How to beat baseball’s shift: Hit it where they used to be

The Durham Bulls employ a defensive shift against a Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs left-handed batter Wednesday, June 10, 2015 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
The Durham Bulls employ a defensive shift against a Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs left-handed batter Wednesday, June 10, 2015 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Durham Bulls first baseman Allan Dykstra has hit 132 doubles over an eight-year minor league baseball career.

When he laid down a bunt last week against a defensive shift that left the third base side bare, Dykstra thought he could add another one.

“I have been working on it during (batting practice),” he said. “The ball got in on me and I hit it just foul. But if I would have snuck it by the base, it could have been a double because there was nobody there.”

The 6-foot-5, 215-pound left-handed hitter, who won last season’s Triple A Home Run Derby at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, was trying a different approach in beating the defensive shift alignment that has taken over the major and minor leagues.

Defenses use the shift primarily against left-handed pull hitters. Cleveland famously employed a “Ted Williams Shift” during a 1946 game against the Hall of Famer. That shift was truly radical – six fielders on the right side of the infield and outfield. Williams reportedly laughed at the sight of it.

The alignment hitters face now typically includes moving one infielder over top or to the right of second base and sliding the second baseman into shallow right field, where the throw to first base still is short enough to get the out on a hard hit ball. Right-handers will see modest shifts, in which the second baseman shades toward the middle, but shortstops standing 30 feet into left field couldn’t throw out a runner at first base, so that alignment would be pointless.

Shifts have increased as data-centric organizations, such as the Tampa Bay Rays, have charted hitters’ tendencies. The rapid increase, as well as the extreme alignments – such as bringing the third baseman to the first base side of the diamond, as Dykstra saw last week – has created frustration among many hitters who are trying to solve the new look.

“It’s taken away from what baseball is about – pitcher versus hitter,” Dykstra said. “If a hitter hits it well, then most of the time you hope it to be a hit. If the pitcher pitches well, so be it.”

Part of the game

Dykstra’s numbers have dipped in 2015 as shifts against him have risen. He entered Friday hitting .173 in 129 plate appearances with Durham in a season in which he was called up to the Rays in April. Dykstra did not credit the shift as the sole cause of his struggle, but his distaste for shifts has added to his frustration.

“We see teams that shift against every other hitter and I think it’s getting out of hand,” Dykstra said. “It’s a little frustrating sometimes when you have a good at-bat, hit a ball hard and right at a guy. But it’s a part of the game now, and until it’s changed, we have to deal with it.”

Baseball Info Solutions began tracking defensive shifts in 2010. According to its research, MLB teams have shifted more than 13,000 times since 2010, and shift alignment has increased by more than 300 percent since 2011.

Among the leaders are the Rays, the parent club of the Bulls, who were second in shifts used in 2014.

Former Rays manager Joe Maddon has been at the forefront of employing the shift, and his departure this past offseason has not tempered the practice inside the organization.

Learning to play it

Bulls manager Jared Sandberg, in his first season in Durham, has also used an increasing number of shifts. As a manager with Class-A Bowling Green and and Charlotte (Fla.) in the past two seasons, Sandberg called for a shift on instinct, with little statistical basis available in the low minors. In Triple-A, just one level below the major leagues, data is more available.

“We’ve done a good job as an organization in staying ahead of (the trend),” Sandberg said, adding that the Rays organization is teaching minor leaguers how to play the shift in the field and offset it at the plate.

The Rays employ people who log the hits of each player in the major leagues and in Triple-A, sending the numbers to Durham. Sandberg and his coaching staff align the defense accordingly.

His left-handed hitters see their fair share of shifting. Dykstra sees the most, but outfielder Corey Brown, a left-handed hitter, and first baseman J.P. Arencibia, who bats right-handed, also have faced them.

What once was an alignment used against the most extreme left-handed pull hitters is now used liberally against all types of hitters. In cases similar to those of the 28-year-old Dykstra and the 29-year-old Arencibia, organizations are trying to teach new techniques to veteran hitters.

“You want a complete hitter, but a guy at this level is already going to be pretty set in his ways, so it is going to be a little more difficult to teach,” Sandberg said. “In the lower levels, you try to teach hitters line to line from the outset.”

Dykstra said it’s never too late to shift his approach.

“You don’t want to change what has gotten you there,” Dykstra said. “You have to work on driving the ball where they’re not. That’s the name of the game.”