A big focus here early on in the 2014 baseball season has been the increased use of infield shifts. We've heard announcers (especially guys like David Cone) talk about the shift almost on a daily basis and how often teams do it and where the team's respective infielders are positioned when they do shift. The point of these infield shifts, obviously, is to help prevent runs. Teams look at the numbers and if they see a particular player who has a tendency to pull the ball a lot, they'll have their fielders position accordingly. Makes sense.
Brian McCann is one of those guys who likes to pull the ball (and go up the middle, too), and, based on the data, teams have given him a big dose of the shift as a result. Among every ball he's put into play over his career, McCann has pulled the ball to the right side of the field (infield or outfield) 33% of the time. He's also hit the ball up the middle roughly 50% of the time, while going to the opposite field in only 16% of his balls put into play.
Due to the increased shifts on McCann, the 30-year-old slugger has begun to adjust to the opposition's ways. McCann has already admitted to Wall Street Journal's Daniel Barbarisi a couple weeks ago that he's already making the adjustment:
"You have to use the whole field. And if you're feeling good, where you can manipulate the ball, and you're not just using one side of the field, it's going to be harder to put on the shift. You've got to get your swing to where you can go foul line to foul line, and they can't take away one part of the field."
We've even seen McCann try to beat the shift during games, just as recently as this series against the Red Sox. In game one of the three-game set on Tuesday, McCann went the other way to left field three times for hits. One of those hits was a double off Jon Lester. The left-handed Lester threw McCann an 0-1 curveball that broke away from McCann, and he was able to wait back just long enough to deposit it to left for a double.
McCann continued to show off his new approach in last night's game in the series finale against Boston. Facing the left-handed Craig Breslow in the seventh, McCann quickly fell behind 0-2 in the count. As per usual, the Red Sox' defense was shifted to pull and Breslow thought he could get McCann to roll over on a fastball up and out of the strike zone. Instead, McCann stayed back, kept his head down on the baseball, and delivered a single to left through the vacated hole in the shift. It was a thing of beauty.
The increased infield shifts have been a very hot topic this season, so much so that I think baseball announcers across the country have beat it to death. We hear all the time, though, that baseball is a game of adjustments and guys like McCann are doing just that. There are still some, like Mark Teixeira, who believe that pulling the baseball no matter how the defense is aligned is the way to go, and he has (rightfully so) received heat from the fanbase. But, make no mistake, McCann's ability to pull the ball for power is, and always will be, his biggest strength at the plate. However, it is nice to see him adapt to the defense at hand, even if he has to get out of his comfort zone a bit, by hitting the ball to the opposite field.