In light of new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred's comments about being "open" about potentially altering baseball's rules to ban or limit defensive shifts, I've had the chance to read a fresh batch of comments taking hitters like Mark Teixeira to task. I often see the phrase "can't or won't beat the shift" tossed around.
This is not meant to be a post taking Pinstripe Alley's readers "to the Matt's," but rather an attempt to think through what a different hitter Tex would look like if teams didn't or couldn't employ a defensive shift against him. Narratively, the argument that these pull hitters are actively refusing to hit the other way feels to me akin to the argument that Alex Rodriguez couldn't hit in the clutch.
With more and more research pointing to the expanded strike zone and strikeout specialized relievers, rather than the shift, being at the core of declining offense, I feel a certain responsibility to stand up for our much maligned pull hitters. So first, what makes a hitter a "pull" hitter?
To make Noah Woodward's list of right-handed hitters who should fear the shift from a couple years ago, a pull percentage in the high forties to low fifties seemed to be a flag. As a left-handed hitter, with 56% balls in play to right, 30% balls in play to center, and 14% balls in play to left, Tex certainly meets the criteria. (That 14% to left as a lefty is basically in line with his career balls in play to left as a lefty, so it's not as though going the other way was ever a skill he showed much of).
So a couple graphs, courtesy of Fangraphs:
Take a look at all those green dots on the right hand chart (groundballs) that become gray dots on the left hand chart (outs).
Looking at the numbers behind the graphics, we see that last season, Tex had 129 at-bats as a lefty against a right-handed pitcher in which he put the ball into play in right field, a few less than his career average, but right in line with what we'd expect given his injury-limited playing time. He also posted by far his lowest batting average of any season other than his injury-ravaged 2013: a .326/.326/.721 mark, compared with a .379/.376/.799 career mark. So yes, the shift is clearly robbing Tex of a few singles and maybe one double each season.
Now let's take a step back and look at Tex's full numbers as a lefty facing a righty: in 2014, .213/.304/.413, compared with .263/.355/.510 for his career. That's a much bigger drop, especially in OBP, than his balls in play to right field would suggest. (*Bonus analysis: if you were wondering about the big drop in Tex's slugging percentage, I blame that on plain old getting older. From 2003-2009, Tex averaged 5 homers and 6 doubles per season to centerfield. From 2010-2014, he averaged exactly 1 homer and 2.6 doubles per season to centerfield as a lefty hitter.) His batted balls as a lefty (22.2% line drive, 37.6% ground ball, 40.2% fly ball) are comfortably in line with his career averages.
Not hitting the ball is actually what has hurt Mark Teixeira the most: in 2014, 10.8% of his at-bats against a righty ended in a walk, just about in line with his career average of 11.3%; but his 23.5% K-rate is significantly above his 18.2% career mark. So if Tex really wants to beat the shift, the most important thing he can do is put the bat on the ball.
If you're like me, and you're searching for a silver lining to all this, it's that Tex's numbers in the first half of last season were much more in line with his career marks for BB% and K%; they spiked sharply in the second half as he wore down and the nagging injuries mounted. I'm hoping that a healthier offseason leads him to a stronger full season in 2015.