By Dirk Hayhurst
Sure, I've been asked about the shift before.
I usually duck the question, the one about why hitters don't flick the ball the other way, or at the very least bunt when the other team has migrated to the other side of the ballpark and left so much prime real estate unoccupied. That's because the answer -- my answer -- usually induces more argument than satisfaction. It's not what stats men or baseball purists like to hear. It sounds trite and selfish, and, truth be told, the answer is: Hitters don't try and beat the shift because it's not worth their time.
When I think back to my (regrettably) extensive time in the minors, I can't think of a time the shift was ever used. Big data wasn't a thing in the arranging of minor league defenders. The baseball was and still is dictated more by getting prospects their at-bats, pitchers their innings and raw talents their experience. No thought is put into advanced defensive alignments.
That means that, for the bulk of a player's developmental career, he'll never be placed in a shift situation.
That doesn't mean a player won't be asked to hit the ball the other way. But, often times when the shift is employed, it means that a pitcher won't go down and away to give the batter something he could, even accidently, spray to the opposite field were no one is. The pitcher is working into the pull.
Furthermore, most minor league hitters are focusing on what they believe will get them to the big leagues. I once asked my first basemen in Triple-A, with the Las Vegas 51s, why he didn't try to walk more and take more pitches to the opposite field.
"Because I'm hunting that mistake pitch that I know I can hit out of the park," he said. "That's what's going to get me back up to The Show, not singles to opposite field."
I had to agree with him. He was big and slow, a three-true-outcomes type hitter. It made sense for him to specialize.
If this was a pure game, hits, no matter where they end up, are all that matter. But since it's not a pure game, but an enterprise with specialists getting paid for specialized skills with power being near the top of that skill set, why opt for singles when purists, old school scouts, saberists and check-cutting GMs are all keen on the long ball?
Ever wonder why more pitchers don't throw knuckleballs? Sure you do. Hell, when R.A. Dickey had his Cy Young season back in 2012, everyone wanted to learn the pitch. It was all the baseball community could talk about: Why don't more pitchers learn to throw the knuck'?"
The simple answer to that question is, because they don't have to.
Most players will make it to the big leagues without a knuckleball. In fact, they'll make it there because their other stuff is good enough to play at the top, and if they could simply maintain it, they should be jut fine.
Of course, not all pitchers will maintain their stuff. In fact, many will get hurt, flounder, die of attrition and be ruined by a small but horrible sample size. Such is life at the top of the sport, but learning a knuckleball isn't a panacea.
The knuckleball is a long-odds pitch, especially if you wait until you're in the pros to learn it. By then, it's not about learning a pitch you might someday use. Your someday is now. You need to show the world you can get the job done with what you've got in a very short period of time, or you're going to get released to make room for the next player trying to make a case for his future on a more reliable skill set.
The knuckleball could very well extend a player's career for years if mastered, but that's a big if. Take the mound a few times throwing a last-resort pitch like the knuckleball, and if the result is bad, you're deader than you were when you were simply trying to hold on with your diminishing, normal repertoire.
In a job of what have you done lately? there isn't a lot of time to experiment, and the risk isn't always worth the reward.
You may be inclined to ask what any of this has to do with beating the shift, or learning how to drop a bunt don't when there are no fielders on one side of the field?
The issue isn't so much that extra hits are bad, or that trying something new can't be efficacious on offense or defense. It's that time is short and setting up a new learning curve when one isn't needed is rarely helpful.
Pull hitters -- the kind of hitters the shift is employed against -- are playing a different set of odds. They know they can hit a mistake over the fence. That's what they're expected to do now, and that's what they'll get paid for in the future. The single that ups their batting average by a few points and gets them on first base doesn't factor into their gamble. Unless specifically asked to shoot the ball the other way by a coach, they want doubles, home runs and sac flies.
I've heard it said that hitting the ball the other way should be simple for the world's best athletes. But that's if you believe baseball players are some of the world's best athletes. I think it's a bit of a misnomer. It's more apt to say that major league baseball players are the world's best baseball specialists, with the vast majority of them gifted in only a few aspects of the game.
Driving the ball to all fields is a skill. Getting the bunt down against the world's most specialized pitchers who throw mid-90s fuzz with sink and cut is a skill. Pulling the ball out of the park with regularity is a skill. Focusing on one can and often does bring neglect to the others. At the end of the day, most players will continue doing what keeps them in Escalades with Gucci bags.
There is a time and a place to learn new skills in this game. If a player's career lasts long enough, he earns grace. Some players, on the strength of past accomplishments, can fail for an extended period of time until they develop a new skill that will help them compensate for a diminished one. This is the time power hitters learn to spray the ball, and waning pitchers learn the throw junk. The rest have to stick it out with what they've got.
The hardcore purist may say that a player's primary goal should be to do whatever it takes to win a ball game. I hear you, but, even as far back as college, when money wasn't a factor, I was told that I should always pitch to my strengths, even if they're not the best statistical matchup for the situation. For a hitter, it's much the same. If you're very good at one aspect of the game, and that's the aspect you've made your living on, there is no need to alter your approach when your career doesn't depend on it.
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Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also a best-selling author, and has appeared on Baseball America, Bleacher Report, Deadspin, The Score, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more. More from Dirk at www.dirkhayhurst.com. Follow him on Twitter at @thegarfoose.