Red Sox plan to bunt more against the shift in 2017

Aug 25, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell (53) looks on against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 25, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell (53) looks on against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

John Farrell talks about how the Boston Red Sox could utilize the bunt more often this season when opposing teams use defensive shifts.

Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell may be altering his approach a bit this season when his team comes up to bat.

Defensive shifts have become the trendy way for Major League Baseball teams to attempt to stymie opposing offenses. The new wave of analytics that has washed over the sport in recent years has provided teams with data that allows them to project where opposing hitters are most likely to put the ball in play. Smart managers use this to their advantage by aligning their defense in a way that puts players in the best position to make a play.

The shift is nothing new, as teams were using it against Ted Williams back in the 1940’s. However, it is now being deployed more than ever before.

Last season, Seattle Mariners hitters saw a staggering 1,787 shifts used against them and there were 20 major league teams that were shifted against in over 1,000 plate appearances, per FanGraphs. The previous year there were only four teams that saw that many shifts, while as recently as 2013 the Red Sox led the majors with a number nearly half that amount at 584.

More from Red Sox News

Opposing teams deployed the shift against the Red Sox 1,364 times last season, seventh most in the majors and fourth most in the American League. Much of that can be attributed to the presence of David Ortiz, who saw the shift in a major league-high 408 plate appearances. Boston may see fewer shifts this season with Ortiz now retired, but the shift isn’t going away.

Being robbed of a base hit by a well placed shift can be frustrating for hitters. There are some who believe the excessive use of the shift is ruining baseball, while New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi went as far as to call for an outright ban of the strategy. Has a wealth of knowledge shifted the focus from the talent on the field to a chess match in the dugout?

Perhaps, but strategies are cyclical and the trend will only last for as long as it works. Not a fan of the shift? Fine, find a way to beat it.

One way to force teams to reconsider deploying the shift against them is to bunt. A traditional shift against left-handed hitters typically has the third baseman playing where the shortstop would be, leaving a gaping hole down the third base line that can look mighty inviting to a hitter thinking about dropping down a bunt. Teams are practically begging the hitter to take a free pass to first base, while a well placed bunt that rolls into the corner could potentially turn into a double if the outfielders are cheating toward the other direction.

Which is why Farrell is planning on having his players practice some additional bunting this spring, according to a report from the Boston Herald’s Jason Mastrodonato.

"“One of the things that we’ve really seen is that even with guys coming in the first part of their career, guys are really starting to get shifted against when we’re on offense,” Farrell said. “We’ve got some things that we’ll look to do to hopefully take back some of those lanes that are otherwise shifted away from. That’s just becoming more prevalent around the game. The bat-handlers that can work the ball the other way, or who are the guys that can more readily drop a bunt down to take advantage of that shift, that’s one thing that we’ll look to do more of.”"

Bunting has rarely been part of Farrell’s philosophy, so his willingness to experiment with it is a refreshing change of pace. The Red Sox don’t like to give away outs, finishing last in the majors with eight sacrifices in 2016 and averaging about 20 per season over Farrell’s four year reign. That trend is unlikely to change. Farrell isn’t looking to sacrifice more to move runners along on the base paths, he’s simply more willing to have his players bunt for a base hit when the opportunity is handed to them on a silver platter.

More from Red Sox News

Boston rarely took advantage of this strategy before because they felt the benefit of extra-base hits outweighed the risk to the team’s collective batting average. That’s fine when a slugger like Ortiz was at the plate – pitchers would gladly give up a single to Ortiz to ensure he didn’t beat them with a home run. Except there will be no Big Papi in this year’s lineup. Boston ranked middle of the pack in home runs last year and have since lost their biggest power threat, prompting the need to explore other solutions.

Farrell pointed to Jackie Bradley as an example. Sure, he hit 26 home runs last season, but that was by far a career-high and remains a sizable gap from the totals Ortiz could deliver. Bradley saw the shift 224 times last season, but only hit the ball to the opposite field at a well below-average rate of 19.2 percent in those scenarios.

Dropping even the occasional bunt for a cheap base hit would do wonders for his middling batting average. It may cost him a few homers, but eventually teams will tire of giving up so many easy hits to a career .237 hitter.

Scoring runs becomes increasingly more difficult in the later innings, especially with the emphasis on teams building bullpens loaded with power arms. This is when the bunting strategy may be most utilized – in a tight game, with a strike-throwing closer on the mound. Get a guy on base and make something happen.

There are a lot of ways to score runs, but getting on base is the key ingredient. It puts pressure on the opposing pitcher, while getting into scoring position could take the shift out of play altogether if teams aren’t willing to risk the runner stealing an unprotected base.

It remains to be seen how often Farrell will resort to bunting once the season begins, but it’s encouraging to hear that the strategy is on his mind. Showing that tendency even a bit more often could be enough to get into the head of the opposing team’s manager, convincing them to stop shifting against them.

Next: Red Sox are World Series co-favorites

Want to get rid of the shift in baseball? Bunting for base hits could be the way to do it. The Red Sox know the blueprint for beating the shift, now it’s merely a matter of if they will actually use it.