2 Guys Talking: The Game of Baseball is Shifting Gears

mets-shift-triMike:

That was a nice article you forwarded to me the other day by Tyler Kepner, about how offense all along the game has plummeted. If you follow baseball long enough, this balance of power has shifted before. It’s a cliché, “Baseball is a game of adjustments,” but I have always believed it is rooted in reality. Overall talent is paramount to winning in baseball. But identifying where the game is, and how to be ahead of it, can really help.

Jimmy:

Sure, that’s really the essence of Moneyball, identifying and exploiting the under-utilized competitive edge. So, okay, offensive numbers are down across baseball. My first thought is that if runs are scarcer, then “small ball” might make something of a comeback. More teams playing for one run rather than waiting for the three-run bomb (which is still an awesome play, let’s be clear). It makes me wonder if speed and athleticism — pitching, defense, baserunning — will become increasingly important. Is that how the pendulum is swinging?

Mike:

Joe Maddon of Tampa Bay sure thinks so. Maddon has been at the forefront of one of the factors that I believe is curtailing offenses, extensive defensive shifting. The shifts are an interesting combination of eyes and statistics. Scouts always had the ability to track tendencies, but the computer age allows that information to be stored and analyzed as never before. Now smart men like Maddon are utilizing that information, and nothing about it benefits the offense. When he asked what offenses need to do he said the following:

“I believe it’s incumbent on the players to make adjustments to the shifts. I also think the shifts are leading to a more complete game, more hit-and-runs, more bunting. Speed will put an end to a lot of this.”

I think Joe is a smart guy, and tries to stay ahead of the curve. And I think he is right. I’m with you, I love the three home-run. But if there aren’t enough power hitters to go around you have to find another way.

And the power hitters are the most susceptible to the shifts, turning guys who might have hit .280 pre-shift into Dave Kingman.

Dave Kingman Baseball Card

Jimmy:

I have a lot of respect for Maddon and I think he’s right. Offensively, bat control becomes a more prized asset. “Hitting it where they ain’t” isn’t just dumb luck, it was, upon a time, a real skill. And defensively with all the shifts, it’s interesting too, where now at several points during a game the traditional third-baseman has to perform duties more traditionally tasked to a shortstop. So maybe a flexible player like, say, Wilmer Flores, becomes a greater asset to a team that shifts defensively.

We’ve talked about this before. Power is the game’s most expensive commodity. There are a diminishing quantity of guys who can bang 30 bombs over the wall. It’s not good news for small-market teams. You develop your own sluggers or forget about it.

Mike:

It also means pitchers’ values decrease. Everywhere you look there are hotshot young pitchers, they are not very rare anymore. So sure, you need some to keep up, but they don’t seem to be so hard to find these days. If nobody can hit and you have to make hard choices, you might need to use whatever you can spare on any hitters you can find.

Jimmy:

Possibly true. It’s almost counter-intuitive. If pitching wins in high-scoring eras, does great hitting Al Kalinewin in low-scoring eras? Obviously, it’s never (ever, ever) been so simple as that. Championship teams need both and teams succeed by talking all kinds of divergent paths. There’s no single formula. But relatively speaking, it makes sense that productive hitters would be rarer and therefore more valuable. I think of the 1968 World Champion Tigers, when Mayo Smith made that bold move of shifting the team’s CF, Stanley, to SS so he could get Al Kaline’s bat into the World Series.

Mike:

Another thing about not chasing power that you might not be able to find, all of this swinging for the fences has led to a plethora of strikeouts. It’s very fashionable these days to say they don’t matter. I’m not buying that. Some of that analysis is not considering the players that teams are employing to strikeout. Sure, in a lineup of slow guys trying to jack it over the wall they are no big deal. Lucas Duda can’t beat anything out, or beat the shift. But if you put together a team of fast guys who can make contact, all over the field, that changes the equation. If you look at the data right now, who is employing such a team in 2014?

Jimmy:

Not the Mets.

Mike:

That’s for sure.

Jimmy:

This goes back to the old days with the scouts and the stopwatch. In the old era of open tryouts, the first thing they’d do is get guys to run to first base. If the time wasn’t good, see ya later, kid. The tryout ended right there. Because speed plays. Speed translates to defense and baserunning. Sure, there are some slow guys who have been great players — but they’ve had to hit a ton in order to offset their liabilities on the base paths and with the glove. There are not many Manny Ramirez’s who come along. As an aside, it’s my chief worry about the Mets #1 Draft Pick, Michael Conforto.  All reports say he can’t run, catch, or throw, but he’s a hitter. I sure hope so.

