Beating The Shift

Cody Bellinger may be onto something, like hitting the ball where the players on the other team aren’t standing. Sounds pretty simple, right?

Not only is he hitting .403 three weeks into May, but he also hit .416 in the month of April and produced the best-ever April, RBI-wise. Since the modern game is in its 12th decade, give or take, it’s fair to ask how he did it, especially considering the dreaded defensive strategy being deployed against him: the shift.

One obvious answer is time. The baseball season started in March this year which meant a full slate of games for the month of April and more opportunities. But I sense a bigger “shift,” if you will, in the way a baseball wunderkind has been able to have such a productive month of games while still facing the defensive shift utilizing three defenders on the right side of the infield instead of the typical two.

Let’s start with the cloud that continues to hang over baseball’s good name and acknowledge that baseballs are leaving the yard at an alarming rate. People with short memories are now starting to talk about a “juiced” ball – even though the last time we talked about a problem with the ball it turned out it wasn’t the ball that was the issue. It was the players. Is the ball slicker? Absolutely. Reasons? Not a clue.Affect on the game? Higher spin rate and more home runs, but also more strikeouts as pitchers have discovered a “juiced” ball is a lot like the old “shine” ball. Strikeouts are up again (there hasn’t been a year-to-year decrease since 2005.)

With the thought of juiced players in mind, though, Bellinger’s vitals –6’4′, 203 lbs– are hardly hulk-like. And, so far, no trips to the outfield wall to urinate and no refusals to play his position. How is Manny Ramirez’s attempt to get pregnant going, anyway? I mean, that’s why he was taking those fertility drugs, right?

And what does this have to do with Bellinger’s April you ask? Absolutely nothing.

But, Bellinger does remind me a lot of another Red Sox player, a guy named Ted Williams, only faster. And right now he’s channeling the greatest hitter who ever lived and who also had to beat the shift.

My first inclination was to guess that Bellinger, who has worked on hitting the ball to the opposite field for the past two seasons, was using all parts of the field more. He was publicly embarrassed at the plate in the playoffs in 2017 during a 1-for-22 slump. In hindsight it was the best thing that could’ve happened to him at the end of a rookie-of-the-year campaign. Not only was he exposed by his inability to beat a defensive shift by hitting outside pitches the other way, but he also could not hit left-handed pitching. He has said numerous times since that he has been working both of those skills into his game.

But the stats say, “Wrong.”

Although Bellinger looks like he can hit to all fields better than before, it seems to be not so much a case of can’t hit to the opposite field. It’s now a case of doesn’t have to. Not only was he hitting .403 as of May 22, but he was actually hitting .417 against the shift. And not only is he beating the shift, he’s hitting right into it. During his phenomenal April, 82 percent of the balls he hit through the infield were up the middle or right of center field, 18 percent were left of second base.

How did this happen? Simply put, when  he made contact, he made great contact when he made contact and spent the spring months rocketing balls over the infielders and in front of the outfield. Hard-hit balls are up to 44.6 percent, which is up nearly 9 percent over last year (35.8 percent) according to fangraphs.com. And, his infield pop-ups have been cut by two thirds, from nearly 21 percent to a little less than 7 percent. Annnnnnd, don’t discount his walks-to-strikeout ratio of roughly 1.5-to-1, which is unheard of, and is shocking considering he struck out 2.5 times per every walk last year.

Patience is a thing. So is a change in his swing. Where last year he would stay on the ball more but would pop up more pitches, this year when he swings and misses, his entire body is now facing the visitor’s dugout. It’s almost like he’s missing the pitches he can’t square up on purpose.

Conscious or not, it’s unreal. Bellinger and Willie Mays are the only players with at least seven homers and 18 RBIs in the first 10 games of a season, according to the Dodgers media team.

Also consider that almost none of his hits in April actually went to the track and bounced off the wall. They either fell in front of the outfielders or went over the fence.

How do you combat this? Sliders out of the strike zone and an outfield shift with the centerfielder play more of a short right field, the left fielder playing left center field and the right fielder playing normal depth.

Pitchers could also do a better job getting out rookie-of-the-year candidate Alex Verdugo (.311/.358/.508). With men on base in April, Bellinger had 76 at-bats.

He had 32 hits.

By the way, Bellinger isn’t the only one bludgeoning the shift. Right now, 77 players are hitting .300 or better against it. Even Khris Davis, the Oakland Athletics’ righty slugger, is hitting 40 points higher than his season average when a shift is employed.

There are lots of numbers to parse, but in the end, offensive success depends on the batter’s ability to see the ball well and hit it hard. We’ve looked at a lot of stats in our attempt to uncover Bellinger’s success. Guess what? He’s done everything well in every situation. Maybe it really does come down to the old Wee Willie Keeler saying,

“Hit ’em where they ain’t.”

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