The Boudreau Shift
On July 14, 1946, Ted Williams seemed utterly invincible. He WAS in many ways invincible as as hitter, but in the middle of that 1946 season there was still reason to believe that he was so good he might actually break baseball. Remember that in 1941, he had become the first American League hitter since the twenties to hit .400. In 1942, even while distracted by his draft status (and the relentless criticism that crashed down on him when he applied for a deferment), he won the Triple Crown. And then he went to war.
When he came back in ’46, he was better than ever. He homered his first day back and was hitting .427 in early May. At that moment, there seemed no limit to his talent. Could he hit .500? Maybe. Could he drive in 200 RBIs? Perhaps. Could he break Babe Ruth’s home run record? It was possible. Anything was possible with Williams. Paul Richards, the Tigers catcher and future White Sox and Orioles manager, was in favor of walking Ted Williams every single time he came to the plate; interestingly he was not in favor of INTENTIONALLY walking Williams but instead in favor of never throwing him a strike. He might get himself out swinging at bad pitches.
Most managers agreed that there wasn’t much percentage in throwing Ted Williams strikes. He walked 156 times in ;’46, 162 times the next year and again in 1949. Only Babe Ruth in 1923 had been walked so often.
In 1946, Williams couldn’t hit the Yankees (a temporary phase; he hit .345 and slugged .600 against the Bombers in his career), but he bashed the Indians, Tigers, Senators … and what he did against St. Louis was something a level above bashing; he would end up hitting .472/.624/.847 against the Browns in 100 plate appearances that year. If not for the Yankees, many writers guessed, Teddy Ballgame would be chasing .400 again.
The point is that The Kid was still NEW then. This was before his first (and only) World Series, before his 1947 Triple Crown, before he went to war again, before his war with the Boston media and fans really ignited, before his unfathomable 1957 season when he could barely walk and almost hit .400 anyway, before John Updike watched him hit a home run in his last time up and then disappear into the dugout without a wave. This was before he became Ted Williams, legend … at this point he could have become: “Ted Williams, destroyer of baseball as we know it.”
On July 14, the Red Sox played a doubleheader against Cleveland and promptly fell behind 5-0. Scores meant little that year to Boston — the Red Sox scored almost 100 more runs than any other team in the league.They were running away with the American League pennant, they had come in on a five-game winning streak, it was their season, and Williams made it clear that it was going to stay that way: He hit a grand slam in the third to tie the game. Then he homered again. Then he homered again. By the end of the that first game, he had four hits, scored four runs, drove in eight RBIs, and the Red Sox won the game 11-10. Then, first time up in the second game, Williams doubled and scored, the Red Sox took a 3-0 lead. Something desperate had to be done.
That’s when Lou Boudreau, in the spur of the moment, invented the shift. Well, he probably did not INVENT it; it was more like he revived it from the distant past. In a fun column in the Oakland newspaper, a writer quoted a conversation of some old-time baseball guys, a group that that included then Oakland Oaks manager Casey Stengel. One of the old-timers was Giants scout Hank DeBerry, and he said the shift had been used against the slugger Cy Williams. It was especially useful in the hitters paradise Baker Bowl, where Cy Williams routinely hit 60 or 70 points higher than anywhere else. “We used that same defense against Cy 25 years ago,” DeBerry said. “And it didn’t work any better than it does today against Ted Williams.”
That was a funny thing for DeBerry to say because, in that moment, he did not know how well the shift would work against Williams. Boudreau had only unveiled it a couple of days before. Second at bat of the second game, Boudreau put six guys on the right side of the field. He did not even play a shortstop — the only man on the left side of the field was Cleveland’s left fielder George Case, who stood about 20 feet behind where the shortstop would normally stand. Here’s how the Boudreau shift looked according to the Fleer Baseball Card company in 1959.
