As Major League Baseball's competition committee debates the impact of defensive shifts, lots of people have theories on why hitters have been slow to adjust and are falling into a depressed, statistically impaired state as hot shots to the right side routinely result in outs.
The list of interested bystanders includes commissioner Rob Manfred, who recently observed that hitters haven't adapted to the challenge in the manner baseball had anticipated.
"It was common thought, 'People are going to learn just to go the other way,''' Manfred told reporters at the MLB owners meetings in June. "But the fact of the matter is the human element took over, and what they decided to do was go over the top rather than go the other way.''
Agent Scott Boras has labeled shifts "discriminatory'' to left-handed hitters. Come November, when Bryce Harper files for free agency, Boras will have a better idea of whether teams in the market for a nine-figure, power-hitting corner outfielder share that opinion.
Are hitters simply too stubborn to adjust, or are the answers more complex? The potential hazards of a hitter going outside his comfort zone to beat the shift were evident during a recent Nationals-Blue Jays game, when Washington's Matt Adams suffered a broken finger while squaring to bunt against a vacant left side of the infield. As hitters also can attest, teams routinely pitch to the shift. A pitcher is not going to throw soft stuff away to a left-handed hitter with the entire left side of the infield uninhabited.
ESPN.com recently asked three lefty hitters who face varying percentages of shifts for their takes on the state of affairs. How do they try to attack defensive shifts, and do they think MLB can take any steps to address the problem -- if there is, indeed, a problem?
Daniel Murphy, Nationals
(Murphy was out until June because of knee surgery. He went 3-for-9 against the shift in his first 22 games this season.)
"Strikeouts are way up, so getting a base hit is more difficult than ever because of the velocity and how good pitchers are now. You see velocity and secondary weapons for four or five at-bats a game.
"It's really difficult to get three hits in one inning. If you hit three singles, it's one run. If you get a walk and a double, you might get one run. If you get a double and a single, you might get one run. So my goal is to touch second base every single time I step to home plate. If I'm not mistaken, somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 percent of ground balls go for extra-base hits. If I want to touch second base, I'm not going to be able to hit the ball on the ground. Pulled ground balls are not really base hits in this league anymore.
"When baseball started, they set players up in the positions they did because that's where they thought the ball was going to be hit. You had the first baseman and the third basemen at the corners, the middle infielders and three outfielders. There was no rule that you had to have five guys on the dirt, a catcher and three outfielders. They just set it up that way because they said, 'Hey, this is where we think we're going to hit the ball.' It's the same thing that's being done now."Daniel Murphy
"I haven't really stolen bases for five or six years. If I drop a bunt down, what am I gonna do? I'm stuck at first base, so what I've done is ask our ballclub to get two more singles, or I've asked someone else to hit a double. If 7 percent of balls on the ground go for extra bases, someone is probably going to have to hit one in the air to score me from first. So what I've tried to do is hit a double every single time because it's really difficult to get three hits.
"If I'm not mistaken, the level of production goes: strikeout, popup, ground ball, fly ball, line drive. The production comes mostly from fly balls and line drives, so that's what we want. I'm trying to hit a line drive first. And if I miss, I hit a fly ball. Ground balls, popups and strikeouts aren't going to give you anything. It's not necessarily rocket science.
"I'm not trying to hit it in one specific place. If I look up, and they're full-shifting me, and I only have one defender in the 5-6 hole where the third baseman plays, I have to let the ball get a little deeper. But the pitchers are pretty good, and that's now a foul ball. I'm really never in the business of trying to aim for a certain area because I have to be perfect, and I'm not perfect.
"If any of us could control hits, we would get more of them. But you can't. You can only control the process.
"When baseball started, they set players up in the positions they did because that's where they thought the ball was going to be hit. You had the first baseman and the third basemen at the corners, the middle infielders and three outfielders. There was no rule that you had to have five guys on the dirt, a catcher and three outfielders. They just set it up that way because they said, 'Hey, this is where we think we're going to hit the ball.' It's the same thing that's being done now.
"The question everybody has to ask themselves is, 'Why are we playing the game? What is the goal of the game?' I think it's to score more runs than the other team. That seems to be what organizations are trying to do. They're going to set guys up there because they think, 'This is going to help us prevent runs' and 'We're going to try and attack the baseball in this way because we think it's going to help us score runs.' That's the name of the game. I think this has been a long time in the making. It's actually been quite impressive to watch how quickly teams have adapted to the data they've got.
"The reason they shift you in the places they do is because that's what your batted ball data says. I heard Joe Maddon say, 'You have three choices: You can try to hit it and beat the shift. That's going to give you a single, but now you're doing something against what you're best at, so the defense wins. You can hit into the shift, and the defense wins. Or you can try not to let the infielders catch the batted ball. No ground balls and no popups. Try to stand on second base.' That's Option C.''
Kyle Seager, Mariners
(Seager has been shifted against 69.4 percent of the time this season, according to Baseball Savant. That's the 13th-highest rate in baseball. He's hitting .235 against the shift.)
