<
>

When the defense looks shifty …

Matt Adams faced it as much as anybody. Three infielders on the right side of second base; open range on the left. The defensive shift that's all the rage in Major League Baseball. For a while this season, Adams was among the top 10 most-shifted-against hitters in the game. And at least a time or two when he stepped into the batter's box and saw it, the Cardinals' left-handed-hitting first baseman did pretty much exactly what the defense wanted him to do: He did what doesn't come naturally to a 6-foot-3, 230-pound power hitter.

He bunted the other way. Or tried to.

That, after all, is one of the secondary goals of the shift. If it doesn't achieve its primary objective (an easy out into the crowded house of gloves in the hitter's pull field), it might at least force the batter away from his strength. It might reduce a fearsome home run hitter into a 98-pound, singles-thinking weakling.

"I attempted to bunt, twice," Adams says. "Both bunts ended up in the visitor's dugout, and then I stopped doing that. I figured after the second one, it was a good time to just stop."

So Adams went back to his Plan A, which -- at least to hear him tell it -- is to ignore the shift altogether. When he went on the disabled list with a calf injury a week and a half ago, he was swinging the bat, he says, without worrying a whit about where the third baseman and the shortstop were playing. Shift be damned, "I'll just stick to my approach."

So ... who's winning? Adams? Or the shift?

That's a critical question if we're to be allowed some guesses about the future of this goofy defense. One way to think about the proliferation of the defensive shift is to look at how hitters are responding to it as time goes by. And it most definitely has proliferated; the number of documented balls put in play against the shift, according to Baseball Info Solutions, nearly doubled to 8,134 from 2012 to 2013, and at the current rate the number for the 2014 season projects to 14,098. (Throughout baseball history, the push-pull in the dynamic between offense and defense is Newtonian in that for every action trend such as the shift, a reaction trend bubbles up.)

As it happens, Adams is as good an Exhibit A as there is for this particular reaction trend. His "approach" has made him one of the more successful hitters against the shift this season -- based, at least, on the number of hits he's accumulated on ground balls and short line drives when he's faced it. Adams is hitting .390 (16-for-41) on that kind of contact against the shift, clearly a contributor to his .325 overall batting average.

"The majority of his hits against it early on were the other way," says his manager, Mike Matheny. "He was hitting ground balls hard the other way, and he didn't change his approach. He stayed simple with it."

In other words, Adams didn't have to bunt to beat the shift. He just had to hit the ball to the left side, away from the defense, with some regularity. And whether or not you believe he's really able to turn a blind eye to where the defense is playing him, he's found those wide open spaces more often than most. Not surprisingly, he's seen the shift less frequently as the season has progressed. Through April 15, he was the seventh-most-shifted-against hitter in MLB. Through April 30, he'd dropped to ninth; and by May 28, when he went on the disabled list with a calf injury, he'd fallen to 12th.

No-brainer, right? As soon as every other pull hitter starts doing the same thing and stops being ... well, a pull hitter, the shift-fest is over.

Only they aren't all doing the same thing. Or many of them aren't. Or some of them aren't as adept as Adams has been at using the whole field. Yet. The adjustment process is a long way from sorting itself out on a leaguewide basis.

"Well, you've hit a certain way for 27 years of your life, and then ... ," says the Yankees' Brian McCann. "That's kind of where I'm at." McCann is hitting only .148 on ground balls and short line drives against the shift; and through last weekend, he'd faced it more often this season than all but four other hitters (David Ortiz, Ryan Howard, Brandon Moss and Adam Dunn).

"If you try to do something that isn't what you've been accustomed to, then all of a sudden they've already won, in [the defense's] eyes," says the Mets' Curtis Granderson, who on the other hand had 11 hits among his 29 ground balls and short line drives (.379) against shifts through Sunday. Which does little to explain his .221 overall batting average this season. Maybe this does: In 2012, Granderson hit 193 of what statisticians classify as a fly ball, and had 40 home runs (including 24 HRs on 100 flies at Yankee Stadium) among them, with a .296 batting average on those flies. In 2014, on his 59 fly balls, he has six home runs (two on 34 flies at Citi Field) and a .172 batting average on them. But we digress.

"I don't try to force it over there [the left side of the infield]," the Rangers' Prince Fielder told "Outside The Lines" for a report that aired Sunday, "because then it's just going against my whole swing." Fielder's productivity against the shift had been somewhere in the middle between McCann and Granderson until his season was ended by a neck injury in late May. He was hitting .255 on short line drives and ground balls against the shift.

Clearly, the adjustment that Adams is making successfully isn't child's play, so we're at risk here of committing the crime of gross, oversimplified analysis negligence. For one thing, the pitcher plays as big a part as the hitter in determining where the ball goes after the bat makes contact with it, and pitchers at least try to pitch to the shift -- keeping it inside to maximize the pull likelihood -- when their defense is clotted together on that part of the field.

The hitter knows it's coming inside. Why would he do anything but hit it where it's pitched? Isn't that what he's been taught to do since his mom lobbed that first Wiffle ball to him as a 6-year-old in the back yard?

