“It’s easy to beat the shift. Tell ‘em, Wash.” We know how that ends. The reality, though, is that hitting away from the shift, while not simple, is consummately doable and today Chris Herrmann put on a clinic.
Herrmann, a dead pull hitter according to your local spray charts, made mellifluous baseball music when with Robbie Grossman on the move he chopped a 3-2 pitch to the vacated shortstop spot. Earlier, Herrmann also gracefully served a Jose Berrios pitch into left-center for a game tying RBI single.
Both hits were not just “things of beauty,” they are a lost art in the TTO era of “grip it and rip it”. And yet as coaches, sabermatricians, and front offices ponder ‘revolutionary’ techniques such as the ‘opener’ and a 4-man outfield, a key weapon remains largely untapped.
Intentionally hitting to large vacated spots is a skill totally worth cultivating, practicing, and emphasizing. The reason it is not impossible is that the margin for error is large — you pretty much have to be able to hit a ball “somewhere on that side of the diamond” to have a better than 50/50 chance of getting a hit.
One reason the matter is so urgent is that the vacated spots are offset by regions more crowded than Costco on a Sunday, with 3 infielders covering the lion’s share of half the diamond and even some of the outfield.
The art of hitting away from the shift is largely one of learning how the let the bat drag at the end of the swing. You have a reasonable amount of bat control because you don’t need a “maximum effort” swing — it’s more of a hit-and-run swing focused on contact and balls don’t have to be hit especially hard to clear the infield where there is no defense positioned. Robbie Grossman is probably the hitter who has most often used this swing to punish a shifted alignment.
The A’s are good at hitting HRs but have been far less consistent about manufacturing runs even at crucial times when contact or a single is paramount. Ramon Laureano, Mark Canha, Josh Phegley, and lefty Jurickson Profar are among hitters who have repeatedly fallen prey to the shift at times when large vacancies were beckoning unrequited.
A natural rebuttal will be “It’s hard and they’re not good at it,” and the counter-point is that in this extreme shifting era it is high time that getting good at it became a higher priority and the focus of more pre-game routines. As Herrmann demonstrated today, it is well within a pull hitter’s skill set to mindfully observe a shifted defense, serve and chop pitches the other way, and eventually force defenses to stop shifting. Get a few hits and create more holes again on the pull side? That’s the ultimate win-win.
Note that I am not suggesting Khris Davis and Matt Olson become slap hitters. There is a time to “grip it and rip it,” and certain players have swings just not tailored to making this particular adjustment. They are, however, the exception and not the rule. With a runner at 3B and one out, and the right side mostly abandoned, absolutely a hitter like Laureano or Phegley should be confident and capable to play pepper with the vast region between the 1Bman and 2Bman for a “keep the line moving” RBI hit.
To me this is about being opportunistic and “taking what’s given,” and this is an area where I think the A’s offense — though solid overall — can improve and needs to improve in order to back an up-and-down pitching staff devoid of aces.
I hear you now: “It’s not that easy.” No, it’s not. It actually takes some practice and attention — and it’s high time the team recognized that this practice and attention is a great use of precious time. This is baseball in 2019 and the promised land happens to be to the off field.