Josh Donaldson Loves To See Pitchers Hurt By The Shift
Image courtesy of Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY SportsA few hours later, Donaldson, whose current team shifted 41.3% of plate appearances (7th most frequent in baseball), expanded on his viewpoint saying “pitchers are getting hurt because of these shifts. Hitters are taking advantage of it. Love to see it.”
In the simplest form, the goal of hitting is to not make an out. The next level would be to not make an out while gaining as many bases as possible in one at bat. By deploying the infield shift, teams are playing the percentages on a hitter’s batted ball tendencies while also tempting that hitter into a B-swing - one that does not do as much damage as it tries to direct a pitch to a certain area of the field. Teams in the field will concede the occasional single in the short term in exchange for more outs and fewer extra base hits over the long haul.
Over the course of a 162 game schedule, this alignment typically favors the defense. Recency bias likely plays a factor in Donaldson’s sentiments toward the shift. In a failed shift deployment, it becomes very noticeable (and usually highlighted by the broadcast crew) whereas the ground ball at a well-positioned infielder or the results of a hitter taking a less than optimal swing does not get amplified nearly as much during the telecasts.
Of course, from an offensive perspective, there are certainly times where teams would benefit from a well-placed hit rather than gambling on a gap shot.
In Riley’s case, the Braves were down by a run in the seventh inning. While a blast would have quickly tied it, simply reaching base would ensure that the top of Atlanta’s order - Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna - would get licks with a runner on base. So Riley inside-outs a 97-mile per hour sinker and starts a rally.
Josh Donaldson is not going to keep an opinion to himself. He’s very outspoken. He also just finished watching the Houston Astros dismantle the Minnesota Twins’ infield shifts.
In Game 1, with a 1-0 lead and runners on first and second, the Twins used a modified shift, pulling the infield around to the left against George Springer. On the mound, Tyler Duffey spins his knuckle-curves at the right-handed hitting Springer hoping to get him to over-pull into the shifted Marwin Gonzalez at third and Jorge Polanco at short. Springer, however, stays in line and drives the pitch back to the left side of second base where the shortstop might play. This ties the game 1-1.
Now, it comes off the bat at a hundred miles an hour so even if positioned a few steps over toward that hole might not be enough for Polanco to corral it. And Polanco was in a spot where a bulk of Springer’s ground balls were hit. So you can’t fault the logic. But this goes to show the approach the Astros are seemingly taking: hit toward the empty real estate.
Sure, Springer could have used his A-swing. He could have tried to drive the ball and put up a crooked number. He does not. He stays within himself and moves the line along. Aside from the terrible baserunning that ensued resulting in the third out at third, it was a fine piece of hitting.
In Game 2, more shift-beating ensued.
With two out and two on in the fourth inning, Jose Berrios was tangling with the left-handed hitting Kyle Tucker. The infield was swung around the right, with shortstop Jorge Polanco on the right side of second base and Marwin Gonzalez, playing slightly in at third to guard from the bunt, as the only body on the left side. On a two-two pitch, a very well located fastball by Berrios at that, Tucker keeps his hands in and inside-outs the ball to exactly where a straight-up shortstop would be playing.
Tucker’s swing was in protect mode but he undoubtedly saw the gaping hole on that side of the field. He didn’t need his best swing, he just needed a good enough swing. The Astros would take the early lead.
Then there was the ninth inning encounter between Taylor Rogers and Alex Bregman.
With a runner on first and no outs, Rogers throws Bregman an 0-1 fastball on the outer edge of the zone. It is left up and Bregman punches it right toward the vacant left side. The ball bounces at least five times as it travels into right field. Michael Brantley on first, alertly heads to third.
In a previous life, this would have been a double-play ball and the Twins might get their chance to tie it with a one-run game in the bottom of the ninth. In the modern era, Luis Arraez can only watch from 20 feet away as it bounds into the outfield.
This was an intentional approach by Bregman. He wasn’t protecting the plate or fighting anything off. He had what amounted to an automatic hit available to him and he took it when Rogers failed to execute his location.
When the dust settled, the Astros hitters were 7-for-15 on ground balls facing the infield shift from the Twins. Some were legit hits regardless of the alignment, others were borderline. Similarly, the Astros have since picked apart the Oakland A’s defensive shifts as well, going 7-for-20 in those situations in the ALDS as well. It seems to be a premeditated strategy.
Given that the Astros abused the Twins’ defensive alignment, which was viewed up close and personal by the injured third baseman, as well as the Braves’ march over the Marlins in Game 1 which was ignited by a shift buster, it’s no small wonder that Donaldson sees the shift as something that hurts pitching.
In some regards it does hurt pitching but for most teams not playing the Houston Astros, defensive shifts have been fairly effective in the postseason. While the Astros have hit .444 on grounders facing the shift, the rest of the teams in the postseason have hit .180.
For better or worse, the Minnesota Twins built their offense around the home run. Like the NBA’s increase in three-point shots, favoring the long ball has its advantages over the course of a season. As Earl Weaver said, the home run equals instant runs. That being said, throughout the year the Twins struggled to get others on base and score runs through other means. While they finished third in the American League in total home runs, they also finished 18th in overall runs scored.
In short, the team’s offensive toolbox only had one tool. And this became painfully apparent during the Wild Card series.
Because the games were close, the Astros could use the take-what-they-give-you approach rather than chucking up three point shots. The Minnesota Twins weren’t undone by infield positioning so much as they were outmaneuvered by the Houston Astros and their strategic bat control.
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