Among the things that players have to learn to do on their way to the majors, how to hit against a shift is one of the newest. Minor league teams have started to implement shifts at varying rates, with some organizations - the Phillies among them - not emphasizing the shift too much, while others go into elaborate defensive alignments looking to contain hitters.
The Columbus Clippers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, put on one of the more intense shifts against Lehigh Valley this season, but it's not the first shift that the IronPigs and other minor league teams are facing.
"They had the most extreme shift of anybody that we played, by ten," said IronPigs manager Dave Brundage. "I think, whether guys admit it or not, it kind of gets in guy's heads and starts to play on them a little bit.
"There wasn't much room for error out there, it looked like they've got seven guys out there on the pull side of the ball. To their credit, it worked and we didn't beat it. They probably took away seven or eight hits in the series."
Brock Stassi and Cedric Hunter faced the most obvious of the shifts, with the second baseman playing in short right field, the shortstop right behind second and the third baseman in the shortstop's usual position. Stassi and Hunter are an interesting contrast, because Stassi is a younger hitter, while Hunter has been around for a while. As you might expect, the two players have differing approaches to beating the shift.
"The shift got me sent down," admitted Hunter. "I was on the ball, but couldn't find a hole and that really played into my game and got me sent down. It changed my approach, so I have to be able to show the organization that I can play up there."
Now, Hunter is working to change his approach against the shift and not give it too much weight, preferring instead to just play the game the way he's used to playing.
"Everybody has a different thought process in some way," he said. "I'm just thinking about trying to hit the ball hard and square it up, maybe back-spin it over the right fielder's head if they come in. You just take your hits, because this league is tough enough, it's not a home run league, it's barely a doubles league. You really have to bare down, because the pitchers these days are much better, they spot up really well with sinkers and cutters and off-speed, so you've just got to take what they give you.
"It really messes with your game. During the offseason, you train yourself a different way. You expect guys to not be in certain places, like up the middle. You hit that net back through the middle in BP and you expect to get a hit. Now, these days, there's a guy right there. It messes with you, but I don't really like to go up there and think about it too much, but you can't help but see that left side wide open, so I try to not look at the right side. I tell myself 'if they do miss with something, try to go the other way.' If they come into your strength, just take a good swing and trust it."
Stassi changes his approach based on the situation and where he is in the count. His approach is more geared to beating the shift than Hunter's approach of simply doing what he does best and just trying to hit the ball hard in every at-bat.
"I always think hit it over the shift," Stassi explained. "You see the big hole where the shortstop should be standing, but a lot of times, they're not pitching to where you can hit the ball the other way, they're trying to throw inside or throw soft stuff to get you to roll over on the ground. Maybe I'll take a shot early in the count to get something over the shift, but late in the account, I try to go the other way to maybe get something through there."
In somewhat of a strange twist, Stassi believes that facing shifts is helping to make him more of a complete hitter. He's been much more conscience about hitting the ball the other way, even when he's not facing a shifting infield.
"The stats show that it's helping pitchers and defenses out," he said. "When I'm hitting, I definitely don't like it, but it's the way the game has evolved now and it makes you work on it. In BP now, I try to work on going the other way in the first couple rounds, which has kind of changed my approach and hopefully, it's made me a better hitter."
While it may sound easy to simply hit the ball the other way, it's not. As Stassi pointed out, a lot of times, pitchers are adapting what they throw and where they throw it to compliment the shift that their infield is playing, and to keep opponents from being able to poke the ball the other way. Brundage believes though that the toughest challenge to hitting the ball the other way may simply be in a hitter's own mind.
"Sometimes, you let your ego get in the way," laughed Brundage. "Sometimes, thinking 'this is my strength and I don't want to get away from my strength'. Other times you look up and see the flag blowing out to right field and think 'I'm just going to hit it over 'em all.'
"We've got some guys that pull and some guys that spray the ball all over the ballpark and can use it to their advantage. A guy like Stassi is what he is, he doesn't utilize left field a lot, so I don't expect him to give up everything and try to do something that you don't really practice. If I was up there, they would have had seven guys on the left side of the diamond, because I never pulled the ball and I'd be up there trying to pull the ball and doing something that I can't."
The mental part of hitting is always a big part of any real talk about swinging the bat. Whether it's facing a shift or a particularly tough pitcher, or working their way through a slump, hitters many times defeat themselves with how they think about the situation. The mental part of shifts is something that Stassi has found to be difficult at times.
"It can get frustrating," Stassi said. "You try not to let it affect you, but I remember last year, I hit a line drive down the right field line and the second baseman dove for it and it hit off his glove and rolled into foul territory. That would have really been bad. Usually when you hit into the shift, you roll something over, it's not really hard contact."