The shift, 100 mph heat, near impossible odds: How hitters are fighting back

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS -- From within, the conversation is less about evening the playing field and more about overcoming the odds. It isn't about taking things back to the way they used to be; it's about uncovering something new. While most of the baseball community has debated the merits of eliminating the shift -- a possibility brought to light in a recent article by The Athletic -- teams have become proactive about ways to neutralize it.

Creative thinking has become paramount.

"Since I can remember being around advanced process in the major leagues, and player development at the major league level, the advancements on the run-prevention side have dwarfed what's going on in the run-scoring side," Los Angeles Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "If we're setting records for strikeouts as an industry, let's think about this differently -- let's ask different questions, let's be open-minded to ways we can possibly combat that."

The Dodgers put themselves at the forefront by going unconventional with their hitting coach, taking a chance on a 32-year-old specialist named Robert Van Scoyoc, who barely even played in high school.

Van Scoyoc helped turn J.D. Martinez into a power-hitting dynamo and was influenced by Craig Wallenbrock, the popular private hitting instructor who was among the early advocates of launch angle. Van Scoyoc is the third Wallenbrock pupil to become the main hitting coach this offseason, along with Johnny Washington (San Diego Padres) and Tim Laker (Seattle Mariners). A fourth, Brant Brown, was recently installed as the Dodgers' hitting strategist.

Van Scoyoc, Brown and Aaron Bates are the three hitting coaches for a Dodgers organization that will scrap the traditional hierarchy and implement what Friedman calls "a collaborative environment." The only other team with three hitting coaches on its major league staff is the crosstown Los Angeles Angels, who have Jeremy Reed as hitting coach, Paul Sorrento as hitting instructor and Shawn Wooten as assistant hitting coach.

The amount of information available and the amount of cage time required necessitated three men for essentially one job, a concept that is sure to catch on throughout the industry. Angels first-year manager Brad Ausmus called hitting coach "the most time-intensive coaching job on the staff."

The reason: Hitting is damn near impossible these days.

Major league players combined to strike out 41,207 times in 2018, making it the 11th consecutive season to set a new record. Pitchers are throwing harder, with more movement, than ever before, and defenses have become increasingly more adept at situating themselves in the right places.

Chris Woodward, the new Texas Rangers manager who was previously the Dodgers' third-base coach, is among those now instructing their hitters to go against the shift.

One of Woodward's biggest run producers, Joey Gallo, faced a shift on 84.2 percent of his plate appearances last season, second in the majors only to Baltimore Orioles slugger Chris Davis. Gallo's strength, like that of most left-handed power hitters, is to pull pitches in the inner third of the strike zone. Woodward doesn't want Gallo to stray from that. But if it's a two-strike count with two outs and a runner in scoring position, a ground ball to a vacant left side might not be such a bad idea.

"But he's got to have a physical way of doing it," Woodward said. "It's something that he actually has to practice."

The Rangers will get to work on that this spring.

The Dodgers will too.

"Since I can remember being around advanced process in the major leagues, and player development at the major league level, the advancements on the run-prevention side have dwarfed what's going on in the run-scoring side. If we're setting records for strikeouts as an industry, let's think about this differently -- let's ask different questions, let's be open-minded to ways we can possibly combat that." Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman

Last year, 133 left-handed hitters saw at least 100 pitches with a shift. Only 27 of those hitters bunted more than once to try to beat it, and only seven bunted more than three times. (The leader, Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor, executed 14 bunts against the shift, getting a hit on six of them.) The Dodgers didn't record a single bunt for a hit against the shift in 2018.

"It should be important enough to get on base to be able to manipulate the bat and hit the ball the other way or to lay a bunt down," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "We're going to get better at that. When you see one player on the left side of the infield and you're down a run -- we're going to challenge our guys to find a way to hit it over there. But you've got to do that by practicing. It's going to be a priority for us to get better at that."

