Beating the shift is tougher than it looks

On Friday night in San Diego, with the game hanging in the balance, Seth Smith hit into the teeth of the Dodgers’€™ four-man shift. What a schnook. Smith must not be a follower of Wee Willie Keeler. Fans everywhere are screaming at their TV: "œJust hit a routine groundball where the third baseman was standing and you’€™ve got a double."

Take pause. It’s not as easy as it looks. If it were, the opposition wouldn’€™t be shifting. 

It’s 1999; I’m a rookie outfielder for the Detroit Tigers. I’€™m in center field, shagging flyballs at the old Tiger Stadium. DMX is blaring through the speakers at such high volume I barely hear hitting coach Alan Trammel yell, "Group 2!" I trot in. Time for batting practice with my group mates Dean Palmer, Tony Clark and Deivi Cruz. It seems everyone is watching as I slide into the cage and prepare to rake. 

This is no freestyle whack-a-mole session. We’€™re not playing home run derby just yet. "€œTwo bunts, hit and run, get him over, infield back get him in, infield in get him in, five up the middle or the other way,"€ Tram barks from behind the cage. 

This is our standard routine, and Tram is reminding us how to approach our first 11 pitches during BP. We’€™re practicing our situational hitting. We begin by sacrifice bunting to first base, then to third base. "€œGet him over"€ means to hit the ball to the right side of the field. The goal is to move a runner on second base to third base and have him there safely with less than two outs. In theory, it creates a more advantageous RBI situation for the batter behind you. 

After the first four, we’€™re focused on countering the opposition’€™s defensive alignments. "€œInfield back"€ means we’€™re looking to hit a groundball to either the second baseman or shortstop to score the runner from third. "€œInfield in"€ is the opposite —€“ we need to drive the ball to the outfield, looking for a hit in the gap or, at the very least, a sacrifice fly. 

The last five swings are designed to manipulate the bat head "€œinside the baseball."€ Weak groundballs tend to be the result of the opposite, "€œcoming around"€ the baseball. We’€™re trying to drive pitches to the middle or the opposite field. Derek Jeter lining a pitch near his body to right field is a quality example of what we are trying to accomplish in this round.

Enough about the Yankees. Back to my night at Tiger Stadium. 

I rock Round 1. Perfect bunts, missiles everywhere, I had pure execution on all 11 pitches. A pat on the back from TC makes me feel proud. I looked up to him, and his approval was meaningful to me. When the lineup is posted in the clubhouse, I’€™m hitting behind him that night. 

It’€™s 8:44 p.m. on the stadium clock. I’€™m standing in the on-deck circle; Tony’€™s at the plate. We’€™re down to the Yankees 3-2 in the sixth inning. Orlando "€œEl Duque"€ Hernandez, delivers a fastball. Clark punishes it into the right-center field gap for a double. 

I’€™ve done my visualization. I’€™ve spent countless hours in the cage, and this is what we practice in BP. I’€™m ready. Easy, peasy. I’€™ve got options — either a groundball to Chuck Knoblauch at second base or a deep flyball to Paul O’€™Neill in right field, and Tony will be standing on third base with one out. Cruz will stroll to the plate and tie up the game.  

Deep breath. "€œAllow the ball to travel, see it a long time, hands inside and through,"€ I whisper to myself. El Duque lifts his front leg higher than any other pitcher in baseball and delivers a 93-mph fastball middle away. Perfect. He’€™s playing right into my hand. My eyes light up; my backside fires as my back elbow falls into its slot. The bat is in the zone early and moves toward the ball. 

Here’€™s where the needle scratches the record. 

El Duque’€™s pitch has some late movement. The ball my eyes identified as away is now closer to a ball inside. My body subconsciously panics. Everything speeds up. My front shoulder and head jerk. I change the path of my swing. I roll over a groundball to Jeter who promptly gobbles up my weak sauce, looks Tony back to second base and fires to Tino Martinez. One out. Too bad there is no way to bank teammate encouragement. My 23-year-old self could have used the earlier kindness from Tony. 

I never saw El Duque’€™s pitch from Lance Parrish in batting practice.

This misstep was no isolated incident in my career, and I assure you, I’€™m not alone. Sometimes a player or coach makes the decision that the value of the possibility of a double into the gap or a home run outweighs an attempt at a single or a sacrifice. Even when there’€™s an obvious answer, it’€™s not that the player doesn’€™t understand simple strategy. There are endless variables that contribute to an inability to execute, and there is always more involved than meets the eye. 

Later in my career, I watched as Manny Ramirez struck a ball. It whistled across the field, directly at a perfectly positioned fielder. He walked back to the dugout, removing his helmet and letting the dreadlocks shake loose. As our group waited for his reaction, he smiled. In his beautifully broken English, he said only, "€œStupid hitting." 

I wasn’€™t nearly as charming as Manny. Stupid hitting indeed.