Gene Collier: Time to shift strategies vs. the shift

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Even without the unfortunate spectacle of an injured pierogi getting scooped and wheeled from the warning track on a cart, this week in Pirates baseball came bundled in oddities.

The strangest of unforeseen developments came not from the unfortunate Cheese Chester (out 6 to 8 weeks with a broken foot) but Tuesday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, courtesy of decorated masher Adrian Gonzalez.

Against another aggressively over-shifted Pirates defense, with three infielders to the right of second base, the left-handed hitting Gonzalez (A-Gon to the chronically hip) rifled a ground single right through the shift in the first, launched a home run over the shift and everything else in the seventh, and then, in the eighth, with a runner on first and one out, Gonzalez did something really brilliant.

If perfectly obvious.

Noting the continued presence of the Pirates' severe over-shift, Gonzalez pushed a bunt toward third base, an area at least 75 feet from the nearest infielder.

Serious observers were aghast, not that Gonzalez had done it, but that finally someone had merely tried. In a game in which the hardest thing to do, still, is to get a hit, defenses are now giving hits away.

And just about nobody is taking them.

"He can do a lot of different things," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said admiringly of Gonzalez some 24 hours later. "He's probably been as active as any slugger or middle-of-the-lineup guy as far as attempting to get bunts down to beat the shift. He's a different kind of cat, a very cerebral hitter and a very team-oriented player.

"A lot of guys are team-oriented, but as hard as they can work at bunting, when it comes to actually doing it in the game they might not feel they're productive enough. We try to encourage all our guys to bunt just for the feel of the bat to see which ones can get better at it and hopefully put that in play for the guys who are always getting shifted on."

As tracked by Baseball Info Solutions, aggressive defensive shifting continues to proliferate almost geometrically throughout the game. There were some 2,500 shifts on balls in play in the 2011 season, nearly 5,000 in 2012, more than 8,000 last year, and major league teams were on pace to deploy them more than 12,000 times this season.

Rather than hit it where they ain't (ancient baseball axiom), major league hitters continue to play right into the metrics, driving down runs, averages and before long, I'm afraid, interest.

When the game becomes a nearly endless session of pitch and catch (in the ignoble effort to run up pitch counts), interrupted primarily by batters grounding out to what appears to be the short fielder from some softball game, is that still baseball?

Or are we now watching Mathworks?

There are two potential solutions, the first superior but far more labor intensive: Hitters have to adjust, forcing the positioning pendulum back toward the conventional.

My own estimated adjustment period: Five years.

"You're talking about hitters that have hit one way for so long that we got these shifts," Hurdle said. "To recreate it is going to going to take some time, although five years might be a little lengthy. A good hitter should be able to pull it off a little more quickly, but I think it would take some significant time, a couple years."

Shifting isn't new, but its frequency is.

Ted Williams saw it in the 1940s, and Tony Gwynn in the 1980s, and neither had much difficulty adjusting to the shift, but that's essentially what made them Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn. Those were once-in-a-generation talents, each with a stroke of diamond cutter, the likes of which we might not see again.

"It takes an extra level of physical ability to stay on pitches that are longer, to let the ball get deeper, to fire quick on balls that are inside," Hurdle said. "One of the easiest things, in all actuality, to do, from my experience in the game, is to pull the ball. If you take a 5-year-old into the backyard and throw to him, he's going to pull more balls than any other result; he's just going to jump out and whack it. They don't see the dynamics involved in letting it travel a little. They see the ball, fire at the ball and hit it.

"In [major league] games, there's a high volume of hitters that react the same way. Our guys are instructed from day one through all the instruction, through all the cage work, in hitting balls, work at hitting balls away the other way. This is the part that is somewhat maddening from a coaching standpoint. You spend all this time hitting the ball to the opposite field and then comes game time and we have a tendency to kick it to the curb."

The other solution could be in place in time for next season: Ban the shift.

This isn't my idea. I first saw it in a piece about lengthening game times (don't get me started) by Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated. His idea was to require two infielders to be on each side of second base when the ball is pitched.

At the professional level, basketball, hockey and especially football have proven a willingness to change the rules when those sports decided defenses were suffocating the entertainment as well as the opposition.

That's what the proliferation of aggressive shifting is doing to baseball, but you should expect no such dramatic response.

Oh yeah, Gonzalez's bunt the other night?

Went foul.

On the next pitch, he grounded out into the shift.


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