"It happens so many times now, where a ball would have been in the 4-hole [between first and second base], but that isn't there anymore. Or you hit a line drive up the middle, and the guy is standing there. It's kind of the new norm.
"When I debuted in 2011, shifts were nonexistent. Now when they play you straight up, it almost looks strange out there. That's another reason why guys are trying to get the ball in the air. Ground balls through the infield aren't getting through now. The people upstairs who are putting players in these positions are smart. They know all the numbers, and there's obviously a reason why they do it.
"If you're facing David Ortiz, and he bunts over there and gets a single, he may have just done us a favor. If we let Ortiz beat us with a bunt as opposed to him hitting a homer, maybe that's OK."Kyle Seager
"I used to try to manipulate my swing to hit balls to the left side of the infield and create some easy hits. I'll still try to do it at times, depending on where guys are positioned, but a lot goes into it. It depends on the situation in the game. How many outs are there? Are there runners on base? If there are two outs and I get into a 2-0 count and I hit a little ground ball to the shortstop hole, that probably wasn't as productive a team at-bat as it could have been if I ended up hitting a double somewhere.
"I've tried to bunt a few times, and I've had a few successes. But the third baseman is usually still in there for the first two strikes, so the bunt is not as big a factor as it could be. Again, it's dictated by the score and the situation in the game.
"It goes back to the question of 'How can I help the team the most?' Am I going to help the team the most over the course of the season hitting weak ground balls to shortstop [for a single]? I'm not a guy who steals a bunch of bases, so you're relying on a few hits to score me. If I try to drive the ball and I hit a double, it only takes one hit to score me. I definitely understand how people can look at it and say, 'Man, just hit a ball to the left side.' But there are a lot of different arguments to it.
"We've had meetings and talked about this stuff. If you're facing David Ortiz, and he bunts over there and gets a single, he may have just done us a favor. If we let Ortiz beat us with a bunt as opposed to him hitting a homer, maybe that's OK.
"As far as baseball doing something to change the shifts, that's for people smarter than me to decide. I just go out there and play where they tell me to play.''
Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
"Think about which hitters teams shift against. They shift on guys who drive the ball. By trying to hit a ground ball to short -- which is the one spot on the infield where you would be able to beat the shift -- that's exactly what they want you to do.
"There's this whole narrative of 'Why don't guys just hit ground balls to short?' The answer is: (a) It's not that easy and (b) it's the complete thing you've taught yourself your entire baseball career to avoid. If a guy has a chance to hit a homer and a double, and he goes up there trying to slap a ground ball to short, the other team is perfectly fine with that.
"I think it gets blown out of proportion when people say, 'Just hit a ground ball to short.' You can't just take a 98 mph cutting fastball in on your hands and do that. Let's just say I sell out tonight, and I try it four times. The likelihood of me hitting four straight ground balls to short and ending up 4-for-4 are very slim. If I succeed once or maybe twice, at best I'm going to go 2-for-4 with two singles, where if I just play the game, I might go 2-for-4 with a homer and a double. It makes no sense to me.
"Just think about this: When there's a runner on third base and less than two outs and the infield is playing back, every hitter in baseball knows that all you have to do is hit a ground ball anywhere, and you score the run. And that success rate is still super small. That play is easy, and it gets screwed up all the time. Guys can't hit a ground ball when all they have to do is hit a ground ball to score a run.
"As defenders, when a guy comes up and hits a ground ball to short [to beat the shift], we still go to the same place the next time. It doesn't change anything. You look at the guys they shift on, and they're paid to drive the ball. People aren't doing it against Billy Hamilton and guys like that.
"I think it gets blown out of proportion when people say, 'Just hit a ground ball to short.' You can't just take a 98 mph cutting fastball in on your hands and do that. Let's just say I sell out tonight, and I try it four times. The likelihood of me hitting four straight ground balls to short and ending up 4-for-4 are very slim. If I succeed once or maybe twice, at best I'm going to go 2-for-4 with two singles, where if I just play the game, I might go 2-for-4 with a homer and a double."Matt Carpenter
"When you look at where we're headed in baseball, the one alarming thing is the number of balls that are put in play. It's hard now -- period. Everyone is throwing 95 mph-plus with movement. Every bullpen has guys out there doing that. So just putting the ball in play and not striking out is a challenge in itself. If you already have all these disadvantages against the hitting side of the game, I wouldn't be opposed to getting back to playing the game the way it was always played, where you have two guys on the left side of the infield and two guys on the right side of the infield.
"I think the easiest way to do it would be for guys to play where they've played for all the time the game has been around. Two guys on the left side. Two guys on the right side. You have a designated area where the shortstop, third baseman, second baseman and first baseman all go, and you play there. That would be the simplest way. Is it gonna happen? I don't know. But if you're looking to help even out the advantage that pitchers have over the hitters, that's the only way to do it.''