Rays working to save shifts?

On March 11th, MLB announced a series of rule changes that would be implemented through the minors for the 2021 season. Some were more popular, or unpopular, than others, but all are aimed at trialing what rule MLB may want to adopt in 2022 and beyond. 

Fast forward about a week later, when Brandon Lowe, facing a significant shift, laid down a perfect bunt to beat that shift. Kevin Cash noted:

“I think it’s great that he that he’s recognizing how teams are playing him, and if he can pull that third baseman back over a little bit more, lessen that shift — not just B. Lowe, it’ll be a benefit to all of our hitters whether it’s Austin, Ji-Man,” said Cash. “They’re gonna bunt. I mean, we’ve kind of talked to them a lot about that and limiting that heavy, heavy shift.”

Was it a direct reaction to potential rule changes limiting the shift? That would make sense considering the Rays essentially brought the shift to MLB and made it the popular strategy it is today, and depend on it constantly to beat pull heavy lineups. While we can’t know for certain whether it’s the case during this Spring training, there’s one thing we know for certain: it’s not the first time the Rays have tried to bring the bunt back to regular use in MLB.

TAKING A LOOK BACK

During 2015 Spring training, and Kevin Cash at the helm, the Rays worked on the bunt quite a bit as they looked for ways to use their tremendous speed to their advantage. At the time, however, the shift wasn’t as much of a priority. Instead, the focus was earning a base hit. As Kevin Kiermaier noted:

“But at the same time, you have to pick your times and places for it,” Kiermaier said. “It’s all about trying to catch those guys sleeping when you can. Use that to your advantage. But it’s definitely something that I want to get a lot better at.”

Why you may ask was bunting such a priority for an American League team? Well, the year prior, while Joe Maddon was at the helm, the Rays had attempted the most bunts in MLB with 58 attempts. No other team had attempted more than 50. This happened despite Maddon speaking out against certain uses of the bunt:

“For that group of people out there that want guys to bunt all the time, you don’t know the outcome when you choose to do that,” Maddon said, of choosing not to bunt with two runners on base and no outs in the ninth inning, and again following a leadoff double in the 10th. “I think the bunt is an overrated play.”

So why use the bunt so often in 2014 then? Because it made sense in certain situations, and working against the shift, or catching defensive players napping, are perfect occasions to bunt. 

TYPES OF BUNTS MATTER

Rightfully, the sacrifice bunts have fallen out of favour in MLB. There are other likely outcomes to concentrate on instead of handing your opponent an out so that you can only score one run or move a baserunner. Not only does it hand your opponent an out, but it normally does so with few pitches, allowing for more length in the game for the pitcher. 

The following chart displays sacrifice hits per game. As evident, they’re almost non-existent.

https://www.offthebenchbaseball.com/2019/08/22/the-state-of-baseball-more-bombs-fewer-bunts/

This is NOT what the Rays are working towards increasing this year.

Interestingly, Jeff Sullivan, who now works for the Rays, once wrote an article for Fangraphs about using the bunt against the shift. Within the article, Jeff points out the difference:

“A sacrifice bunt is different from a bunt for a hit, and a bunt for a hit against the shift is different from a bunt for a hit against a regular alignment. I made it a goal to dig a little deeper, because, what is it to bunt against the shift, really?”

The real key to focus on in Jeff’s article is that even for those who practice bunting quite a bit, it’s no easy feat. Those who practice it a great deal may be successful approximately one third of the time, with a standard deviation based on how “buntable” the pitches they get are. If a team knows you may attempt to bunt, you may only see fastballs high and out of the zone until you have 2 strikes. At that point, the bunt becomes unlikely and “regular” pitching can resume. 

There are other forces playing against a hitter trying to bunt. Bat to ball, making sure fingers are out of the way, angles of impact, and getting enough velocity to keep it far enough from the catcher or pitcher who likely field the bunt when a team shifts significantly. 

USING BUNTS AGAINST THE SHIFT

Now, if you’re a team that has significant success shifting, how do you react to a team that decides to attempt multiple bunts to beat the shift? Do you give in and stop shifting to at least one player to hedge your bets, or do you commit to the shift, because the outcome of two-thirds failure rate and worst outcome being a single outweigh the potential for extra base hits and high pitch counts?

To provide a raw stat light example, let’s walk through two scenarios.

Scenario A: Brandon Lowe decided to bunt to beat the shift. He fails on first attempt, but gets the bunt down the second time. He gets a single, and the pitcher has thrown 2 pitches. Or, he misses the second attempt and resumes a regular AB against a shift. 

Scenario B: Brandon Lowe works an AB using more pitches on average, and a quarter of the time (or more), he gets an extra base hit. 

The chances of an extra base hit in Scenario A are diminished due to the bunt. And that’s really what teams are hedging against when shifting. If anything, they’re daring you to bunt because they know it’s hard, they know success rates are lower than people think, and they’d rather you succeed with less damage and fewer pitches thrown than to watch you manage an extra base hit a quarter of the time.