Mike:

I’m heading to Brooklyn again on Wednesday, there is a chance Conforto will be there by then.

I’ll let you know what I think.

And yes, I agree, speed can change some of this, and also a different value system for hitters. More hitters and less sluggers. Things that people still scream against now, like the bunt and the hit and run, might also make a comeback.

When I talked to Bud Harrelson, he spoke about how he wasn’t a really good hitter, but Buddy Harrelson and Mr. Metthat he felt he learned how to be effective to help his team. He used the words “pain in the neck” to describe himself. Harrelson’s plan included fouling off good pitches and wasting a pitcher’s energy until he could slap something somewhere. Among other things, that led to the now scoffed at productive out. Buddy could hit behind a runner and move him into scoring position. And of course he could field, take away outs from really good hitters. If more balls are in play, if there are less strikeouts and less home runs, the need for defense increases.

Harrelson also mentioned his ability to bunt well with great pride. Many of today’s players, if they could just bunt they could eliminate the shift. Chris Young gets shifted against a lot, it might be one reason he now can’t conquer .200. He’s not a lumbering guy, he should be able to learn how to bunt against the shift.

Jimmy:

Tougher for a RH batter like Chris, but I’m with you in regard to overall bat control, going the other way.

Mike:

Overall, I expect something to change. Although defensive shifting has been around for a very long time, it has only become a common practice in the last few years. Right now the defense has the upper hand, and run scoring totals are bearing that out.

It will be fun to see where this leads the game, and what type of baseball game becomes the norm in five or ten years.

 

 

 

 

 

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25 comments

  1. Eraff says:

    There is a tremendous degree of Situational Defensive Play— I will include shifts, pitch selection, and even Pitcher Selection in that.

    There is an ALMOST ABSENCE of situational hitting And overall situational offense, beyond simply pinch hitting.

    Hitters have the same approach and the same swing attack throuhout batting counts and game situations. BIG hitters used to “choke up, shorten up” and expand and protect w two strikes… very rare for any hitters today.

    Tge defensive sabres have found a weakness….. they are using strikeouts defensively, and they are shifting. The offensive sabres continue to disregard strikeouts and shifts.

    Baffling

    • Michael Geus says:

      I think the offense is behind right now, but that should stop eventually. One side acts, gains an advantage, the other side counters.

      So many teams right now have been built by people who cut their teeth in the game during the steroid era. The true innovators will adapt, and many others will end up replaced by fresh blood. Just like any other industry.

      Much of this needs to be fought at the roster construction level, and the right talent needs to be in the systems. I expect change to be gradual, but I expect change.

      I always expect change.

  2. However, Ted Williams — an extreme case in point, true, but also the game’s greatest hitter and deepest thinker — basically weighed the pros and cons and decided to stick to his approach, shifts be damned. He didn’t want opposing teams to turn him into a singles hitter, and perhaps he believed that he couldn’t be successful trying to become something he wasn’t. Major league pitching is tough.

    • wkkortas says:

      I remember years ago, when Ted Williams was involved with these little sporting goods pamphlets that Sears used to do, how one of them had a chart where the strike zone and the areas just off the plate were broken down into quadrants with batting averages assigned to each square per Ted. Can you imagine Ted smacking a line-drive on a pitch in his sweet spot, then coming back to the bench and having Dave Hudgens telling him he should have taken the pitch?

      • Michael Geus says:

        I would have paid a lot of money to see Williams reaction when noted hitting expert Sandy Alderson gives his Spring Training
        PowerPoint presentation on how players should hit.

  3. Michael Geus says:

    If I was Williams I wouldn’t change a thing either. If I was Chris Young I would be considering all kinds of changes.

    Including career change.

  4. Eraff says:

    Jim—I think it goes to situations and choices… Ted Williams…Miguel Cabrera— Guys who cannot be easily pitched. Williams would strike out less than 50 times on his way to .340/40 bombs.

    And, btw—situational Baseball— Chris Young PH for EY with the bases empty—and IF they tie the game that inning?—you’ve depleted bench bats.

