There were times, Ryan Howard said, that he tried to beat a defensive shift by simply driving the ball the other way.
It didn’t take long for opposing managers to see Howard’s propensity to pull the ball, causing teams to frequently slide their infielders to the right side of second base and dare Howard to hit the ball to left.
“Then when you do hit it the other way, you find the only person that’s on that side,” said Howard, 42. “It’s like ‘Wait, I did what I was supposed to do and I found the only guy?’ It just wasn’t meant for me to get a hit over there.”
Only David Ortiz faced more shifts than Howard, according to FanGraphs, which started tracking shift data in 2010. Between 2010 and 2016, 88% of the balls Howard batted into play came against a defensive shift. The shift — along with injuries — attributed to a dip in Howard’s offensive production over the second half of his career.
So consider Howard in favor of baseball banning the shift, which became a possibility this month when the new collective bargaining agreement made it easier for Major League Baseball to implement rule changes.
“Obviously, it took a toll on my career and what not,” Howard said. “It is what it is. I think managers will now be able to manage differently and it brings back some of that old-school baseball where teams can put the hit-and-run back into play a little bit. It’ll be interesting.”
Defensive shifts were utilized last season at a record rate and batters’ success against them — .292 batting average on balls in play per FanGraphs — was 5% lower than 2019, the last previous full season. MLB, desperate to inject more action into games, is likely to either ban the shift or limit them starting in 2023.
It’s debatable how much of an impact banning the shift will have as it’s not the only reason pitching continues to dominate. But it’s something the league seems steadfast on trying. Strikeout rates have risen nearly each season since 2008 while major-league batters hit just .244 last season, the lowest mark since 1972.
“As a hitter, you do what you do in terms of contact, but once the ball comes off the bat, you can’t control what happens and where guys are playing,” Howard said.
“It’s going to be interesting now because I think it’s definitely going to change the numbers. They’re trying to get more excitement back into the game and more balls and play and more motion and everything. More hit and runs, more action. It will be interesting to see how the numbers change.”
Joe Torre was asked in June of 2006 why he didn’t employ a shift against Howard after the Yankees beat the Phillies. Howard was in his second full season and defensive shifts were already expected. The shift wouldn’t help, Torre said after Howard drove in seven runs and hit a homer to the upper deck, but instead “we need to play him higher.”
Howard faced shifts almost immediately after arriving in the majors, but he faced them even more frequently in the second half of his career as more teams increasingly relied on analytics for their defensive position.
From 2010 to 2017, the average hitter hit .308 on batted balls against the shift while Howard hit just .282 against them. Shifts became so common for Howard that he had just seven batted balls without a shift in his final major-league season.
From 2004-2011, Howard was worth 19.5 Wins Above Replacement while registering a 138 on-base-plus-slugging plus (OPS+). He was one of baseball’s most feared hitters and strongest offensive producers. But from 2012-2017, Howard was worth -4.8 Wins Above Replacement and his OPS+ dipped to 95. A devastating Achilles injury sapped Howard’s offensive production and the increased presence of defensive shifts didn’t do him any favors.
“Had they changed it in the past, who knows? You definitely lose a lot of hits,” Howard said. “You don’t do anything wrong as a hitter when you hit the ball and a guy is standing in a place where he wouldn’t normally be playing. If the second baseman is playing where he’s normally playing, those are all hits.”
As the shifts continued to become more prevalent so did the calls for Howard to hit it the other way. But it’s not that easy, Howard said, as hitting is an art. Pitchers throw harder than ever with higher spin rates. Pulling the ball is what made Howard such an offensive force so it was hard to go against the way he knew how to hit.
He tried altering his swing during spring training, even taking batting practice with a donut weight attached to his bat slow his swing and drive balls to left field. But even when he did it, it seemed like it was always an unlucky out.
Beating the shift wasn’t as easy as it looked. Soon, shifts could be a thing of the past. For Howard, the ban will be a decade too late.
“It’s a game of inches,” Howard said. “You hit it where you hit it. For me, trying to hit it to the left side and maybe two inches to the front or an inch deeper and maybe I don’t hit it to the shortstop or third baseman. Maybe it goes to third base or what not.
“It’s easy to sit there and say it, but it’s so hard to go and do it a lot of the times.”