Brandon Lowe’s statistics vs. the shift are also very intriguing;

wOBA vs shift: .206 in 2018, .311 in 2019, and .475 in 2020

wOBA no shift: .358 in 2018, .441 in 2019, and .253 in 2020

That’ll make you scratch your head, right? Why did he improve against the shift, and do worse when there was no shift?

There’s no clear answer for it, to be completely honest. All I can point to is that he did NOT hit the ball to the opposite field more often (22% to 25% throughout), but that he did increase his barrel percentage from 10.9% to 17%, likely leading to less reaction time available to opposing fielders, helping him find more holes within the shift. 

Now, having said that, not every player shifted on can achieve a barrel percentage that ranks among the top 2% of the league, but it does beg this question: why is Brandon Lowe among those practicing the bunt against the shift if he’s had so much success against it without bunting? 

RAYS WANT TO KEEP SHIFTING

Although the Rays were initially pronounced kings of the shift, they’ve actually lessened their use of it compared to most MLB teams, overall. They ranked 19th in use of the shift in 2020, and the Dodgers used the shift the most. What the Rays did do more than any other team, however, is use another of their innovations – the four man outfield – more than any other team.

“Depending on the matchup, whether it’s their guy hitting the ball in the air a lot or a pitcher getting a lot of outs in the air, and when it lines up, we’re going to do that,” Rays manager Kevin Cash told MLB.com.”

When facing heavy hitting lineups like the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the Toronto Blue Jays have to offer as often as the Rays do, you need to find ways to temper their power and ability to pile up extra base hits. The Rays used the four man outfield on 60 occasions in 2020, more than half of all the four man outfield occurrences in all of MLB for that season! 

Why are the Rays using it so much more than any other team? Well, here’s Kevin Kiermaier’s explanation as to why they use it:

“It’s more with the guys with the ability to hit the ball in the air, just trying to take away the extra-base hits,” he said. “We’re willing to give up a single on a certain side of the field. We do it with some athletic guys, but usually it’s more the big power-type guys — where it’s like if they hit a single, we’ll gladly be OK with that because now it’s going to take two more hits to score that guy.”

The Rays finished ahead of the Yankees because of how well they did against them in 2020, maintaining a dominant 8-2 record against the Bombers. So how many doubles and triples did the Yankees manage vs. the Rays? A total of 11 doubles and one triple over a span of 10 games. Interestingly, these are the players who managed them:

Mike Tauchman (2 doubles), Gio Urshela (4 doubles), Erik Kratz (1 double), Aaron Hicks (1 double, 1 triple), Brett Gardner (1 double), Gleyber Torres (1 double), and Tyler Wade (1 double).

Who isn’t on that list? Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu, Luke Voit, and Gary Sanchez were all shutout from hitting any doubles or triples vs the Rays in 2020. Additionally, when we consider fly ball rates, Rays pitchers were able to keep six of their seven highest fly ball percentage hitters from hitting doubles or triples.

That’s significant, isn’t it? At the very least, it’s interesting and deserves more attention going forward. Although we don’t know exactly when the four man outfield was used, what we can say from the stats above is that overall the Rays were effective in preventing a powerful lineup from piling on extra base hits. And that, in turn, allowed them to dominate the season series.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

The Rays are a very bright organization. If they’re using four man outfields much more frequently than other teams, and they manage a 40-20 season despite a pitching staff being decimated with injuries, it should tell us all that it’s been an ingredient that’s helped them achieve great feats. 

There’s an argument to be made that the Rays may want to increase their use of the bunt against heavy shifts in order to tame MLB’s stance against the shift entirely. They’ve obviously been very successful with the rules as they are, and with increase use of the four man outfield, so why sit by and watch it all be changed with new rules?

By creating more action in bunting against the shift, the Rays are adding base runners, may force some errors on errant throws to be made, and are forcing opponents to reconsider their shifts. Should the Rays successfully show the MLB that the status quo can work, and that it outweighs the hassle making changes presents, they’d be doing their strategists a huge favor.

When I see a player like Brandon Lowe put down a bunt in order to be able to do it in-season, despite never having an issue beating shifts in games, it sends a signal that is somewhat telling of the Rays’ Spring focus. At the very least, it puts the possibility of a bunt in their opponents’ minds, potentially reducing the number of shifts their players face, or preventing them altogether for some players. And it may also work towards saving any rash decision on the MLB’s part.

Ensuring that they continue using their newfound strategic edge, i.e the four man outfields, as part of shifting strategies long-term, may be more important to their continued success than to the success of any other team in MLB when you consider the opponents they face frequently. 

And that’s why we all get to watch Brandon Lowe lay down a perfect bunt….

Recommended reading here and here.

Published by @Mat_Germain_

I grew up in Montreal, cheering on the Expos through two decades before they left town. In terms of writing, began with a blog - like so many others - and eventually got some experience at FanSided (Jays Journal, RaysColoredGlasses) and SB Nation (DRaysBay). Currently co-hosting "In The Tank" Podcasts with Aiden Pearson and covering a many Rays subjects as possible!

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