First time he saw the Boudreau shift, Ted Williams literally began to laugh. He promptly hit right into the teeth of it, as if playing along, and he was thrown out by Boudreau himself, who as shortstop was standing between the first and second baseman. The whole thing seemed a joke. “If teams start doing that against me, I’ll start hitting right-handed,” Williams said after the game. Well, everyone laughed. I’ve spent the last day or two reading sportswriters initial reactions to the shift; nobody seemed to take it seriously at all. Nobody seemed to buy it as a viable defense against a hitter as great as Williams. One of my favorite oolumns was Whitney Martin’s “Down the Sports Trail.” His conceit was that he wanted to come up with a nickname for the shift (“T-Formation” — T for Ted — and the “Boston I” were two of the more fun suggestions). The best part of the column, though, is the paragraph spent talking about what a field day a great hitter like Paul Waner (“who could drop a ball in a hat”) would have had with that shift. As it turns out, Waner would probably be more instrumental in helping Williams deal with the shift than anyone else.
Nobody could see it then. Heck, I don’t even think Boudreau himself saw it; I think he came up with the shift out of frustration and desperation. He did not know what else to do. But in the end, I think, the shift touched on three themes that sort of cut to the heart not only of baseball hitting but of sports and, not to get too deep, life.
Theme 1: Hitters find it very hard to change their core character.
Theme 2: Fans will react negatively when hitters can’t do something that looks easy.
Theme 3: Pride will cause a hitter to do self-destructive things.
You can probably replace “hitter” with just about anyone.
Theme 1 is the most basic part of the shift’s power. Ted Williams was a pull hitter. Period. Perhaps somewhere early in his development, Williams made a conscious effort to become a pull hitter … but I doubt it. He was a pull hitter. Well, he wanted to be a power hitter and in baseball — particularly in those days — power hitters pull the ball. This is still largely true but with the improvement in bats, the recent emphasis on working out, players do develop opposite field power. Players do crush long home runs the other way with some regularity. This was basically unheard of in Williams time.*
*Heck, I can remember in the 1980s — 40 years later — when Dale Murphy’s opposite field power was viewed as some sort of miracle.
Williams pulled the ball from childhood; I would contend that hitting style was embedded in him the way sense of humor is part of someone. If someone isn’t funny, someone isn’t funny. If someone’s a pull-hitter, someone’s a pull hitter. There might be a few adjustments that can be made, but character doesn’t fundamentally change. I think Boudreau just wanted to shake up Williams, give him a different look, maybe get him to change his approach. What Boudreau probably didn’t believe was this: To a large extent, Ted Williams could not change. His batting style, like his finger prints, were his own.
Theme 2 is a fascinating one for me … how does outside pressure affect what’s happening in the arena? People in sports say all the time that they are unaffected by fan pressure or media pressure or any other outside influences. People in sports say that … but I think they’re either kidding themselves or lying out loud. Outside pressure is so much more complicated than what people write on the Internet or say to talk radio hosts.
Outside pressure rains down in countless ways — it comes as criticism, as praise, as clues, as polite suggestion, as impolite suggestion, as confidently expressed nonsense, as bad ideas cloaked in the clothing of reasonableness. Outside pressure is everywhere and trying to shut it out still counts as being affected by it. People in sports often make counter-intuitive decisions to prove they are NOT succumbing to the pressure.
Nothing sparks more pressure in sports, I think, than a player or coach messing up something that LOOKS simple. When a player doesn’t step out of bounds to stop the clock … when a player on the winning team commits a foul in the final seconds when the clock should be running out … when a fielder sails a throw over the cutoff man in an obviously pointless attempt to score a runner who was going to score anyway … these things drive fans and columnists and talking heads daffy. There is this inner sense we have, I think, that while we may lack the athletic prowess or athleticism to do what these athletes do, we KNOW what to do. And seeing athletes make those mental mistakes sets us off like nothing else.
The genius of the Boudreau Shift is that it LOOKS easy to beat. The fielders are ALL OVER THERE. All you have to do is hit the ball OVER THERE INSTEAD. I mean seriously, this is TED BLEEPIN’ WILLIAMS we are talking about here. You telling me he can’t just hit the ball to the left side anytime he wants?
