By Greg Hudson
I don’t know: third base!
It’s a classic line from a classic comedy routine by Abbott and Costello. It’s also a question that the Los Angeles Dodgers will be asking themselves between now and Opening Day next season.
Losing a winner-take-all game is tough. Losing it in front of your home fans is tougher still. Losing it thanks in large part to a runner going first-to-third on a walk? Inconceivable.
And yet, as New York Mets first baseman Lucas Duda, a power-hitting lefty slugger, took ball four and trotted to first base, teammate Daniel Murphy seized the moment: and won the series.
It was the top of the fourth inning in the decisive game five of the National League Division series. After allowing a run in the top of the first on a triple off the bat of Murphy, the Dodgers responded with a pair of runs in the home half of the inning and led 2-1 as Duda came to the plate with one out and a runner on first.
The Dodgers, like most other teams the Mets have faced this season, had pulled a shift against Duda, leaving shortstop Corey Seager in his position and shifting third baseman Justin Turner to fill the hole between first and second, cutting down on the chance that pull-hitting Duda could turn on a pitch and pull it through the right side for a hit. The entire purpose of the shift in that situation was to limit the likelihood that Murphy, who stood on first base after singling to lead off the frame, would reach third on a hit by Duda.
But Duda turned in a good at-bat against Dodgers’ Cy Young candidate Zach Grienke, and held his swing on a 3-1 offering that missed low. After checking with the home plate umpire, Duda, trotted down to first and Murphy slowly jogged to second.
Perhaps the Dodgers had never practiced what to do if a pitcher walks a hitter with a shift on. Perhaps Turner, who first made a name for himself playing second base for the Mets in 2011, wasn’t familiar with the schematics. Perhaps Grienke was supposed to move off the mound to cover third while waiting for Turner to return to the hot corner, and keep Murphy at second base. Perhaps the Dodgers forgot there was a runner on.
Regardless of the specific conditions of the Dodgers’ mentality at the time, when Murphy approached second base, he took a glance over toward third base coach Tim Tueffel, and saw only Tueffel standing there. Just before reaching second, he broke into a sprint and within four seconds was sliding safely into third: long before Grienke could cover the bag and with Turner still on the right side of the infield.
It was a decisive moment in the game – as Murphy would score the tying run on a sacrifice fly a batter later and then capped off a monster night with a go-ahead home run in the sixth that would send the Mets to the National League Championship Series – and may prove to be a decisive moment in baseball strategy.
The infield shift has been a practice in baseball for nearly 90 years, beginning in the 1920s against lefty slugger Cy WIlliams. The practice was again employed in the 1940s against Hall of Famer Ted Williams, but these uses were designed more for psychological impact on the hitter than for actual defensive purpose.
But as metrics and statistics tracking advanced over the decades, spray charts helped teams track the hit location of their opponents, and lefty power hitters who pull the ball to the right side of the infield suddenly found themselves facing an unusual dilemma: an extra infielder on the right side of the infield.
And to a certain extent, the strategy has been effective. Shifting against a power hitter can lower his batting average by between 30 and 50 points, and by extension can save a team several runs over the course of a season.
But the shift is inherently risky. A hitter who squibs a ball softly toward third base can end up with a double if he has decent speed, as neither the shortstop nor left fielder are in position to field the ball quickly. More importantly, with runners on base, it leaves third base totally exposed.
And that fact has been exploited twice in very important postseason games in the past decade. In 2009, with the score tied in the top of the ninth inning of game four of the World Series between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, Johnny Damon stole second base and simply carried on all the way to third and went on to score what would be the winning run to give the Yankees a 3-1 series lead.
Then on Thursday in Los Angeles, Murphy’s first-to-third advance on a walk again highlights the weakness in the shift. It can be proven effective against hitters who pull the ball, but the risk of employing the stratagem with runners on base may result in a new shift: away from pulling an infielder away from third base unless the bases are empty.
Some will question the Mets’ merit in winning the series after benefitting from such a tactical blunder. Some will question whether the Dodgers can continue to consider themselves an elite organization after failing to advance past the divisional round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Others will question whether either the Mets or their NLCS opponents, the Chicago Cubs, can beat either American League candidate in the World Series. But there’s a more urgent question that still needs to be answered.
Who exactly IS on third?