Roger Cedeno, Juan Pierre, Ichiro. As a kid I remember what it was like to watch the prototypical leadoff hitter at work. Scott Rolen would slowly inch in at third. Troy Glaus was 65 feet from the hitter.
Today, we have entered a new era of baseball. Lou Brock and Ricky Henderson have gone the way of the Dodo and we are now in a world where Mark Reynolds is king and if Adam Dunn was a rookie, he would be a dime a dozen as opposed to reminiscent of Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew.
In the past, baseball, especially in the National League, revolved around “small ball,” though nowadays it is the true outcome that is the modus operandi. A true outcome is an at-bat that ends in a strikeout, walk, or home-run. These plays do not in any way involve the defense. The batter and the pitcher decide the fate of the at-bat.
In this world, the National League’s list of leadoff hitters reads more like cleanup hitters of yesteryear. For the Cubs, Kyle Schwarber, and the Mets, Michael Conforto. This way, according to Sabermetricians, you will end up with more runs over the course of a season
What advantage does Jay Bruce have that Juan Pierre didn’t? With Pierre, when the Marlins played the Braves, Chipper Jones was picking sunflower seeds out of Pierre’s pocket. The Braves knew the potential for a bunt and sold out, house and home to defend it. Now, with the prevalence of the shift, if Orioles leadoff hitter Seth Smith wants to get on base, the Rays Evan Longoria is daring him to bunt.
Teams sell out on the over shift. In a famous example on May 6th 2013, Hank Conger, bunted down the third base line and then tripped, rolled over, still making it to first without a throw. And that is just it. From Bryce Harper to Carlos Santana, teams over-shift to right field constantly. In 2016, the conventional three men on the right side of the infield shift was six times more likely according to FiveThirtyEight.com than it was in 2013.
So, what does all of this mean?
The shift can be countered. All it takes is a bunt. A little gamesmanship. During BP, players practice their bunting from Little League all the way through the pros. And that’s just it. With the left side of the diamond open, the still speedy 36 year old Curtis Granderson, could raise his average from an abysmal .203 and open up the whole field. The same goes for Schwarber who is hitting a whopping .175 out of the leadoff spot.
So let’s see it. The next time Chase Headley comes up…bunt. When Brandon Belt is up…bunt. And all of a sudden the shift will go away and in its stead will come the opportunity for the resurgence of the .300 hitter in Major League Baseball. “Wee” Willie Keeler would be proud.