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You tell a six-year-old, playing his first season of tee ball, to play second base, and the kid most likely will run out to his position straddling the bag in the middle of the infield. The fledgling infielder, he of the concrete mind, figures second base means second base. Same with first and third. For the little newbies, telling them to play a base means just that - go right to the base, put your hands on your knees, and get ready to field a ground ball.
Of course, the coach/parent proceeds to direct the little guys exactly where to position themselves, correcting the silly - but logical to a six-year-old - notion that the basemen play directly on each base. In the best of Little League worlds, this is done with sensitivity and love rather than, "Where the hell do you think you're playing?!?"
This positioning of players, beginning at a tender age, is a transient concept. In the very early days of the game, fair and foul territory hadn't been defined, so players would position themselves willy-nilly wherever they thought the ball was likely to be hit. But the genuine inventor of the rules, Alexander Cartwright, introduced in 1845 a field shaped like a diamond - as opposed to a square - along with the idea of foul lines so that just one player, the catcher, resided outside of fair territory.
Of course, that changed things rather drastically. There must be documentation about the positioning of the second baseman back in Cartwright's day, but assuming that those boys sized up the infield and arranged the defenders to cover as much real estate as possible is not unreasonable.
If any of those pioneers could observe today's sabermetric game, no doubt they would ask a lot of questions when a hitter like Adam Dunn strides to the plate. Shifting three infielders to the right side, leaving the left side basically unprotected, is common practice for many more hitters than just Dunn.
In Sunday's frustrating 6-3 Father's Day loss to the Royals - the Sox left 13 men on base and received yet another poor starting performance from Andre Rienzo - Dunn's only hit was more or less of a checked swing where the ball rolled lazily into left field for a single. It appeared that Dunn did this deliberately. If he can perfect this skill, the guy might hit .350.
Over-shifting is not a new concept. In 1946, Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau employed it against Ted Williams in the most famous positioning of players until that time. Lot of good that did. Williams, who had missed the three previous seasons while serving in the military in World War II, returned to hit .342 - two points below his lifetime average. He also led the league in walks, something he did eight times. Only Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson and Babe Ruth drew more career bases on balls than Williams. If you didn't want Williams getting a hit, walking him was a lot more effective than the shift.
But Williams also claimed that he made adjustments. "For a period I did defy [the shift] because I was right on the plate and I was pulling everything," he said in a 1993 interview with Bob Costas. "But then when they put seven guys over there, I was hitting too many balls at them. So I did have to change. I got advice from one of the greatest hitters, Paul Waner, who said all you have to do is move a little bit away from the plate so that everything is away from you and you're forced to go that way [to left field]. I was right on it."
In Sunday's game, the Royals stacked the right side on Dunn while the Sox used a similar shift on another left-handed hitter, Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas. The sabermathematicians list Moustakas as the sixth most likely major league hitter to pull the ball. Dunn isn't even in the top 25. Royals' catcher Salvador Perez comes in at No. 22, although the Sox played him pretty much straight up.
The only shift that would have worked on Perez on Sunday would have been to put center fielder Adam Eaton three-quarters of the way up the bleachers where Perez's blast landed in the third inning. Following a hit batter and a walk, it turned out to be the game-winner. All with two outs.
Moustakas is another story. Is he hitting .178 because of the shift? In four years with the Royals, Moustakas has steadily regressed from .263 his rookie season. He was even sent to Triple-A earlier in the season. Rienzo walked Moustakas twice on Sunday - did I mention this was a frustrating loss? - before he smacked a line drive over the shift for an eighth-inning single.
When Moustakas puts the ball in play, it goes to the left side just 16 percent of the time. His career could hinge on being able to use the entire field. You'd think he would do everything possible to adjust his swing. He's no Ted Williams, but he's headed for Omaha unless he at least tries to be like Teddy Ballgame.
Last week began with two inspiring wins over Detroit, including a rousing 8-2 beauty on Wednesday when the Sox scored seven times in the sixth inning to tag Justin Verlander with the loss. The Sox trailed the front-running Tigers by just a game-and-a-half. But our guys haven't won since, suffering another weekend sweep at the hands of the Royals. It's the third time this season the Sox have lost four in a row.
The secret might be to play only Monday through Thursday. Since the beginning of May, the Sox are 5-16 on weekends. They have dropped seven straight weekend series'. Of course, a four-day work week is about as likely as Adam Dunn dropping a bunt down the third-base line.
The Sox woes go far beyond Dunn's challenges. After hitting .354 the first month of the season, Tyler Flowers has gone into one of the worst slumps in memory. He's hitless in his last 22 at bats with an eye-popping 18 strikeouts. He's 2-for-30 this month. The Sox have pitchers who could perform better.
Dayan Viciedo is 4-for-40 in his last ten games with no RBI. With him batting seventh and Flowers ninth, and Alejandro De Aza - he finally reached the Mendoza Line at an even .200 - sandwiched between them, you may as well fast forward to the next inning to see if our guys can score.
In addition, aside from Chris Sale and John Danks, the starting pitching is a mess. Jose Quintana yielded hits to the first five batters he faced in Friday's 7-2 loss as the Sox were trailing 5-0 before they even had a chance to swing the bat.
In Saturday's 9-1 embarrassment, Hector Noesi was sailing along in a scoreless tie in the fourth inning when the Royals scored five times. An error by third baseman Leury Garcia didn't help, nor did Viciedo's futile attempt to catch Moustakas' pop fly - yes, he hit the ball to left - that Alexei Ramirez might have easily caught. Noesi couldn't pitch over the miscues, giving up a walk and five hits before being replaced by Javy Guerra. It was an ugly inning.
Finally, the Royals have hit the fewest homers of any team, just 35 for the season. Yet Eric Hosmer touched Rienzo for a two-run shot in the first inning before Perez gave Kansas City a 5-1 edge in the third. The pressure of always trying to play catch-up baseball is a formula for failure.
Today is a welcome day off from baseball; instead, the Sox play a charity golf event at Harborside to benefit pediatric cancer research. Then the San Francisco Giants visit The Cell on Tuesday and Wednesday before the team hits the road for an 11-game trip.
While the Giants have the best record in baseball, Sox fans needn't fret. San Francisco has a three-game losing streak of its own. Furthermore, the Sox are 13-7 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, including 6-3 at The Cell. Danks and Sale will be pitching. Sounds like a piece of cake.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.
1. From Mark Schaeffer:
I've long ago accepted the big donkey for what he is . . . give me 30 HR's and 90-100 RBI's and I'll look the other way on the BA and strikeout totals.It had to be hard to write Dunn's name with Ted Williams' in the same sentence. My guess is everything off the tee at the golf outing today by Dunn will be pulled RIGHT!
2. From former Carolina Leaguer Mike McLaughlin:
Your Dunn/Williams shift story reminded me of a story that my Gastonia Manager, Don Leppert told us. Leppert was with Washington and Boston came to town. All the flap about Williams needing to hit to left was going on, including in the local papers. He hit everything to right in BP, and hit four doubles to left in the game, just to show he could, if he thought he needed to.
Junior Lake with the Cubs swings through so many pitches just like so many who don't use the whole field. You probably saw a replay of a homer Stanton of the Marlins hit to right that was hit so hard, and it was a curve ball. They then showed the distribution of his 19 or 20 homers, and it was almost equal from left to right.