Only, he could not — not with regularity, not with force, not with that beautiful swing he had honed since childhood. He crowded the plate, and he challenged pitchers, and he pulled mistakes with ferocity. This was how he hit. The fans fury poured down on him every time he beat a futile ground ball to the loaded right side, something he did with regularity. Here is Baseball Reference’s list of ground ball outs hit by Williams in the 1950s — the data is incomplete, but it’s still illustrative:
First base: 478
Second base: 522
Third base: 53
There’s no guessing how many of those ground balls to short were caught on the right side of the diamond … point is every single time he hit futilely into the teeth of the shift, there was a reaction in the crowd. WHY DOESN’T HE JUST HIT THE BALL OVER THERE INSTEAD?
And this takes us to the Theme 3 — pride. Williams was hurt for the 1946 World Series — something he would never use an excuse — but he also flailed helplessly again a variation of the Boudreau Shift when they played the Cardinals. People called the St. Louis’ shift a “Dyer-gram” after Cardinals manager Eddie Dyer. The shift was not as extreme as Boudreau’s; it put a shortstop AND a left fielder on the left side of the diamond. In this way, it is similar to many of the shifts today.
But it still loaded Williams favored right side with fielders. And, without the strength to hit over the shift, Williams hit right into it. He grounded out to second and popped out to first in Game 1. Game 2 was worse. Williams went 0-4, grounding out to the right side, lining out to the right side, popping out to the right side. The Red Sox were shut out.
The third game was when everyone knew the shift was inside Ted Williams head. He was intentionally walked in the first inning (a good thing for the Red Sox because Rudy York followed with a home run). In the third, Williams came up with nobody on and two outs. He proceeded to bunt the ball toward third for a single. It was a smart baseball move. It was also, in the eyes of the writers and many fans, an admission of defeat. “WILLIAMS BUNTS” the papers screamed, as if that was the only story. Williams also struck out and lined to right after that, and everybody knew: He was entirely spooked by the shift.
He would be spooked for the rest of the series. He managed one single to right in the fourth game, one single to right in the fifth game, one single to center in Game 6. The rest were strikeouts and foul popouts and fruitless shots into the shift. A hitter needs balance. Williams had lost his. He was obviously some combination of stymied and embarrassed and angry. In Game 7, Williams hit four harmless fly balls of various lengths as he tried to maneuver the ball to open spaces. The Cardinals won the series but, more, had beaten Ted Williams in the most public way imaginable. That was Williams’ only World Series and it would be used by his critics for the rest of his career. Also, the shift would become Ted Williams’ constant companion.
John Updike estimated that the shift cost Williams, “perhaps 15 points of lifetime average.” Updike, like many, saw it as a choice Williams made: “Like Ruth before him, he bought the occasional home run at the cost of many directed singles — a calculated sacrifice certainly not, in the case of a hitter as average-minded as Williams, entirely selfish.”
I’m not sure it was a choice, though. Williams did try to adjust somewhat with the help of Waner. He backed off the plate some, and he did hit a few more balls the other way. But not many. He could not stop being Ted Williams. If he needed a reason to pound balls the other way, he had one long before Boudreau shifted. After all, in left field at Fenway Park stands the greatest incentive for lefty opposite field hitting there is: The Green Monster. The wall made Wade Boggs a star and made Bill Mueller a batting champ. Williams, though, didn’t take much advantage of the Green Monster. He hit like he hit.
Beyond that, I doubt the shift took away 15 points of batting average from him or anything like it. It probably didn’t take away any points in the long run. From 1939-1946, Williams was a .353 hitter. From 1947 to 1957 — even with his career again interrupted by war and with his body aging — he was a .348 hitter. The shift maybe have had its subtle effects on his hitting. I suspect it had a much larger effect on his psyche and on the story people told about him.
These days, every team is shifting, but it’s much more scientific than Boudreau’s flooding of the diamond’s right side. The more data teams can digest, the more they will know about where a hitter is likely to hit the ball. I expect defensive alignments to become much more complicated over time. The shifts are impacting the game. With batters striking out more than ever and with pitchers throwing harder than ever and with fielders set up in hitters favorite places, it’s a rough time for offense in baseball. And it likely will be until hitters make their own adjustments. But, hey, you know, in time hitters will adjust. It’s baseball. Things will shift.