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What Jay Bruce teaches us about the shift

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Here’s why hitters can’t just “shorten up and take it the other way!”

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

I don’t blame you if you haven’t paid attention to Jay Bruce this year. You’re a busy person and Bruce has done precious little to command your time and attention. He has just three hits, and his defense — such as it is — at first doesn’t inspire much confidence either. You’re free to speculate on how long he’ll even stay in the Bronx, as Rougned Odor can be counted on to provide mediocre left-handed hitting while playing a more challenging infield position.

There is one thing that is worth talking about with Bruce, and it’s the shift. There is a certain reaction, almost instinctive, among some baseball fans when talking about the shift — just drop a bunt down, half the infield is wide open, take what the pitcher is giving you. I want to home in on that last point. MLBers, the guys actually playing the game, have talked before about how hard beating the shift is, but it’s that particular phrasing that sticks with me. Just take what the pitcher is giving you. Ok, Jay Bruce, take what the pitcher gives you.

The reason Bruce is a wonderful object lesson for this post is because he gets shifted in a couple of different ways. When he comes up with runners on, he sees a pretty conventional infield shift, three fielders on the right side, with the shortstop covering second. When he comes up without runners on, though, he’s often only facing three infielders in total:

Each circle represents a fielder’s position. The darker the circle, the more often a fielder is standing there. This is how Bruce sees the defense in the first three series of the season. This is how he saw it against the Rays over the weekend:

The Rays load the outfield while shifting the infield. The closest player on the left side of the field is standing almost 300 feet from home plate. Four-man outfields aren’t that new to baseball, but they are perhaps the most extreme example of optimized defenses.

So if you’re Jay Bruce, and you look out at the defense and absolutely nobody is on the left side of the field... why aren’t you going the other way? He’s put exactly one batted ball in play on the left side, why is he just leaving runs on the table like this?

The answer is, the shift isn’t just where you position your defenders. The shift is a much more holistic approach to defense. Yes, you move a defender to the outfield. Yes, you sacrifice half the infield. Your pitcher also works actively with the defense, and you throw Jay Bruce this pitch:

And the one time that Bruce does try to bunt, he bunts terribly, and is thrown out by a mile, because he tried to bunt this pitch:

The Rays dared Bruce to hit the ball to the left side of the infield, then pounded him inside. It’s not just these cherrypicked pitches either, here’s every pitch Jay saw against the Rays:

Ninety-nine percent of hitters just can’t get the head of the bat around quick enough to make good contact when they face pitching bearing in inside like that. To drive the ball to the opposite field, you need your bat to “drag” through the zone, lengthening your swing. To make contact with pitches up and in, you need to speed your swing up to bring the barrel out in front of the plate quicker.

This pitching approach to Bruce works in conjunction with the defense. The Rays know that he could hit the ball weakly to third base and have a stand up double. So, the pitching staff throws him pitches that are almost impossible to hit to the left side of the field. These kind of pitches are designed to do one of two things: cause a hitter to whiff entirely, or induce weak fly balls off the handle of the bat, which are almost always pulled — exactly the kind of ball that four-man outfields are made to catch.

The pitching component of the shift is why there was never going to be a market correction to taking the ball the other way. You just can’t wait long enough on pitches that far inside. What you might be able to do is speed up your swing, start earlier than you thought possible, maybe catch that inside pitch out in front of the plate and pull it hard down the line. Surprise, surprise, that’s mostly been how hitters have reacted to the shift, and that explains why the second hottest part of that heatmap is down and away. Once a batter realizes he has to get going on the swing early, pitches away play off it perfectly.

As Yankee fans we were spoiled by having someone like Derek Jeter, who had an almost-unique ability to take inside pitches the other way. But the thing about having someone like Derek Jeter is, most players aren’t him. It’s an almost-unique ability because, by definition, almost nobody can do it.

Seeing the defense Jay Bruce sees, we tend to think someone can just drop a baseball in the uncovered ground. Seeing the pitches Jay Bruce sees, it becomes obvious that’s just not going to happen. Trying to get your bat around on a pitch that inside is going to make you pop the ball up, the worst kind of contact. Trying to square and bunt, and you’re liable to take a pitch to the face.

Shifted hitters largely do “Take what the pitcher gives ya!”. What the pitcher gives, though, is only one option.