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Early returns on Matt Adams and the shift

Teams increasingly used the shift last season against Matt Adams last season, causing some concern he would not hit as well in 2014 without making adjustments. It is too early to tell if Adams' results are sustainable, but early signs are encouraging.

If he gets more singles to the left side, is he Big Miracle Whip?
If he gets more singles to the left side, is he Big Miracle Whip?
Justin K. Aller

Matt Adams, like many other power-hitting lefties, sees an infield shift almost every time he comes to the plate. He is a pull hitter, hitting almost all of his home runs to right and right-center. As a result, most of his non-home runs head to that side of the field as well causing teams to place three infielders between first and second base. While this alignment does not affect Adams' power, it brings down the number of hits on ground balls. As a hit-first first baseman, a healthy dip in average can turn him from above-average hitting first baseman to a below average hitting first baseman and see him replaced in the everyday lineup. At this stage of the season, it is very difficult to gauge whether Adams has made positive adjustments or has simply been the beneficiary of luck, but he has performed well in his first week.

During the offseason, Ben wrote about Adams and the shift and concluded with this:

If the Cardinals' competition on any given day elects to deploy an extreme defensive shift against the lefthanded slugger, there are two ways he has shown he can beat it: (1) driving the ball a long way, and (2) hitting the ball to the opposite field. In 2014, he'll have to do both to be successful.

Combining one and two from above is a difficult proposition for hitters, which is probably the reason most players ignore the shift. To hit the ball to the left side of the infield, the hitter has to wait a little bit longer on the pitch and use a shorter swing. This generally takes away much of the power a hitter uses. For Adams to beat the shift on ground balls, he has to minimize his most useful skill, power. For a good mix in Adams' hit chart, flyballs and liners should still be going to right field to show he is still pulling the ball with power while the grounders should be heading to the left side of the infield with more frequency. Here is Adams' spray chart from last season.

Source: FanGraphs

As shown by his home runs, Adams uses power to right to do a lot of damage. The gigantic cluster of ground balls to the right side of the infield shows why the shift has been effective against him. In the first half of 2013, Adams had a BABIP of.368. While that number was probably unsustainable regardless of the shift, when that number dropped to .308 in the second half, it raised some concerns. The shift played into those concerns, as did increased exposure against left-handed pitchers as well as increased exposure in general for a young player without much experience against major league pitching. Because Adams strikes out as much as he does, 25.3% of the time thus far in his career, his BABIP can cause large swings in his batting average. As he is not a huge walker, 6.9% career walk rate, he needs a decent batting average to keep his on-base percentage up. Hitting the occasional ball to the left side of the infield as long as he does not lose his power would keep Adams as a well-above average hitter.

Adams has logged just 24 plate appearance is 2014, but he has beaten this shift on multiple occasions already. While not against the shift every time last year, Adams had just fifteen opposite field hits in 2013. He already has five this season. With two walks and six strikeouts, he has hit the ball in play this season only 16 times so it is much too early to determine if Adams has found a way to beat the shift consistently, but the early signs are positive. Using the splits data from Fangraphs, Adams has hit five ground balls this season. Three of those went to the left side of the infield, all hits including a double. He made an out both times he hit a grounder to the right side. He also has two more hits in five at bats going to left side.

While beating the shift is good, it is important to do so without sacrificing power. As Ben noted in his previous post on Adams, when Adams pulled the ball in 2013 he got a hit more than half the time and slugged over 1.000. While Adams has not had that level of success pulling the ball this season, there is nothing to be alarmed about at this point in the season. In eight plate appearances hitting the ball to left or center Adams has two hits, including a double. He is still trying to pull the ball, which is necessary for him to be an effective hitter.

The best case for Adams is not to beat the shift all season long. The best case would be to beat the shift enough so that teams no longer employ the shift against him. With the shift on, he can be very successful dumping the ball down the left side of the field, but it limits his power. If he can focus exclusively on pitches to drive to center and right field, he can maximize his power. Adams should not try to beat the shift by going opposite field every time he comes to the plate, but if he does it enough, he can avoid prolonged slumps and keep himself in the lineup without having to go deep every time.