"It's just hard to hit a ground ball straight to third base," says the Pirates' left-hand-hitting Ike Davis, who isn't among the most-shifted hitters in the league, probably because he's punished the shift when he's seen it (a .520 batting average, 13-for-25, on ground balls and short line drives). "And some guys don't want to. Like, premier power hitters. ... They're going to hit 30 to 40 a year, and it's kind of hard for them to [go the other way]."

And that's the other thing. The other way to hit 'em where they ain't against the shift is to drive the ball over it -- out of the park -- and that's still the name of the game in Major League Baseball, circa 2014. Maybe not as much as it was, say, at the height of the 'roid reign -- 4,661 home runs were hit during the 2013 season, as opposed to a record 5,693 in the 2000 season, which was up from 3,317 in 1990 -- but the long ball is still making money for the hitters who hit 'em.

So those who can will still turn on that inside pitch and swing for the fences ... even when they face the shift. Ortiz, for example, has hit 13 of his 14 home runs this year to right and right-center, his pull field. All but one of the 15 home runs from the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista, who has faced more shifts than every other right-handed hitter in baseball except Albert Pujols and Edwin Encarnacion, have been to left or left-center. And none of Moss' 16 home runs have been to the opposite field.

"I mean, you're not getting paid for singles, not hitting singles but driving the ball in," White Sox manager Robin Ventura told "Outside the Lines." "And to do that, you've got to pull the ball."

But those who can't, at least not often enough ... well, that's where this oversimplified analysis can get interesting. The shift is going to make the separation between those two groups readily apparent, if it hasn't already, and it doesn't seem like a stretch to presume that the pile of unproductive wannabe pull power hitters is going to be considerably bigger than the pile of can-dos who regularly beat the shift with the home run.

Eventually, if this read is right, the game will downgrade the premium it puts on hitters whose occasional home runs come accompanied by a Mendoza-line batting average against a too-frequent shift. (See: Granderson; also, Ryan Howard, whose .233 batting average is headed in that direction.) At some point, managers won't play 'em. At some point, owners won't pay 'em.

And the hitters who adjust will become more valuable. A statistics-driven analysis by ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski in a Doug Mittler presentation in the current edition of ESPN The Magazine projects that Adams' next contract (he'll be arbitration-eligible after the 2015 season) could be some $9 million heftier thanks to his opposite-field hitting. This, despite a falloff in his home run production that is at least partly the result of his adjustments to the shift. In 108 games in 2013 (his first season of extended playing time in the majors), Adams hit 17 of 'em. This year, through 52 games, he has three. (That's the 98-pound weakling tradeoff the shift is exacting at this point in the trend process.)

So Adams' ability to use all fields when he hits (save, maybe, when he bunts) might already place him where the rest of baseball could be in the years to come -- and, if you'll pardon the generality, where baseball was before the home run came to rule the roost and the paychecks. Here's a quick Baseball-Reference.com stat that might or might not bolster the premise that they were better at hitting to all fields back in the day: In 1990, the ratio of balls pulled to balls hit to the opposite field by a left-handed batter was about 1.3 to 1. In 2014, it's 1.5 to 1.

Take it one step farther -- now we're really getting carried away -- and maybe, just maybe, the emphasis on contact and bat control that a well-rounded spray chart demands could work to cut down on the historic number of strikeouts that has plagued the game in recent years. Last year, the total number of strikeouts in Major League Baseball was 36,710, a new record; MLB's whiffenpoofs are on pace to smash that mark again this season.

So at the end of this convolution, the shift could be forcing baseball back to the future.

But enough big-picture folderol. It isn't likely, after all, that the big picture is first and foremost in the head of the hitter as he's stepping into the batter's box and seeing the third baseman elbowing his way into position between first and second. First and foremost, sometimes, is the inner battle to keep the shift from messing with said hitter's head.

"I hate it when I hit a missile to the middle or when I hit a [line drive] that I see the second baseman catching in right field," Ortiz, who leads the galaxy in at-bats against the shift, told "Outside the Lines." "It's like, what else can you do after you put a good swing on it and it's supposed to be a hit and it becomes an out?"

"Growing up, you're taught to hit the ball up the middle," McCann says. "And so now you square a ball up the middle, and the shortstop is sitting right there for the out."

Adams, too, has had his moment of doubt and pain against the devil-shift.

"The one at-bat that sticks out for me," he says, "was last year against the Pirates. It was late in the game, and [second baseman Neil] Walker was playing straight up on the first pitch. And then the next pitch, I hit it and I was like, 'Oh yeah, that's a hit.' And I look up and he's halfway between second base and right field, and I'd hit it right to him. It was just the fact that he'd moved pitch to pitch."

Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry, who huddles with Adams on a daily basis, says the first baseman's approach against the shift is still a work in progress. Like any other aspect of hitting, it's fluid, subject to slumps and changing game situations even as he's been more successful than most. Adams' at-bats, Mabry says, still need to be nourished, and watched constantly.

So what do they drill on during batting practice?

"We have him out early," says Mabry, "to work on his bunting."

ESPN Research Specialist Mark Simon and "Outside the Lines" contributed to this report.