It is often said that baseball is a game of adjustments — and this is so true. Taking it a step further, baseball is an ever-evolving game of adjustments.
We see it in the cases of individual players. Take Austin Riley, the Atlanta Braves rookie, home run-hitting sensation from Olive Branch. Riley who played part of 2018 with the Class AA Mississippi Braves and then began this season at AAA Gwinnett, was promoted to Atlanta in mid-May. After hitting a whopping 15 home runs in just 37 games with Gwinnett, Riley has pounded 14 more homers in just 43 Major League games at this writing.
Do the math. That’s 29 home runs in just 80 games, which is roughly half a season. The strapping, 6-foot-3, 220-pound Riley doesn’t just hit homers, he hits tape-measure blasts. You could move the fences back 50 feet and many of his home runs would still clear with ease.
That doesn’t mean that his month and a half hasn’t been one of adjustments. First off, he has adjusted from his normal position of third base to playing left field. This is no minor adjustment, and often a change of positions such as this can cause problems at the plate. The problem becomes one of concentration and some guys just can’t concentrate on so much at once.
Riley has handled it well. He plays an adequate left field. And he still hits missiles. But Riley has had to adjust at the plate, nevertheless. If you have a weakness, Major League pitchers will find it. And the pitchers honed in quickly that Riley’s most glaring weakness was breaking balls down and away, which is a weakness for so many. Dale Murphy, the former Braves star, probably still has nightmares about the steady diet of breaking balls down and away that caused his career numbers to dwindle to the point where his ending batting average finished at .265. Murphy just couldn’t lay off the breaking pitch away. He chased it. He flailed after it. And he so often missed badly. It was painful to watch — a former superstar helpless against pitches far off the plate and in the dirt.
Riley began to get the same pitch diet — and to a degree still does. They’ll bust him high, out of the strike zone with fast balls, and then try to get him to chase breaking stuff away. But a let a pitcher miss his spot — get that fast ball too low into the strike zone or hang that breaking pitch — and Riley is likely to hit the ball into the next county.
To a degree, Riley has adjusted. Yes, he has still fanned 58 times in 165 at bats — and that’s a lot — but he seems to be learning to lay off that breaking ball away. He is in the process of becoming a more disciplined hitter. It’s a constant process. This won’t be the last adjustment Riley has to make. He’ll adjust to pitchers, they’ll adjust to him, and then he will have to adjust again. It never ends.
But let’s ponder a bigger adjustment we are seeing these days in Major League Baseball — and, to a degree, in college baseball as well.
I am writing about the constant shifting of defensive alignment we now see, where teams overload the infield to one side or the other, daring power hitters to try to hit the ball the other way.
Take a guy like the Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, another former Mississippi Brave. As this is written, Freeman leads the Braves and is seventh in the National League with 22 home runs. Freeman also has banged out 18 doubles and two triples and is hitting .312.
So, usually when Freeman comes to bat, the second baseman moves a few feet to his left and and far back onto the outfield grass from his normal position. The shortstop moves over to play closer to the normal second base position than shortstop. And the third baseman is left to cover the entire left side of the infield. We saw this a lot in college baseball this past season, particularly in the SEC.
The defense is daring the hitter to go the other way. What would normally be a ground ball to the shortstop becomes a base hit. Opposing managers would just as soon see Freeman dribble that single to left than hit one into second deck in right.
But many in baseball decry the constant shifting. Power hitters hate it. There has been at least some talk of a rule to ban it. But I don’t think you’ll see a change until batters start hitting to the opposite field or bunting to beat the shift. Beat it enough, they’ll quit shifting.