It can be frustrating to watch a hitter repeatedly hit groundballs into a shifted infield. “Just bunt”, you’re probably thinking. In a traditional Ted Williams shift (three fielders on the right side of second base) a team will generally completely give up the area where a third baseman usually plays. If a hitter can get a bunt past the pitcher’s mound in that area, he will likely end up on first base.
Greg Bird has heard your cries for a change in approach, and has bunted against the shift twice in the past week. In the second inning of Wednesday’s game against the Rays, and in the sixth inning of game one against the Royals on Saturday, Bird bunted for a hit.
In both of these situations Gleyber Torres was on first with no outs. That might have motivated Bird to try this, thinking that even a bad bunt where the pitcher or catcher could field it in a timely manner would still result in Torres at least being in scoring position.
Both bunts were as success, though. Bird ended up on first and in doing so raised the Yankees’ run expectancy for that inning by about 40%. What’s even better than the two free singles Bird got is that he forced the defense to make an adjustment. When Bird came to bat in the seventh inning against the Royals on Saturday, they were forced to position an infielder near third base to defend against capable bunter Greg Bird.
While this did mean Bird couldn’t collect anymore free singles, it also makes Bird a slightly better hitter when swinging away since the infield is now aligned sub optimally vs. his traditional ground-ball tendencies. The boost Bird gains by forcing an infielder to guard against a potential bunt is small, hardly noticeable even. However, one small effect repeated over and over is generally more valuable than one or two large effects.
So why is Bird seemingly the only one taking advantage of this? He’s not the only hitter who sees shifts, and to be fair he’s not exactly your ideal player to bunt for a hit. His average sprint speed is 25.1 ft/s, the lowest on the team.
Who are other candidates on the Yankees to bunt against the shift? We’ll eliminate right-handed hitters since even when a defense shifts three infielders to the left side, the first baseman needs to remain close enough to first base to cover on a groundball.
The league shifts against left-handed hitters in 30.3% of plate appearances. The only lefties on the Yankees (other than Bird) who see shifts more often than league average are Aaron Hicks and Neil Walker.
I expected to see Didi Gregorius’ name in that list, but he only sees a full shift 21.5% of the time, as the shortstop generally positions just to the left of second base which is technically a traditional alignment of two infielders on each side. Technicalities aside, opposing third basemen largely play off the line and closer to the traditional shortstop position against Gregorius, making him another candidate to start bunting against the shift.
All three of the players I mentioned are much more fleet of foot than Bird, giving them a larger margin for error. While none see shifts nearly as much as Bird, they can still exploit what they do see and take what the defense is giving them.