It’s All Been Done Before: Defensive Shifts and Taking Walks

Ah, sportswriters.

Quote 1: “You must admit that he never has done anything in the big games, the clutch games down the stretch. … You may say it is coincidence, but I say he is up there waiting for the base on balls. … Waiting for the perfect pitch. Not looking to knock ANYTHING out of the park. … Waiting for the sucker pitch that never comes … And, in the process, making an uninspiring ballplayer of himself.”

Quote 2: “[The defensive shift] is based on the assumption that he either can’t or won’t bunt the ball or pop it into leftfield; that he is a certain rightfield hitter who, pitched to with careful correctness, will hit into the milling mob of men who hurry to that sector when he steps to the plate. Some of the unthinking ones construe this as a compliment to the hitting greatness of [the hitter]. It is no such thing. It is a sneer at his inability to hit successfully, except to one particular part of the lawn. It is a challenge, not to hit the ball where they are, but where they ain’t, and he has been pitifully unable to cope with that challenge.”

Who are we talking about? That first one must be Joey Votto, right? And the second one, maybe Ryan Howard or David Ortiz?

No, those are both quotes from “The Colonel” Dave Egan of the Boston Record, talking about Ted Williams. In 1946.

I recently finished reading Leigh Montville’s outstanding biography of Willams, entitled “Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero.” The more I read about baseball history, the more I realize that nothing is really new. Other than the slightly archaic language, those quotes above could have been written yesterday by any number of current sportswriters.

Yes, defenses are shifting more now than ever, but to hear people talk you’d think the concept had just been invented. When I was a kid playing Little League, a headfirst slide was called a “Pete Rose” and playing three infielders on the right side of the infield was called a “Willie McCovey Shift.” But even before McCovey, it was called the “Ted Williams Shift,” or sometimes the “Lou Boudreau Shift” after the Indians manager who employed it most often against Williams.

Votto is the latest whipping boy of the “he needs to swing more often” club, but Williams pre-dated him by nearly 70 years.

Take a second and click on Williams’s linked name above. It will take you to his player page at Baseball-Reference. Sometimes when I’m sad, I will go look at Ted Williams’s Baseball-Reference page, and it makes me feel better. The only player with more bold print in his B-R stats is Babe Ruth, who revolutionized the game. Williams was theoretically playing the same game as everyone else, but he was just doing it better.

The man who was “pitifully unable to cope with the challenge” of hitting into the shift led the American League in batting average six times, batted lower than .316 only once in 19 seasons, and finished with a career average of .344.  The man who made “an uninspiring ballplayer of himself” with his refusal to hit home runs or drive in runners hit 521 homers despite missing three full seasons and most of two others to military service, and he has the eighth-best RBI per plate appearance ratio in MLB history.

The game of baseball has been played in something close to its current form for well over 100 years. We often see things that we’ve never seen before, but we rarely see things that no one has ever seen before. And that includes criticisms of players, which get recycled like a beer bottle in Portland. Of course, just because a player receives the same criticism as the best pure hitter in baseball history doesn’t mean the criticism isn’t valid, but it sure should make us stop and think.

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