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The Quandary Of Hitting Into, Or Away From, The Shift

If Brandon Moss wants to "hit 'em where they ain't" he'll need swings like this one.
If Brandon Moss wants to "hit 'em where they ain't" he'll need swings like this one.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Three infielders to the right of 2B, one playing the familiar "short RF rover" known to softball beer leagues from coast to coast. The fourth infielder is closer to 2B than he is to 3B, with 70 feet of fair territory to his right.

This is a familiar sight if you're a dead-pull hitter such as Brandon Moss or Josh Reddick. Lately even "all fields" hitters like John Jaso and Coco Crisp have found themselves batting against a shifted infield, especially on certain counts. It is a matter of opinion -- and debate in this very post -- whether hitters should be trying to rip balls through the shift or whether they should be aiming to guide balls away from the shift. What is less debatable is that for the foreseeable future, the shift is here to stay.

I actually think that the conundrum facing Moss, Reddick and others is truly difficult one to solve. Each time you see a batter mash one into the shift for a routine out you want to shake him and ask, "Did you not SEE all the prime real estate they left unmanned?" Each time you see a batter try to go away from his strength, towards his weakness, and hit a weak pop up the other way you want to shake him and ask, "Do you not remember what GOT you to the big leagues?"

Moss' career, for example, stalled for years under hitting coaches who pressured him to be something he wasn't. You had to hit to all fields to be successful -- only Moss wasn't. You had to adjust your approach with two strikes -- only that isn't Moss' game. Only when Moss embraced his "high strikeout, grip and rip it, try to hit it into the RF seats" true self did he emerge to be one of the American League's most productive hitters.

One key question is: How easy is it to learn to hit away from the shift? Hitters are shifted against precisely because their batted ball profile says that when they hit the ball on the ground they will almost always hit it to one side of the infield. How easily can a player with this batted ball profile learn to hit ground balls the other way?

The good news, if you're trying to hit away from the shift, is that you have a huge margin for error because there is virtually no defense there to make a play. You don't have to hit the ball especially hard or particularly well placed in order to wind up with a base hit. Almost anything you hit is going to elude the infielder and few balls are going to be hit with a batted ball profile that turns it into an out.

But can an old dog learn a new trick? There are a few different ways a pull hitter can try to hit away from the shift:

* Look for an outside pitch, shorten the swing or wait a hair longer, and try to line it the other way. This is a common two-strike approach for many non-power hitters.

* Take an "easy swing," focus on contact, and just chop down on the ball aiming for around the middle of the big hole. This is a common approach for batters on a hit-and-run.

* Rotate the hips more or put your lead foot "in the bucket" (away from home plate), dragging the bat back a bit as a result, so that the same ball you would normally pull winds up slicing off the other way. This is commonly done by Japanese hitters such as Ichiro Suzuki.

If there are others you know of, or can think of, add them in the comments. The question becomes not "Should every hitter..." or "Should Moss/Reddick/Jaso/Crisp..." embrace a certain one of these techniques or strategies, but rather should they find the one that is right for them and add it to their toolbox? Or should they just continue hitting the way they always have even though more and more batted balls are being converted into outs as spray charts and alignments are refined?

I am mixed on it. I think you generally want players to play to their strengths rather than trying to do something that goes against the skill-set that got them there: "maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses" is a good guiding principle for most players in most sports. There are some guys you don't ask to bunt, others you don't ask to "see a lot of pitches," others you don't ask to execute a hit-and-run, precisely because that's not the skill that they bring to the equation.

On the other hand baseball is, as much as anything else, a game of adjustments. The defense has adjusted in a big way and now it's the pull-hitters' turn. If there is a next cycle in baseball -- we've seen the slider, the cutter, the shift -- it might be hitters who are able to punish a defensive alignment by hitting away from their batted ball profile.

It seems important enough now to be worthy of rounds of batting practice. You don't think that with daily reps, Reddick could build the skill of hitting ground balls in the general region of SS, enough to put an end to the shifting against him? Certainly hitters with the kind of bat control, and general all-fields approach, such as Jaso and Crisp, ought to be able to punish the shift enough to convince teams to cease shifting against them.

And that's the beauty of it. Beat the shift a few times and the shift disappears. And now you can go back to mashing the way you used to on a level playing field. It's the ultimate win-win for a Moss or Reddick. That is, if you can do it. It's easy, right? Tell 'em, Wash.