As this is the 500th blog generated by the Right Off the Bat project, in the spirit of collegial, international, and inter-sport collaboration, we thought we’d put our heads together (ouch) in doing some outside-the-box thinking . . . and mix a metaphor or two in the process.
Ten games into this MLB season (there are more than 150 regular-season games yet to go), Evander has observed a dominant aspect of the major-league game that is touched upon in Right Off the Bat at its alpha and omega.
The overshift, which Johnny Damon out-hustled and out-thought in the 2009 World Series by executing an ingenious, ultra-rare double-steal of bases, is described at the baseball-start of our book, and alluded to later, as a brilliant bit of gamesmanship: virtually defining heads-up play. Late in our book, the term “Sabermetrics” worms its way in. This is a term coined around the work of uber-statistician Bill James. Anyone who has seen “Moneyball,” understands the impact James’s spectral musings has had on the way baseball is understood and, more importantly, “strategized” and played.
Evander’s central observation is thus: many more managers and clubs are employing radical, Sabermetric-style defensive shifts in the field, depending on who is pitching to some degree and, especially, who is batting. E. has seen one overshift wherein the third baseman moves way out to short right field. Should a left-handed batter ground out to this “new position,” the official scoring still goes 5-3. Very weird.
Extreme defense does not work under two conditions: (1) as Johnny Damon adroitly proved (in other words, a fielder needs to stand at every base lest the baserunner “run amok” with double-steals); (2) batters begin to do what Mickey Mantle, the great power hitter and pull hitter did (become masters of the drag bunt and/or condition themselves to stroke the ball to the opposite field).
Baseball and its managers, especially in the US and Canada—being those most conservative, provincial, and ossified of sports and individuals—actually find themselves becoming far more fluid in the field. The third baseman is no longer at third base and so forth.
It is perhaps an irony that cricket (typically seen as a bastion of the hidebound and traditional) should find itself having to deal with rapid change, especially in the wake of Twenty20 cricket. Bowlers and batsmen have to adapt to rapidly changing situations, and fielders and their positions are required to be equally adept in their placement. The key word for cricketers is flexibility in the face of new shots, new kinds of deliveries, and new fielding positions.
Perhaps baseball could and should learn a few things from cricket after all!