As documented by the baseball card above, defensive shifts in baseball can hardly be considered a new thing.

While we’re quick to praise the “masterminds” behind the active defenses of today, putting defenders where baseballs are most likely to be hit isn’t exactly rocket surgery. It’s common sense. In fact, it seems odd that batters from both sides of the plate didn’t have such defensive strategies foisted upon them more frequently than has been the case prior to this season.

But before the Tampa Bay Rays and Milwaukee Brewers began implementing more shifts than the manager of a busy 7-11, teams would commonly move their infielders to the right for power hitting lefties, like Barry Bonds, Adam Dunn, Jason Giambi, Travis Hafner, Ryan Howard, David Ortiz and even Mo Vaughan.

While it was most likely observations that spawned more active defenses for these players back in the day, analytics have been credited with the current resolve to lower BABIP as much as possible around the league.

Note: We can’t say that there’s a definite causation between increased use of extreme defenses and a low BABIP, but we can point out that batting average for balls in play is currently at a twenty year low.

As with baseball, in fact, as with most strategies in general, drastic changes eventually elicit a correction that will eventually be introduced as a means of counteracting what at first appears to be a dominant strategy. This fact was never made more real for me than during a grade five chess tournament in which I rode my knowledge of Scholar’s Mate to the quarterfinals. It was there that I met someone wise enough to bring their Queen out early enough to take advantage of my foolish mode of attack.

After David Ortiz’s recent bunt down the unoccupied third base line to get on base against the Seattle Mariners, Tom Tango calculated how many such singles it would take for a good hitter to recreate his production:

The question is how often can a hitter bunt to make it more effective for him to produce runs, than to work the count and/or swing away.  We know that Ortiz has a career wOBA of close to .400 when he doesn’t bunt, which is where you will find great hitters.

With the bases empty, the wOBA equation gives a weight of almost 0.9 for a single with 0 outs and under 0.8 with 2 outs.  So, in order to get a .400 wOBA (and breakeven for a great hitter), a batter would need to successfully lay one down about 45% of the time with 0 outs, and 50% of the time with 2 outs.

Assuming that a good hitter is able to lay down a bunt on 80% of the strikes he sees and 30% of the balls he sees, it turns out that a 45%/50% success rate bunting with the shift on would be something of a modest ambition. A good hitter would be more likely to find a 60% success rate, and raise his wOBA to a Barry Bondsian level by simply bunting for singles.

This calculation comes to the conclusion that a good batter should look for a bunt single every single time he comes to the plate against a shifted defense.

While certainly not as gratifying as a home run, it’s normally a notable thing among fans when a batter with a reputation for hitting for power gets on base with a bunt. However, if bunt single attempts were employed more frequently, shifted defenses might move toward being seen as something of a less definite intentional walk.

But would batters like Ortiz give up the glory of well hit balls for the security of getting on base?

All of this theorizing about combating the shift caused me to take a look at Big Papi’s spray chart over the last few years.

Here it is for 2010:

And here it is in eerily similarity for 2011:

And now, 2012:

It looks as though there are a few more hits to left field than might be expected from Ortiz, given his previous spray charts, but we’re still only six weeks or so into the season. We probably can’t get too excited and start claiming that Ortiz is concentrating on avoiding outs rather mashing for power (which he’s still doing quite exclusively by pulling the ball).

But then, let’s take a look at Big Papi’s hitting since the beginning of the month in games against Oakland, Baltimore, Kansas City, Cleveland and Seattle:

We see the typical number of outs on the right side of the infield, but we also see a larger percentage of balls being put into play on the left side of the field. Almost half of the base hits he’s gotten on the left side of the field so far this season have fallen in during the last two weeks, while hitting a single fly ball out to right field.

Again, it’s not a large enough sample to draw a definite conclusion from, and I don’t know how many of these hits to the left came against a shift, but considering his bunt hit against Seattle, we at least know that Ortiz is aware that a change in approach might be necessary to combat the shift.

It falls under: in need of further observation.

If Ortiz is happily giving up moments in which he’d normally swing for the fences in order to successfully avoid outs through hits on the left side, we again have to ask ourselves what type of trade off of hits for home runs would actually increase offensive production. However, there’s been no drop off in power from Ortiz so far. In fact, he’s currently posting his highest ISO in five years, and is on pace to hit more home runs than last year.

Speaking of pace, if he can hold his current batting efficiency up, Ortiz will collect more base hits this season than any other year in his career, all while maintaining a well above average walk rate and his typically below average strike out rate.

It’s all rather remarkable that so far, for all the hype being given to effectiveness of the shift this year, David Ortiz, a player for whom the little piece of defensive strategy is most often used against, is adjusting absolutely fine to its implementation.

Spray charts via TexasLeaguers.com.

 

 

Comments (8)

  1. Great post Dustin! Now if only you’d only agree with me on the superiority of a computer-called strikezone and we’d agree on everything.

  2. Ortiz is such a sexy beast.

  3. Nice baseball card. Very cool.

  4. “Assuming that a good hitter is able to lay down a bunt on 80% of the strikes he sees and 30% of the balls he sees, it turns out that a 45%/50% success rate bunting with the shift on would be something of a modest ambition.”

    This may be a dumb question, but why would a good hitter lay down a bunt on 30% of the balls he sees? Why not just take the pitches that are balls and focus on bunting pitches that are in the strike zone. Obviously he is going to bunt some balls outside of the strike zone, but am I misunderstanding something here?

  5. Ortiz plays for a team I loathe more than anything – and yet I cannot deny how much I love him as a hitter. I knew it was BS about him considering a move to Toronto this season, but still I held a glimmer of hope.

    One thing I noted earlier this year when the Jays shifted Papi was that he’s more adaptable than maybe people give him credit for. He’s an opportunistic guy. The Jays shifted him, and he fought through an at bat against Alvarez until he got a sinking fastball on the outer half of the plate which he easily spanked into left field. With a little shift in his approach (see what I did ther.. oh never mind) he seems to be combating the shift relatively well.

    What is truly scary to me though – all of a sudden he’s a guy who not only shoots bombs to LF at Fenway off of pitches to the inner half of the plate.. now all of a sudden he’s a guy who can plunk cheap doubles off of the monster if you throw down and away?

    I love the guy. I can’t fault him for playing in a Micky Mouse ball park.

  6. Every time David Ortiz shows he’s learned how to daintily poke balls into left field past a dumbstruck rightward-shifted infield, I get this terrified chill down my spine, like when in Jurassic Park they find out the raptors have begun learning and have started opening doors. “Clever girl.”

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