Steroids, Shifts and Shift Beaters

By Erik Lewis, Feature Writer

A new season means starting fresh. Out with the old, in with the new. And with it come welcoming signs of a new era in baseball. 

The steroid era of baseball is (hopefully) on its way out after strict punishments handed down to Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz, Alex Rodriguez and Melky Cabrera for their “crimes” against the league.  

There will always be players trying to cheat the system, however, one would tend to think with the rigorous testing and strict punishments that the steroid era is on its last leg.

The proof that era of hulk-like power hitters and binge streaks of home runs is over is in the pudding numbers. Based on the ISO (Isolated Power) stat, from 1988-2012, home runs hit per game increased to 1.1 and have since dropped to 0.99. Pitching is stronger, and better defense is being played through the use of shifts (and pine tar). 

Also, from 1996-2009, there were a total of 142 players that hit over 40 home runs in a season. In 2012, there were six, but the two seasons prior totaled just four according to BaseballReference.com. 

In 2013, it looks like there will be four 40+ home run hitters. These include: Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu and Giancarlo Stanton and Nelson Cruz. All have at least 20 homers right now before the All-Star break. 

A new beginning 

Behind the steroid era comes the shift-happy era of saber-metrics.

Shifting defensively has become necessary to beat dead-pull hitters by placing your defense in the best position to succeed, something Bobby Cox would do if he were still managing today. 

Looking at hitters who are below .240 and have six or more homers at this point in the season, MLB.com shows players like Mark Reynolds, Chris Carter, Chris Davis, Adam Dunn, Pedro Alvarez, Juan Francisco, and Brett Lawrie. 

ESPN and Google Images

ESPN and Google Images

As this list grows and grows, the realization come that these players aren’t bad hitters (well… maybe) but flawed. Take Chris Davis, for example. Davis hit .286 last season with 53 home runs. After having success in a less shifty world last season, Davis has become too much of a pull hitter — for whatever reason. 

Hitters are being rewarded more often this season than in recent years for being able to hit the ball anywhere on the diamond.

Players like Davis, Lawrie and Reynolds swing for the fences and don’t work on that opposite stroke, hence why defenses have stacked the left or right side of the field to take advantage.  

Unpredictability at the plate is a rare thing for fielders to see now. Being able to shoot the ball down the first base line or rip one just past the third baseman is a lost art, which is why Miguel Cabrera is so much fun to watch. Cabrera hits it where its pitched.

Be
cause there aren’t as many “complete hitters”, shifts are expected to increase by about 73.9 percent from 2013 to total about 14,146 shifts this season, according to Doug Mittler of ESPN.com. These shifts are to beat players like Davis and Reynolds and hopefully save runs. 

The top shifting teams include the Astros, Yankees and Orioles. Baltimore and New York are the only two in the top 10 in team fielding, according to ESPN.com statistics.

Shift beaters

The shift isn’t fool proof, though. The Yankees are proof of that, seeing a SRS (shift runs saved) metric of -6 per game in 374 shifts this season, according to Mittler. This opposite effect is a major flaw and shows in the win/loss column. 

So to beat the shift, a new era that puts more emphasis on being a complete hitter has arisen — which is a good for baseball.

Look at Cardinals’ first baseman Matt Adams. Adams is proof that players can change. According to the Mittler article, Adams has changed from being a dead-pull hitter to beat the shift. Adams has hit to left field 25% more and pulled to right 11% less.

Matt Adams/Google Images

Matt Adams/Google Images

When all else fails, some batters like to drop the occasional bunt.

“More and more teams are getting on the defensive positioning bandwagon. At some point, the batters will strike back, using one of the only anti-shift tactics available. I’ll be tracking this throughout the season for any sign that hitters have had enough” – said Ben Lindbergh of Baseballprospectus.com

There have been 34 successful bunts against the shift this season, which is up from 34 total in 2012-13 combined, according to Mittler.

With flaws like this, shifting in itself isn’t the savior to beat a pull conscious hitter. Pitchers need to adjust for the shift, which can be a problem if it’s against their style. Pitchers like Mark Buehrle tend to throw more off-speed pitches, which isn’t conducive to throwing inside.

With the age of shifting and beating the shift now in place, fans, coaches and players can see who the best hitters are, and those that are adjusting to it. These are the guys that consistently beat the shift and are not easy to predict.

Troy Tulowitzki and Jonathan Lucroy are atop the leaders in batting average this season at .356 and .341 respectively, but there are also 22 other players hitting above .300 right now.

Failure in baseball is common and must be overcome, but hitting a ball at four fielders doesn’t make much sense to me. So, as shifting continues to be used by all 30 teams in the majors, a new era of hitters will arise. New age hitters in the next few years will have to adapt to use the entire field or die trying.

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