Beat the shift! CLE/NYY preview:

At this point in the season, a lot of digging isn’t necessary to see the trends and establish expectations for both teams and individual players.  But sometimes even just a little digging can illuminate the extent to which trends are happening with both.  So with Cleveland coming to the Bronx tonight, here are a few matters of which you should be aware:

We know Cleveland has improved drastically to the point where they very well may be a playoff opponent for the Yankees in a couple of months.  Since June 2nd, Cleveland has won 70% of their games.  For some perspective, if you’ve watched the Yankees over the past two months it’s hard to imagine a team being better than they’ve been – but Cleveland has.  And remember, they improved their team at the deadline, the Yankees did not (but the Yankees have an All-Star team in Triple-A – take that, Cleveland!).  And don’t come at me with “…but…Severino” – Cleveland is getting Kluber back at the end of August.

Beat the shift (…?)

If you’ve watched a Yankees broadcast…um…ever…you know that we are bombarded with the YES announcers droning on about “…level swing, spray it around, situational hitting, old school, beat the shift, batting average instead of launch angle and exit velo, go the other way, blah, blah BLAH…”  It’s gotten so bad that on yesterday’s broadcast John Flaherty said he “didn’t mind” that Aaron Judge has not been elevating and pulling the ball lately.  Of course, no one asked him if he minded Judge’s massive drop in production – a result that directly correlates with him not pulling and elevating the ball.

Along those lines, let’s look at three players:

On June 12th, Jose Ramirez had an OBP/SLG line of .294/.292.  He literally was one of the worst players in baseball.  Since then, he’s gone .347/.610 and has been one of the best players in baseball – only Mike Trout and Nelson Cruz have better OBP/SLG lines in the American League since then.

The reason?  Early in the season, Ramirez was trying to hit the ball the other way to beat the shift – it did not work.  He then decided to blast the baseball and it’s worked pretty damn well.  And no, it wasn’t more complicated than that.  (See Craig Edward’s article on Fangraphs if you want to see all the gory math details.)

Didi Gregorius goes to the opposite field less than any player on the NYY.  His pull percentage this season is the highest of his career and his balls to the opposite field percentage is at a career-low.  He is having his worst offensive season as a Yankee and the 2nd worst of his career.  As I’ve pointed out previously, this isn’t a recent trend for him so I’m not going to buy the “maybe he came back to early” from his elbow surgery counterpoint.  Going back to May of last season, he has a 96 wRC+ which ties him with Tim Beckham for 20th among shortstops with a minimum of 600 plate appearances in MLB.  It must be noted that Beckham is not surrounded by Judge, Voit, Sanchez, LeMahieu, and Torres in his lineup.

Brett Gardner’s 2019 pull percentage is the highest of his career and his opposite-field percentage is the lowest of his career.  He goes the opposite way less than anyone on NYY besides Didi (and Michael Kay still doesn’t understand why teams shift against Gardner).  And here’s the kicker:  Brett Gardner is having the best offensive season of his career.  His 117 OPS+ would be a new career-high if maintained.

My point, in case you missed my subtlety, is one that I’ve made before, but I will make again:

Not every MLB player is Tony Gwynn, not every player is Rod Carew, not every player is Derek Jeter.  Baseball is HARD – VERY DAMN HARD.  Many players are better and more productive when they pull the ball in the air.  A few are better swinging on a line and hitting it to all fields.

This reductionist mentality of they should just go the other way, beat the shift, spray it around is complete nonsense.  Please remember this when you get bombarded with that drivel while you’re watching the games this weekend.

Did I miss something?  Let me know.

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