Maybe it’s a Las Vegas thing. Bryce Harper faced a four-man outfield alignment recently and Kris Bryant saw one when the Cubs played the Reds Tuesday night. But you see lots of wild stuff during spring training and an extra outfielder isn’t nearly as jarring as moving the mound back two feet or removing home plate umpires. Plus, this kind of defensive alignment isn’t new, either for Bryant or MLB.
It’s just that most major leaguers don’t see such a setup prior to serving as a ringer on his buddy’s beer-league softball team in retirement, so the view can throw them off a little bit. Unless you’re a guy who grew up being taught how to hit like the man whose prowess with the bat spurred all kinds of defensive shifts.
“I was just like, ‘Well, that’s weird,'” Bryant told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “I mean, it’s smart. You can kind of look at spray charts and stuff. I think we did it to [someone] last year. I don’t know. It’s kind of a compliment. I take it as a compliment, because it’s like, ‘This guy hits a lot of balls in the gaps and in the air.’ That’s kind of how I look at it.”
A lot of hitters might get over-anxious seeing a big gap in the field and get caught up with trying to guide the ball. There’s also the idea of bunting to keep the defense honest, but KB’s not going up there to lay one down. He knows what Ted Williams knew, which is that the best way to beat a shift is to hit over or through it.
And to be fair, the Reds made it kind of easy by leaving the middle of the field wide open. Their corner outfielders hugged the lines with the centerfielder in the left-center gap and the second baseman in the other.
“If they were playing a dude right there, they probably would’ve caught the ball that I hit,” Bryant said bemusedly.
Even though he wasn’t going up there trying to aim his contact, Bryant told Bastian that he knew from the alignment that the pitcher was likely to work him inside. So knowing it’s better to look in and adjust away, he went hunting a specific pitch and ended up getting one that he could dump into center for a single.
But just because he picked up an easy hit Tuesday or has both the skill and acumen to overcome some of these defensive strategies, don’t think Bryant is cool with the idea.
“I just don’t think that when baseball was created, this was in anybody’s mind,” Bryant said. “So, it’s kind of a weird situation that we’re in now, because shifts are being deployed so many times during a game and during a season.”
It makes sense that he’d say that as a hitter, but there’s really nothing to prevent a manager from positioning his players all over the field in whatever manner he sees fit. He can put ’em all on one side of the field and just dare a guy to go oppo. You could have no outfielders. Dogs and cats, living together. Mass hysteria!
“Hopefully we kind of get to a point where the rules are more solidified,” Bryant said, “and there aren’t any second basemen on the warning track. I don’t know if that’s the way baseball should be played.”
The idea of banning or limiting shifts has been part of the discussion along with several other rules changes, so there’s serious potential for something to be enacted in the near future. And as we examined back in December, the Cubs are well positioned to benefit from such restrictions.
Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber each faced a shifted defense in over 62 percent of their plate appearances last season. Bryant saw one over 43 percent of the time, nearly five times more than the average right-handed hitter (8.9 percent). And prior to his shoulder injury, Bryant had actually been shifted against in nearly 55 percent of his plate appearances.
There are numerous reasons for the league-wide reduction in offense, whether you want to point at rising pitch velocity numbers or increasing specialization of pitchers. But eliminating those advantages means making physical changes to the mound — lowering and/or moving it back — or mandating a specific number of batters a reliever must face. In short, you’ve got to add gimmicks to the game.
But if we just use Occam’s Razor, isn’t the simplest solution to limit a defensive gimmick and get back some lost offense in the process? There were 3,000 fewer singles in 2018 than 10 years ago, and 517 balls batted into the shift would have been hits against a standard defensive alignment. There’s your pace of play right there, Mr. Manfred. More hits and more runs equals more fun.
Infielders stay in the infield, outfielders stay in the grass, shortstops and second basemen remain on their respective sides of second base, and there you go. But what about those rare situations when the game is on the line and you’re selling out for an all-or-nothing play? Banning the shift there would be like losing the on-side kick in football once kickoffs are done away with.
Is that such a terrible thing, though? How many times over the course of an entire season do you need five infielders and would anyone miss the strategy if it was outlawed? Oh, c’mon, put your hand down. You know you don’t really care.
Or maybe you do and you think all’s fair in love and baseball. Maybe you’re right. If the league really wants to make a simple change to the game that could have a significant impact on run-scoring, they’d do well to listen to Bryant. But until that day comes and the changes are implemented, he and other hitters are just going to have to deal with it.
And heaven help those poor outfielders if their alignment tips Bryant off to what’s coming, because no shift in the world is going to get them 25 rows back in the left field bleachers.