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Shifty business in major leagues

Shifts don't usually work against Barry Bonds, who is just as likely to homer to the opposite field.  Shifts don't usually work against Barry Bonds, who is just as likely to homer to the opposite field.  
 (File/Associated PressFile/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Shifts don't usually work against Barry Bonds, who is just as likely to homer to the opposite field. Shifts don't usually work against Barry Bonds, who is just as likely to homer to the opposite field. (File/Associated PressFile/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Mike Dodd USA Today

See if you can connect the dots: Ted Williams, Willie McCovey, Adam Dunn, Aaron Guiel, Karim Garcia.

Besides being left-handed, they are members of an ever-expanding club: hitters who have faced the defensive shift that places three infielders to the right of second base.

Made famous against Williams when Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau moved everyone but the left fielder to the right side, the strategy today isn’t as dramatic, but is more prevalent.

The combination of better scouting, with hitter tendencies analyzed by computers, and the emphasis on power hitting has prompted teams to employ the alignment more frequently. Guiel, who hit 15 home runs for the Kansas City Royals last year, joined the club when the Boston Red Sox put the shift on him earlier this month.

“If you’re going to keep those (spray) charts, you need to use them to your benefit,” says Toronto Blue Jays bench coach Joe Breeden, who oversees his club’s defensive alignments.

Sluggers like Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Jim Thome and Carlos Delgado see the shift almost every game.

Others face it against one or two opponents. Though less common against right-handed hitters, Kansas City’s Juan Gonzalez and Chicago’s Frank Thomas have already seen it this year.

The strategy is elementary: Teams play the percentages and try to entice a slugger to hit to the opposite field, where he is less likely to hit with power. It has been used against the most feared hitters for years, but it now plays a bigger role in game plans.

“We’re talking about it more; it’s more of an option now because of the home-run production,” says Cleveland bench coach Buddy Bell. “You have more information to determine where to play these guys.”

“Compared to 25 years ago, my guess is a lot more guys pull the ball all the time,” says statistics guru Bill James, senior baseball operations adviser for the Red Sox.

Many proficient hitters handle the bat well enough to hit to the opposite field. But for some sluggers, hitting the other way is as foreign as bunting.

“It’s something they can’t feel comfortable doing because they don’t do it that much,” Bell says. “And they feel they’re going to give up an at-bat.”

“When you do a shift on a hitter, you do it because you’re 100 percent sure he’s not going to hit the ball the other way,” adds White Sox first-base coach Rafael Santana, who is in charge of defense.

Most top hitters scoff at the shift, and while they may slap the ball to the opposite field on occasion, they aren’t going to go away from their strengths.

“I don’t react. Whatever. I don’t try to change my approach,” says Toronto’s Delgado, who led the majors with 145 RBI last year. “More than anything, it’s a mind game to try to get the bat away from you.

“They take away more hits than they give you (with the shift). Whether it’s five points or 10 points (on a batting average), I don’t know. I don’t think it’s that big a difference over the course of 600 at-bats.”

Cincinnati’s Ken Griffey Jr., who has seen the shift for years, says he’s unfazed because he usually doesn’t hit the ball on the ground.

“There’s four infielders and three outfielders. Who’s got to cover the most ground? The outfielders,” he says. “So as a hitter, you want to hit the ball to the outfield.”

Baltimore’s Rafael Palmeiro, however, says he’s working more on hitting to the opposite field since teams started shifting regularly on him a couple of years ago.

“The shift has cost me a lot of hits, because I’ll hit a routine grounder between first and second base and the second baseman will be there in short right field to throw me out,” he says. Now, depending on the situation, “I’ll bunt or hit a ground ball to the left side.”

The bunt is an effective weapon. Griffey and Arizona’s Luis Gonzalez used it against the Cubs recently, and Chicago third-base coach Wendell Kim says the team is employing the alignment less as a result.

One modification: keep the third baseman home while shifting the rest of the infield. (In most shifts, the third baseman plays where the shortstop is usually stationed). “If they hit the ball the other way or bunt, you have to tip your cap to them,” says Cubs catcher Michael Barrett.

A team’s pitching pattern goes hand-in-hand with the shift. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the hitter will see every pitch on the inside part of the plate. “You’ve got to mix it up,” says White Sox starter Mark Buehrle.

When a pitcher does go away, it’s usually with off-speed pitches. “It’s tough not to pull the ball if it’s soft because he’s going to be out in front of it,” Bell says.

It’s all designed to play the percentages on ground balls, and the spray charts back up the strategy. According to Inside Edge Scouting Services, Delgado hits the ball to the left third of the infield (normal shortstop to third base positions) only 2 percent of the time.

But it isn’t all charts and statistics. Several coaches say they still make the decision based on a “feel,” often a sense of how the hitter has been swinging the past few days.

Guiel was baffled seeing the shift against him for the first time in his career. “They didn’t do that against Matt (Stairs). Maybe they got us mixed up,” he said after the game.

Teams employ the alignment less against right-handed hitters, probably because there are fewer dead-pull hitters from that side. And an extreme shift is out because the first baseman has to stay close enough to get to the bag for the put-out throw.

Seattle’s Edgar Martinez says he’s never seen a shift against him or any other right-handed hitter since they generally hit to all fields. Because there are more right-handed pitchers, right-handed batters see more pitches that break away. “You have to learn to hit the slider that breaks on the outside corner the other way,” Martinez says.

Boudreau’s historic shift against Williams in 1946 was unsuccessful as the Boston star hit an inside-the-park homer to left. Teams have only moderate success against Bonds for a similar reason.

“He doesn’t just take the single going the opposite way. He’s strong enough to take the home run the opposite way,” Palmeiro says.

Even with all the computerized scouting of the age, there’s still no defense for that.

USA Today’s Mel Antonen, Scott Boeck, Chuck Johnson also contributed to this story.

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