By Ernie Palladino
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Ever since Indians’ player-manager Lou Boudreau introduced the defensive shift against Red Sox great Ted Williams in July of 1946, sluggers have looked at that maneuver as sort of a test of manhood.
“Shift against me, will ya?” they think. “I’ll just smack the next one over the wall.”
More often than not, they wind up knocking it to the shortstop, stationed to the first-base side of second, or to the second baseman playing a short right field. Its mesmerizing quality has made the once-rare gambit a popular ploy since 2012, when teams shifted what seemed a whopping 4,576 times. But that was nothing compared to 2016. The Bill James Handbook of 2017 calculated that teams executed more than 28,000 shifts, out of which 359 runs were directly saved from scoring.
Much of that had to do with the hitter’s mindset. The old test of character, once reserved for the mightiest of the mighty, but now applied to any left-handed hitter who shows a hint of bicep peeking out from the uniform sleeve. For the most part, they still insist on taking the Neanderthal approach — big club, big swing, slow roller to the infield.
All this brings us to Jay Bruce, who Thursday became one of a slow-growing number of players who have decided to adjust. Or at least try.
With Wilmer Flores on first and the shift on, the left-handed slugger eschewed a chance to add to a hot start that now includes four homers and eight RBI by laying down a bunt to short.
While it did nothing to define him as a manly man, it did go as another base hit for him. More important, it was another base runner for the Mets and triggered a big second inning in an eventual 9-8, 16-inning victory.
With all the preseason talk about changing rules to prohibit shifts, Bruce’s success illustrates exactly why such proposals are silly. For one thing, no one should ever legislate how a manager deploys his players. Take away the shift, and you might as well legislate the shading of outfielders out of the game, too.
For another, the shift is the easiest thing to overcome. All it takes is an attitude adjustment and some practice in hitting fundamentals, namely bunting and hitting to the opposite field, which every player should master.
Bruce showed that before in 2013 when he faced a shift at Wrigley Field. Instead of swinging for the ivy, he slapped a Hector Rondon four-seam fastball to opposite left center for a single.
It’s all in outlook, he said at the time.
“You’re doing what you’re supposed to do if you hit the ball up the middle,” Bruce said at that point.
Mets shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera also sees shifts regularly. But he beat it last Sunday with a bunt, and he eventually scored.
Granted, Cabrera and Bruce are two different types of players. But they proved in different ways this year that shifts are not invincible.
Now, if the rest of the league would learn that, perhaps offenses would see the end of overloading. It is slowly happening.
Even Terry Collins has noticed.
“I think more and more of it with guys who can do it,” Collins told the media Saturday. “Guys like that get paid to hit the ball out of the park, but we needed some base runners at the time and (Bruce) did it.”
The telling stat will come when baseball’s acknowledged power hitters start collecting sacrifice bunts. It’s happening. Last year, only a dozen sacrifice bunts were recorded among the top 60 on the home run list. This year, that same sample has three in the first two weeks.
That obviously doesn’t include the bunts that go for hits or the opposite-field shots that float past the lone left side defender.
Adjustment takes time. Bruce started to catch wise years ago. Others will catch on.
When placing balls in play to the opposite side of shifts becomes a normal thing for hitters, the shift will once again fade into an occasional mental ploy, as Boudreau originally intended.
No need for extra rules.
Just an attitude adjustment.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino