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There has been a spike in the use of defensive shifts across Major League Baseball this season, as explored in this article from ESPN the Magazine.
Teams recognize the tendencies of opposing hitters, and utilize the shift to expose those tendencies, such as left-handed hitters pulling pitches to the right side of the infield. Shifts are complicated, and we often see their use dictated by the situation in the game, such as the number of runners on base or even the score.
Despite these drastic changes to the majority of the defense, teams ignore the most significant player on the field when creating such a predicative alignment: the pitcher. Pitchers are always planning for specific batters throughout a lineup by preparing specific pitch sequences based upon the strengths and weaknesses of each hitter. Yet these pitch sequences will not always correspond with the way that the seven players behind the pitcher have aligned.
For example, think about a typical David Ortiz at bat. Since he has a tendency to pull balls to the right side of the infield, teams will often put three infielders in front of the right fielder. So how should the pitcher shift? Throwing off-speed pitches will make it easier for Ortiz to pull the ball, thus playing into the shift. However, like most left-handed hitters, Ortiz will see pitchers commonly go to the outside corner of the plate to pick up a strike with a fastball.
So what can Ortiz do with a fastball on the outside part of the plate? He could try get out in front of the pitch, but more often than not, these pitches will be hit to the left side of the infield when put in play. And with the shift fully functional, the left side of the infield is largely vacated, giving Ortiz the opportunity to pick up a base hit that may have been playable by the shortstop or third baseman, depending on the alignment.
This situation played out in Friday night’s game against the Oakland Athletics. Ortiz was facing reliever Jim Johnson, and reached on a single grounded to the vacated left side of the infield by going the other way on a 92-MPH two-seam fastball on the outside corner of the plate.
It is incredibly unlikely that a pitcher would sacrifice an approach to a hitter in order to appease the shift, but considering that the location and velocity of each pitch largely determines where the ball is hit when put into play, it would seem logical for the pitcher to be in on the defensive strategy. At the end of the day though, pitchers will fall back on using their strengths to expose the weaknesses of each batter they face.