Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Up until his final game-winning at bat on Sunday, Ryan Howard had a really rough weekend going in Arizona.
In the four-game series against the Diamondbacks, Howard went 1 for 18 with 9 strikeouts. That’s pretty bad. And one of the things that frustrated Howard most was an extreme shift that was used against him by D-Backs manager Kirk Gibson, one in which Gibson shifted his entire infield defense around to the right-hand side of the diamond with no one on base. He even put his second baseman in short right field.
And, unsurprisingly, the shift worked. As it always does. Take a look at this example from Saturday night’s game.
Howard put a great swing on a ball and ripped it into right field. For anyone else in baseball, that’s a clean base hit. Instead, Howard was thrown out at first (the fact that you can time Howard’s 40-yard dash with a sun dial didn’t help, either).
Understandably, Howard was frustrated, as evidenced by his comments after the game on Saturday, about said shift.
"“I’m not talking about shifts. There’s no need to talk about shifts. A shift is a shift is a shift. I got no comment on it.”"
Oooooookay. Moving on, then.
Of course, what Howard and the Phillies don’t seem to realize is that there is an easy way to get teams to stop playing such an extreme shift against him.
Hit the ball to the left side of the baseball diamond. You know, just once in a while. For kicks.
Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Hilderbrand-USA TODAY Sports Images
You see, there are two sides to every baseball field. There’s a right side, where Howard normally hits the baseball and is usually defended by a first baseman and a second baseman. There is also a LEFT side of the diamond, where Howard never hits the ball and where a shortstop and third baseman usually play defense.
That’s FOUR defenders, TWO on EACH SIDE of the diamond.
However, this is not something Howard usually sees, unless there are runners on base, which is perhaps one reason why Howard seems to hit so much better with runners in scoring position. When ducks are on the pond, teams have to shift away from what works against Ryan, leaving more holes on the right side of the field, where he hits the ball exclusively.
If Howard is truly frustrated by the shift, and if he truly is sick and tired of seeing would-be base hits into right field become 4-3 put-outs, there IS something he can do about it.
He can learn how to bunt.
Even with his glaciar-like speed, if Howard learned how to push bunt the ball within 15 feet of the third base line, and successfully did it two or three times a month, that could force teams to play him more honestly.
You know, maybe they’d put at least one warm body with a glove to the left of the second base bag.
Or, if Howard learned to even hit routine ground balls to the would-be shortstop or would-be third baseman, he would have a much easier time getting hits on balls hit in his more natural locations. He can ask Ben Revere for advice on how to do that (sorry, Ben!).
(The chart below shows Ryan Howard’s spray chart from the beginning of March through May 10. It’s easy to see why teams use the shift on him.)
Of course, Ryan Howard is a power hitter. He is paid to hit for extra bases and drive in runs. I understand this fact and wholeheartedly support him hitting doubles and home runs. That would be preferable.
But when there’s no one on base and it’s not a situation late in a game where Howard could tie the game with a potential homer, what’s the harm in him laying down a successful bunt? And what’s the harm in him trying to hit a weak grounder to the left side of the diamond and picking up a cheap hit?
Until Ryan learns to do that, teams are going to play four infielders on the right side of the diamond. Potential base hits are going to die. And he’s going to get frustrated.
Beating the shift is going to take a “shift” in philosophy for Ryan Howard. He’s going to have to change his approach a bit.
Eventually, that change in philosophy will more allow him to be the player he really wants to be, thereby decreasing his frustration levels and increasing his batting average.
Sometimes, you have to give a little in order to get a lot.