
By Jack Curry, NY Times 8/8/06