There were 2,350 shifts on balls in play in 2011, according to Sports Info Solutions. By 2018, that number rose all the way to 34,671. The percentage of plate appearances with a shift went from 12.1 in 2017 to 17.4 in 2018. During that two-year stretch, there were eight instances of a qualified left-handed hitter finishing a season batting .215 or lower. In the 96 years prior, there were a total of 14, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

But it isn't just how the defense is situated -- it's what the pitchers are throwing.

The average fastball velocity was 91.8 mph as recently as 2008 and sat at 93.6 mph in 2018, according to FanGraphs. The average spin rate -- the number of revolutions per minute that a baseball travels after leaving the pitcher's hand, as measured by Doppler radar -- increased every year from 2015 to 2018, from 2,127 RPMs to 2,226, per Statcast.

The information on all of this is exhaustive, which makes simplifying it so crucial.

"I think there's more in terms of how you prepare for a game," Friedman said. "It's always been the exact same, and it's the same in 30 clubhouses. 'This guy throws 91 to 94, his slider is 85, he throws the slider 37 percent of the time; when he's ahead in the count, he throws it 52 percent of the time. Go get him.' Like, I think there's more potentially in there on how to prepare hitters to compete for that night's game. What that means, exactly, I'm not sure yet."

For the Dodgers, it'll start with Van Scoyoc, who received 10 at-bats as a high school senior in Southern California and hardly played at a nearby community college called Cuesta. Shortly after a playing career he called "very mediocre," Van Scoyoc began working with Wallenbrock out of a warehouse in Santa Clarita, California, located about 30 miles northwest of Dodger Stadium.

They preached the importance of launch angle before it became vogue throughout the sport, teaching hitters to keep their swing paths through the strike zone as long as possible and to lift pitches into the air.

Van Scoyoc helped utilityman Chris Taylor and middle-infield prospect Gavin Lux make big statistical leaps during his time as a Dodgers consultant in 2016 and 2017. He parlayed that into a job as hitting strategist with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2018, a role he called "very broad." Now, Van Scoyoc will help a Dodgers offense that led the National League in runs but went through maddening highs and lows, while serving as one of only three hitting coaches without so much as a minor league at-bat on his résumé.

"I know that it can be notable when a coach gets hired to look at their playing résumé and things like that, but if you take a step back, don't a lot of the hitters and pitchers go see specialists in the wintertime?" Angels general manager Billy Eppler asked. "So aren't you just doing the same thing if you're hiring them to your organization? So it must not be that important to the player, right? So who is it important to?"

"I think players will listen to people that they think can help them, and pretty quickly they judge your intellect, what your base of knowledge is," Van Scoyoc said. "I had a lot of confidence in the things I believed from all the time I spent studying it and the information I had. I believed when I spoke to people I could convey that. And I think they had confidence to listen to me."

Jason Ochart -- the director of hitting at Driveline Baseball, an innovative, data-driven development program located about 20 miles south of Seattle -- has noticed an acceleration in innovative thinking from teams this offseason.

He sees a need for more of it.

Ochart believes that traditional batting practice, which consists of soft tosses from 40 feet away, is basically useless for hitters. He thinks teams should instead utilize high-velocity pitching machines, some of which can now be programmed to replicate major league pitches.

He sees room for growth with regards to game-planning, perhaps by cross-referencing hitter heat maps with pitcher tendencies to carve out specific attack plans for each plate appearance. He called vision training, a form of perceptual learning intended to improve the ability to process what is seen, "the next frontier" in run creation.

Ochart also predicts that more value will once again be placed on hitters who don't strike out and can't be shifted on, citing Michael Brantley, who recently signed a two-year, $32 million contract with the Houston Astros.

The modern-day approach, of selling out with two strikes and lifting every pitch, might be fading.

"Hitting shifted, and guys started to do that, and they started to swing up and try to hit the ball high and far, and got rid of two-strike approaches and lengthened their swings and stuff like that, and then pitching combated by throwing harder, throwing higher fastballs, and getting more swing and misses," said Ochart, who recently accepted a job as a consultant for a major league team.

"I think maybe the pendulum swung a little too far, and it might swing back in the other direction."