Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
Whether it's calling out David Price for throwing it high and tight or giving the city of Boston an expletive-laden rallying cry, Red Sox DH David Ortiz has never been one to mince words. He's one of the game's most quotable figures and has been for quite some time.
Papi's latest declaration, shared with us by Red Sox announcer Jerry Remy on a recent NESN broadcast, sheds light on a growing trend in MLB. Ortiz estimates that defensive shifts cost him up to "40 hits a season."
Let's do the math. Papi went to the plate 516 times last season, connecting on 160 base hits. That computes to a .309 average, sixth-best in the American League. Adding 40 hits to that total would give Papi an even 200 for the year. It also raises his average 77 points, putting him at an astronomical .386. Only one player has collected a higher average than that in the last 20 seasons. That was Tony Gwynn and he did it during a lockout-shortened 1994 campaign (.394 in 419 at bats).
But come on, .386? Did Ortiz borrow Kanye West's ego or something? That's preposterous, even for a future Hall of Famer like Papi. But certainly the shift did something, otherwise why would teams use it on such a consistent basis?
The shift phenomenon, once reserved for only a select few left-handed hitters, has finally made its way into the mainstream. Pioneered by Lou Boudreau in the 1940s, the infield shift became fashionable again in the mid-2000s when Joe Maddon took over as Rays manager. Now almost every team uses it.
ESPN Magazine's Doug Mittler devoted almost 600 words to the subject earlier today. According to Mittler, the Astros employ the strategy most often, followed closely by the Yankees and Orioles. In total, four of the league's top-seven teams in terms of shifting frequency reside in the AL East. With 19 games a year against David Ortiz, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
It seems to be working too. As recently as 2006, the league-wide average was .269. This year, that has fallen to .251, easily the lowest we've seen in the post-steroid era.
How much of that is tied directly to shifting is hard to judge but the impact hasn't been lost on Big Papi, who is hitting just .152 on ground balls this season. Though his pull rate isn't quite as egregious as Ryan Howard's (31.2 percent of his 154 balls in play this season have traveled to right field), it's awfully close (31.0). Adam Dunn isn't far behind at 29.6 percent. To make matters worse, Dunn has only gone to the opposite field 19 times this season (16.5 percent). Somehow, that's still better than Ortiz, who has gone the other way just 22 times on 184 balls in play (12.0).
Dunn, Howard and Papi are frequent victims to the shift because they share a similar makeup. They're all big, slow, left-handed and prone to pulling the ball. Dealing with an extra infielder on the right side has become a nightly occurrence and it seems to be costing all three of them hits. Dunn, Howard and Ortiz are hitting a combined .160 on grounders this season.
Compare that to Robinson Cano, who owns a .288 average on ground balls this season. Cano is left-handed as well but unlike the other three, he hits the ball to all fields (22.7 percent of balls in play have gone to left field, 20.8 to right). Joe Mauer, recently named one of the league's five-most shift- resistant players on a list compiled by ESPN's Jayson Stark, has also fared better on ground balls this season (.260 average in 96 at bats).
For some players, the difference between players who are successful against the shift and those who aren't is as simple as foot speed. For example, utilizing the shift against a player as fast as Jacoby Ellsbury would be pointless. He beat out 24 infield hits last season. Plus he rarely pulls the ball, as evidenced by his 36 hits to the opposite field in 2013.
But getting back to Ortiz, in many ways Papi has gotten better with age. Though he's regressed a bit this season (.254 average in 61 games), Ortiz's home run and RBI totals in 2013 (30 HR, 103 RBI) were markedly better than the ones he produced four and even five years earlier.
But that improvement doesn't seem to apply against the shift. Ortiz hit almost twice as many balls to the opposite field in 2010 (21.4 percent opposite field rate on balls in play) and his .152 average on ground balls is his lowest in five seasons. Luckily for fantasy owners, Ortiz has hit a respectable .402 on fly balls and line drives this season (117 at bats).
The Cardinals are famously anti-shift, employing the strategy fewer than all but four teams in MLB according to The Hardball Times. David Ortiz's batting average against them in the World Series was .688. Coincidence? I think not.
In a world where fantasy owners seem to be gravitating more and more toward daily leagues, matchups are more important than ever. Defensive shifting, just like weather conditions and lefty-righty splits, is another factor we need to consider.