Every season there are some players with some alarmingly large pull tendencies. These hitters, due to the fact that they show a dominant pattern of hitting the ball in one direction, should be shifted. Bill James and John Dewan, two major players in the MLB statistical community, have speculated that any hitter that pulls the ball in one direction 80% of the time or more should be shifted, but I tend to side with a more aggressive approach, and advocate shifting or shading the defense if a hitter exhibits a pull tendency 70% or more. Some classic examples of extreme pull hitters include David Ortiz, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Pena. All three of those hitters are classic sluggers who have put up big homerun numbers at some point in their respective careers. But other than those hitters, who in Major League Baseball is that pull-happy to warrant a shift on defense? Let’s take a look at a couple of players over the next few days, starting with right-handed hitters.
Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays
The 1st base/DH combo slugger has finally unleashed all the power scouts were always hoping he had, bombing 40 homers and 105 RBIs for the Blue Jays this season. He ranks 5th in the American League in offensive WAR (oWAR), 3rd in slugging, 3rd in OPS+, and only trails Josh Hamilton by a single dinger for the Major League lead.
All that aside, Encarnacion is an excellent candidate for a right-handed pull shift, where the shortstop plays deep in the hole and the 2nd baseman plays either up the middle or slightly shaded to the left of 2nd base. The Blue Jay has been a pull-heavy hitter this season, pulling somewhere around 75% of the ground balls he’s hit this season. Couple that with the normal slugger’s pull tendency on his fly balls, making Encarnacion the perfect player to play a right-handed shift on. Check out his spray chart from the All-Star break onward:
Encarnacion hits nearly all of his homers out to left or left-center field, as well as a majority of his ground balls and outfield hits. This also allows a manager to play his outfield shaded toward the right as well. And this is actually better than his first half pull chart, where his pull tendencies were even more pronounced, especially during the first months of the season. Going into next season this data should be utilized and Encarnacion should see more shifts to defend his pull-heavy tendencies.
Mark Reynolds, Baltimore Orioles
Mark Reynolds is another slugging corner infielder who an opposing manager can play the shift on. In addition to striking out in 30.5% of his at-bats, Reynolds also has strong pull tendencies at play. Unlike Encarnacion,Reynolds’ pull tendencies have actually gotten more pronounced as the season has gone on, which isn’t a bad thing because he has the ability to carry an offense for short stretches of time with his home run power and he knows how to draw a walk. Reynolds pulls the ball around 75% of the time that he hits a grounder, which means teams should shade the shortstop in the hole and put the 2nd baseman slightly on the other side of the base.
Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks
The young Diamondback slugger has some interesting tendencies when he keeps the ball on the ground on the infield. Goldschmidt has, by my count from Pitch F/X, hit the ball 69% of the time to the left side of the infield, and 12% of his balls on the infield have been hit up the middle. With this data, a manager should play his shortstop shaded toward 3rd base and his 2nd baseman should play straight up the middle, with the side of the base being played based on whatever the manager chooses. Goldschmidt is non-discriminate on the balls he’s hit to the outfield, raking doubles to all fields, so the outfield should still play a normal, straight-up alignment. But his proven ability to hit the ball to all fields makes playing the shift against the 1st baseman a tougher decision, and one that most managers in today’s MLB probably won’t make. Most instead opt to play him straight up or with a very minor infield shade.
Chris Carter, Oakland A’s
The A’s 1st baseman over their last 50 or so games has been one of the most pleasant, and unexpected, surprises in baseball this season. He was previously a highly-rated prospect, topping out as high as #28 in Baseball America’s 2010 rankings, but the shine had somewhat faded by the start of this season. Carter had been badly abused by Major League pitching in his first 125 plate appearances, hitting just .167 with 3 homeruns and 7 RBI. This year, things have gone a little bit differently for Mr. Carter. He’s hitting a solid .261/.370/.554 (153 OPS+) with 14 homers and 35 RBI in just over 200 plate appearances.
Recently Carter has cooled off however, striking out 15 times in his last 33 September plate appearances, and that may be because team’s are starting to figure out how to get Carter out again. Carter has shown big pull tendencies on ground balls hit, this season. Just take a look at the last 29 games he’s played in.
The right-hander hasn’t grounded out to the left side of the infield since August 7th! Why even play more than a 1st baseman on that side of the field. Opposing pitchers have been using more breaking pitches while working out of the strike zone a little bit, and it’s showing in the strikeout totals. Carter is chasing a little too much on pitches outside of the strike zone and needs to get back to putting the ball in play. The ideal defense would be a simple infield shift to the right side, with the outfield playing straight up, because Carter hits the ball well to all three fields.
The spray charts and infield shifts may not seem like much, but they can frustrate hitters while taking away the occasional base hit that would have otherwise gotten through. If you can get in a hitters head and make him change his approach at the plate, there’s a good chance your pitcher has already won half the battle. Baseball can be a mental game as much as anything, and any edge a pitcher can get over a hitter is a much appreciated one.
Others in the series