PEORIA, Ariz. — Admit it. You’ve watched a game where a club overshifts its defensive alignment against left-handed hitters, based on spray charts and other telling sabermetric data, and wondered:
Why doesn’t the guy just bunt the ball down the third-base line? It’s an easy single and — if the batter places the ball correctly and can run a little bit — it might even be a double.
Let’s put the question to third baseman Kyle Seager who, other than first baseman Logan Morrison, probably saw more defensive shifts last season than any other Mariner.
Is the bunt a good play when the defense overshifts?
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“It’s definitely a good play sometimes,” Seager agreed, “if the situation dictates it. If there is somebody on first base and nobody out, maybe it’s a good call.”
You can almost hear the “but” coming, can’t you? We’ll get to that in a minute.
First, though, understand that defensive shifts, like them or not, are a proliferating reality in baseball — up more than 500 percent over the last three seasons and still spiking skyward.
New commissioner Rob Manfred recently raised the possibility of banning shifts that position three infielders on one side of second base. The idea gained only limited traction, but pointed to a concern within the game.
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon pushed Seager and Morrison, a year ago, to adjust their approach in an effort to defeat the strategy. Not by bunting necessarily but by hitting the ball to more the field.
“When a team shifts its defense on you,” McClendon (in effect) taunted, “they’re telling you that you’re not a good enough hitter to adjust.”
“They both worked on it quite a bit,” McClendon said. “I’d say Seager is very successful. Mo is getting better at it.”
Seager often cites teammate Robinson Cano as a model in his own efforts to become proficient at driving the ball to all fields.
“I had a coach who once said you can manipulate your swing for a month,” Seager said. “But if you are in a good physical position, it’ll last for the whole season. You’ll be able to do it night in and night out.
“That’s why Cano can do it every day. It isn’t just that he hits when his body is fresh. He hits when his body is tired. He hits all of the time because he’s in a good, repeatable position. That’s the ultimate goal.
“When I’m hitting like Cano, I’ll be satisfied.”
Morrison, in contrast, is the sort of dead-pull hitter for whom shifts are designed to eat alive. His mind-set, however, remains that he can beat the shift if he gets his pitch.
Example: A year ago, the Mariners won a game when Morrison beat a shift by slicing the ball into left field. Asked afterward whether that proved the value of using the entire field, he shook his head wistfully and admitted:
“Man…I was trying to pull that ball.”
Even McClendon said he wants Morrison to pull the ball when he gets a pitch he’s capable of pulling. For a simple reason: Morrison’s power is to the right side.
“You’ve got to be careful with (making adjustments),” McClendon warned. “I know when we put a shift on Big Papi (Boston DH David Ortiz), heck, I’m hoping he bunts. That’s one of the reasons we do it.
“I’d rather see (Ortiz) get a bunt single than hit the ball out of the ballpark. That’s the one thing you have to be careful about; it’s one thing to change your approach, but don’t change how you hit or who you are.”
Ask Morrison if he ever considers bunting against overshifted defenses, and he says he tried it “a couple of times” last season.
“If they’re all the way over there (to the right side),” he said, “and the shortstop is deep, I’ll bunt. But what happens is they’ll bring the shortstop in on the grass and, you know, I’m kind of slow. I can’t bunt then.”
Seager added: “If there’s two outs and nobody on, me putting a bunt down doesn’t necessarily help the team. It would be more advantageous to try to hit a double and get into scoring position.
“Me not being a big burner, a big base-stealing guy, me bunting for a single doesn’t help in those situations.”
McClendon believes Seager will see fewer overshifted defenses this season because of his growing ability to hit the ball, with power, to the left side.
“Seager became very adept at it (last year),” McClendon said, “and we’ll see how it goes with Morrison this year. Again,. he’s working on it.”
Don’t look for many bunts, though.
“If they shift you, and they pitch you in,” Morrison said, “you’re going to pull the ball, more than likely, right? At the end of the day, hit it hard somewhere and who cares where it goes?
“You don’t have a joystick in there.”