Swallowed by a Shift

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Swallowed by a Shift

Post  net.com on Mon Aug 08, 2011 12:55 am

Mark Teixeira was sitting at his locker at Yankee Stadium late last month, trying to put into words how his season has gone at the plate

At first, he gestured with his hands. “It’s been ... you know ... pretty good,” he said, turning his palms up.

Then he shrugged. “I mean, the production is there, there’s no doubt about that ...” he said before trailing off and scratching the side of his head.

He sighed. “You know what?” he said finally. “It’s been pretty weird.”

In many ways, that may be the most apt word to describe it. For while Teixeira, the Yankees’ switch-hitting first baseman, has spent much of this year putting up solid, if not spectacular, power numbers (he had 32 home runs and 86 runs batted in entering Sunday night’s game), his batting average has hovered around .250, about the same as it was last season and roughly 40 points below his average from 2003 through 2009.

For a player in the prime of his career (Teixeira is 31), it is a stark and startling decline, and Teixeira acknowledged that it did bother him. Asked to identify why a hitter who was once so complete might have experienced such a noticeable drop, Teixeira — who was quick to say he was not complaining — said he believed one factor was the defensive alignments teams were increasingly using against him when he batted left-handed. In the shift, three of the four infielders move to the first-base side of the diamond to neutralize his tendency to pull the ball.

“Obviously, I’m losing hits to the shift,” Teixeira said. “How much? I don’t know. But I’d guess something.”

To the Yankees’ hitting coach, Kevin Long, Teixeira was being too kind. Long said the team’s research had shown that Teixeira was losing 15 to 20 points off his average because of would-be hits that were swallowed up by the shift, making it a primary reason for Teixeira’s declining average (he hit .256 in 2010).

Teixeira is an unusual case, too, in that he is a switch-hitter who does not have nearly the same tendencies batting right-handed as he does from the left side. Teams would be less likely to play a shift against a right-handed hitter because of the difficulty in throwing a runner out at first base on a ball fielded in shallow left field, but Teixeira’s track record shows it would not be a wise decision anyway.

As a right-handed hitter, Teixeira has a more even distribution in terms of the location of his hits: For his career, he was hitting .480 when he pulled the ball right-handed, .317 when he hit it up the middle and .285 when he went the opposite way.

As a left-handed hitter, however, the distribution is more skewed: he hit .455 when he pulled the ball, .290 when he went up the middle and just .232 when he went the opposite way, making it easier for other teams to justify playing the shift when he bats left-handed. This year, for example, he was hitting .389, or 66 points lower than his career average, when he pulled the ball left-handed (with only a .226 average on balls in play), indicating the shift may, indeed, be decreasing his productivity.

The shift is not going anywhere for Teixeira, either, particularly because there are more right-handed pitchers in the majors than left-handers. For his career, Teixeira has more than twice as many lefty at-bats as he does righty.

“The main thing is he can’t get hung up on it,” Long said of the shift, “because we’re seeing it more and more.”

That is true not only for Teixeira, but for other players throughout the major leagues. As available data on hitters’ tendencies and histories has increased in recent years, so too has an organization’s ability to use that data as the basis for tinkering with defensive alignments. And although left-handed pull hitters like Boston’s David Ortiz, Minnesota’s Jim Thome and the Chicago White Sox’ Adam Dunn remain the most conspicuous targets of glaring defensive shifts, teams are no longer limiting themselves to the most obvious situations for employing unusual positioning.

“Teams have been positioning their defense for many, many years,” Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson said in a telephone interview. “I think the difference today is there’s a substantially larger base of data for making those decisions. The positioning is — or should be — more nuanced.”

In interviews with team personnel, most were reluctant to reveal the specific metrics they use to identify probabilities for positioning, though it is clear that the basic spray chart, which plots the direction of balls a particular batter has hit, has transitioned from a defining document to only one piece of a complex puzzle.

The Yankees’ third-base coach, Rob Thomson, who is responsible for positioning the Yankees’ fielders, spoke generally about the criteria he uses and said myriad factors could inform a decision: what type of pitcher is on the mound; what areas of the ballpark might be most tempting for a hitter (for example, the short right-field fence at Yankee Stadium); and even if a hitter is known to be dealing with any sort of injury or issue that might be affecting his swing.

When the Yankees played the White Sox last week in Chicago, Thomson instructed his infielders to eschew the shift against Dunn in the first game of the series because the team’s ace, C. C. Sabathia, was pitching. Sabathia is a power pitcher, as well as a left-hander whose breaking pitches typically go away from Dunn, so the likelihood of Dunn’s yanking a ball to the right side of the infield decreased.

A night later, when the right-handed Phil Hughes was on the mound, however, the Yankees did shift against Dunn, sending third baseman Eduardo Nunez to the right side of second base while second baseman Robinson Cano shifted over as well and shortstop Derek Jeter stationed himself up the middle.

“There are so many factors that even if we played a team last week and are playing them again next week, I’ll still go over all my reports again,” Thomson said. “The spray chart probably wouldn’t have changed that much, but everything else would.”

Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said he was intrigued by the different ways teams interpreted their data.

“Some days, David hits a ground ball to second, and it ends up being a base hit, that on a normal alignment is an out,” Francona said of Ortiz. “Or he hits a liner to right, and some second baseman’s standing 30 yards out, and it’s an out. It’s interesting.”

Despite the increasing instances of shifts around the league — the Milwaukee Brewers, in particular, use a variety of unorthodox alignments (including some against right-handed hitters) — the most publicized shifts have centered for years around the American League East.

J. P. Ricciardi, who worked as the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays from 2002 to 2009, recalled seeing a shift in what felt like every divisional series. Most teams would use the shift against the former Toronto slugger Carlos Delgado, Ricciardi said, and the Blue Jays and Tampa Bay were aggressive in using shifts against the former Yankee Jason Giambi and occasionally his teammate Hideki Matsui.

“When you see teams 18, 19 times a season, maybe it makes it easier to feel comfortable doing something like that,” said Ricciardi, now a special assistant to Alderson with the Mets. “In that division, we certainly felt like we knew each other really, really well.”

The A.L. East association with the shift is historically appropriate, too. This past weekend, when Teixeira and Ortiz attempted to hit against shifts at Fenway Park, they did so in the same stadium where the famous Williams Shift was first used.

On July 14, 1946, after Ted Williams hit three home runs in the first game of a doubleheader with the Cleveland Indians, Lou Boudreau — then a player-manager for the Indians — came up with a plan to try to stifle Williams in the second game.

The Associated Press article the next day described the Indians’ alignment as “the most unusual defense against Williams ever seen at Fenway Park,” and it featured six players stationed in right field. Although news reports indicated that shifts were used in earlier years (including against Babe Ruth), the Indians’ attempt to stifle Williams became the titular moment of the concept.

The first time Williams batted against the shift, he lined a double down the right-field line, and though Ricciardi said he believed it would behoove a hitter facing the shift to occasionally try to slap a ball to the vacated side of the field, Long and Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said they did not want to see Teixeira try to change who he is as a hitter.

Teixeira agreed, saying, “I would be a pretty ugly slap hitter,” though the Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson said he believed Teixeira was capable of hitting to all fields consistently and “being that .290 hitter again.”

Of course, Jackson, one of baseball’s greatest left-handed power hitters, then described his own philosophy on shifts, which arose, he said, when a few teams attempted to use it against him in 1969.

“I didn’t care,” Jackson said, “because I wasn’t trying to hit the ball where the players were standing. I was trying to hit it into the seats.”

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