    Handling of bullpen arms has been a big question….rotation of young players…and NOW—THAT.

    How to explain?

    • I saw the Chris Young PH and it was stunning on so many levels. First, using CY in any situation is always dumb. It is literally never a good idea. So you had to question the logic from the get-go. Kimbrel throws 2 balls way out of the zone. Ron asks Keith, “2-0, down two runs, are you taking here?” Keith replied, “Definitely.” Kimbrell groves a fastball and CY pounces on it — a HR swing — and pulls it foul. He was trying to go yard, no question. And I thought, “This guy is in it for personal glory.” Next pitch, CY swings at ball 3 — high and inside. Again, no understanding of the situation (with, yes, a recognition that it’s not easy to hit Kimbrell). Of course, he makes out on the 2-2 pitch. Easy meat. The Mets in that situation needed a baserunner and TC sent up CY who was trying to jack it over the wall. This is not a player who gives a crap about the NY Mets, IMO. And I will be very glad when he’s gone.

      • Michael Geus says:

        SNY tossed up some graphic of Young being three for four, or two for three against Kimbrel. Let me be clear, that is not a defense of the move from me, just providing the likely explanation.

        That is not a lot of at bats.

        • I think TC does this a lot, the small sample size stuff; it’s part of his “mix and match” mentality. There was recently another head-scratching lineup move based on the same kind of thing. I guess it’s okay, what the hell, you’ve got to play the whole team. But this PH didn’t work for me on any level.

  5. tommy2cat says:

    Small-ball is becoming a lost art. It can ignite an inning or perpetuate a big inning. It requires thinking, timing and commitment to fundamentals – not just knowing what they are, but how to use them and how to apply the proper technique.

    An example would be to observe a pitcher and see whether he exaggerates his follow-through. If so, bunt to the opposite side if the corner IF is playing back.

    Might’ve been last night’s game, but early in the game, Granderson came up with guys on 1st & 2nd with no one out. Might’ve been 3-0 or 3-1 at the time. I saw no reason for him not to lay one down the 3rd base line.

    The concept is to manufacture runs to get back in the game, Grandy has a propensity for striking out, but a lesser risk than most to hit into the double-play. A properly executed bunt will, at worst, move the runners to 2nd & 3rd with one out with Murphy and Wright coming up; at best, it forces an error, placing runners at 2nd & 3rd with one run in, which can lead to a big inning.

    The time to drive the ball with two runners on is when the score is tied, or when we’re down late in the game. But when you have a deficit early in the game, it’s all about getting those base runners home by maximizing opportunities and minimizing risks.

    Terry doesn’t get it, which explains our high OBP and poor situational hitting. When Hugeons was around, we’d have batters looking to work the count with runners on 3rd and less than 2 out, watching strike one split the plate in a dull adult stupor lol.

    If you really want to see this offense move, a post All Star combo of Wally and Lamar will unleash the hounds.

    My 2 cents…

    • We appreciate your 2 Cents, Tommy, thanks for commenting. I’d love to see Wally get a shot. For a long time I thought it would be impossible. Not I’m thinking it’s only unlikely.

      I don’t think I want Granderson — who has been fabulous over the last 35 games or so — bunting in that particular situation. But that’s a quibble, since I do think it’s a good play in many other situations.

      People talk about that bunt but I think of simply sticking the bat out and going the other way. A little half swing you use while playing pepper.

      I wonder if that’s it. Do guys play pepper anymore? In my men’s league, our team used to do it a lot. I really felt that it helped me as a hitter. You’d learn how to barrel up every throw, how to direct the ball to any of the 3-4 fielders. I remember watching Seaver play it, long ago, though that seems like a dream to me now.

      • Michael Geus says:

        I can’t remember the last time I saw major leaguers playing pepper, at one time it happened daily before every game I went to. Teams used to take infield practice shortly before the game, that is dead too.

        I wonder why it vanished. It’s not like NBA players stopped shooting lay ups before the games.

        Hard to understand.

      • Michael Geus says:

        I just can’t see Wally and Sandy together. If Sandy steps aside, I think Wally and J. P. could happen.

        I think Jeff wants to go with Wally, and I don’t think J. P. would want that fight.

        Sandy was very smart in hiring Collins. He not only got what he wanted (a totally subservient guy), he hired a friend of
        Koufax’s. That makes Collins gold in Fred’s eyes which helps Sandy with Jeff as far as keeping Backman away.

        Brilliant when you think about it.

  6. Eraff says:

    “Pepper” is ANTI “Approach”— you swing at every “pitch”. and you can’t Walk.

  7. Reese Kaplan says:

    There’s nothing wrong with taking a walk if you’re also capable of stealing bases. Unfortunately the guys who walk a lot like Tejada just clog up the basepaths. Eric Young and Chris Young — both of whom can steal — don’t walk.

    • Actually, career-wise, CY does walk a lot and has a patient approach. He just can’t hit anymore. Walks are good, Tejada walking is great — it’s the best thing he does, frankly. He gets on base, doesn’t make an out (very important), keeps the chain moving. My issue is that I don’t want hitters, sluggers, taking fastballs down the pipe.

      That Ruben Tejada is a looker is the best thing he can possibly do and, again, I think it’s the best part of his game. It’s just that I don’t prize that skill as much as some other folks do. I’d prefer a real hitter.

  8. Dave says:

    . Walks are good. Harrelson walked a lot, so did Wayne Garrett. Walking alot was one of the reasons those guys were in the lineup despite a sub .250 BA. Ted Williams walked a ton, but for a different reason…pitchers were afraid to throw him a strike. The problem with the current Mets lineup is there are too many weak hitting walkers.

    • I agree, Dave, of course. I can’t think of anyone who would disagree — in a vacuum, walks are good, certainly.

      I think the issue is the value put on that “skill.” When teams place a huge emphasis on walks, drafting for plate discipline, hammering it home throughout the system, it’s fair to wonder if they might be missing out on other abilities. And are they, perhaps, too focused on that aspect of hitting. As I think we’ve statistically demonstrated, when you look at productivity by pitch-count, guys hit for more power early in the count. So if working deep counts is a desired thing, it stands to reason that you will sacrifice power. Hudgens was a big believer in the 150 pitches concept (that teams win when they see 150 or more) and that seems so unbelievably backwards to me.

      Anyway, sure, walks are good, yes. But I still view them as a secondary skill (while recognizing that it’s just about impossible to be a great hitter with poor plate discipline). Keith walked all the time. But he was a hitter first and foremost.

  9. Brian Joura says:

    “But if you put together a team of fast guys who can make contact, all over the field, that changes the equation. If you look at the data right now, who is employing such a team in 2014?”

    Has there been a team since Herzog’s Cardinals to do this?

    I like diversity and the guts to do something different than everyone else. And there’s an incentive for the Mets to do this in Citi Field with its dimensions. But the reality is that the Mets are not a speed team and changing over to one would be a process that would take years. I just don’t see it happening.

    Finally, I wonder how much offense would have to fall to make Gavin Cecchini a good pick?

    • Michael Geus says:

      I think those Cardinals teams were the beginning of that tipping point. McGwire and Canseco had began “working out” and many followed. The game understandably changed.

      It’s changing again. And yes, for the Mets and everyone else adjustments will take years and need to begin below the major league level. The first teams to recognize this and adjust will have an advantage someday.

      For now, it’s all opinion, until or unless some teams get serious about this organizationally it’s all just theory.

      Personally, I will be surprised if zero teams go a new way.

    • That’s funny, re: Cecchini.

      I don’t think it’s so much about changing the Mets over in an instant, but more a (possibly) shift in any organization’s emphasis toward, say, “speed and athleticism” over, say, “plate discipline” or “power.”

      Personally, I think the best teams are well-rounded, with a variety of weapons. But the gist of the conversation is simple: the change is changing, the statistics prove it, we are seeing it with our eyes. What will be the next, best adjustment to it?

  10. Eraff says:

    I’m not sure that Checchini represents any sort of tipping point in a baseball conversation—he’s a “Suspect Prospect” at this point, and that’s all.

  11. Mettle from Blue and Orange Nation says:

    Baseball is always changing. Pitching in the late ’60′s, hitting a few years prior and back recently. Then 2010 was “The Year of the Pitcher”. Personally, I see baseball being more safety based. The protective hat for pitchers and the collision at the plate rules are just the start of baseball being changed- I’d bet if it was possible, the next commissioner would have players wrapped in bubble wrap every game!

  12. […] have also discussed the effect that modern shifting is having on the ability to get hits on balls in play. And that […]

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