There are those who walk among us that believe Major League Baseball should legislate where on the field players may position themselves. I often believe that these people are the first group of kids that grew up believing you get a ribbon for participating no matter how bad you are. They were coddled to believe that everything would be easy and life would never throw you a curve. As a matter of fact, they probably would be in favor of outlawing the curve in baseball, because it’s just so darn hard to hit.
These people believe that the deck should never be stacked against you. They believe that things should come easy and they’re not very inclined to learn a way to work around something.
Mitch Walding isn’t one of those people. The left-handed hitting 25-year old faces the shift every time he steps to the plate. He’s got the power to take the ball out of the park and could have elected to just swing away and beat the shift by hitting the ball out to right field. It would have killed his batting average and on-base percentage but he could pound his chest – at least on occasion – and insist that he beat the shift.
Instead, he found another way.
“It gets frustrating hitting into the shift so I just started to look for pitches that I could drive the other way and they turned into base-hits,” said Walding after a recent game with Lehigh Valley. “Naturally, if I get a pitch I can pull and hit hard and maybe take out I’m going to go after it, but I’ve worked at going the other way and being patient enough to take what they’re going to give me.”
Three games in a row, teams shifted against Walding and three games in a row, he went the other way for a base-hit. In the first of those three games, the hit drove in two runs in the bottom of the ninth to give Lehigh Valley an 8-7 win over Buffalo as the two teams battled for the top spot in the IL North Division. The next two nights, Walding beat the shift against Pawtucket with singles that would have normally been routing groundballs.
Lehigh Valley hitting coach Sal Rende knows the shift can be frustrating but he also knows that not every hitter can learn to beat the shift by going the other way.
“Certain guys – like Walding – can go up there and hit the ball away from the shift; it’s kind of a lost art,” said Rende. “Most guys just go up there and try to hit it hard. Certain hitters worry about it too much because they hit a ball hard and they hit it right to the guy playing 25-feet into right field.”
Rende tried to teach Maikel Franco to go the other way when they were shifting him during his time with Lehigh Valley. It worked temporarily but the right-handed hitting Franco has struggled to keep that approach at times. Fortunately, he doesn’t get shifted as much in the majors as he did in minor league ball.
“I remember in Indianapolis, they were shifting him hard and I told him ‘they’re throwing you sliders away.’ All of a sudden the next day he hit a ball right where the second baseman should have been for a base-hit and then he did it again and kept doing it and guess what? They quit shifting him,” said Rende.
“You do have to realize that some pitchers aren’t going to give you anything that you can take the other way,” noted Walding. “You can get yourself into trouble if you look to inside-out pitches and change your approach. Your approach just has to be that you’re going to take what they give you and if there’s something you can take the other way, even if it’s not something you can take out of the park, you just have to be willing to go that way and take the single.”
Rende believes that the coaching approach shouldn’t change much either when teams start shifting on a player. He stresses always looking to take what you can get in any situation.
“I don’t really tell them anything,” said Rende. “You try to get them to hit the pitch where it’s pitched. If they’re pitching you one way, they’re probably playing you that way.”
Walding has had some ups and downs this season but got to taste the majors for the first time when he was called up to replace Pedro Florimon who broke a bone in his foot. Walding had six plate appearances and went away having struck out in every one of them. He got a seventh plate appearance against St. Louis on Wednesday and struck out again. Seven plate appearances, seven strikeouts. Walding left Lehigh Valley with an 0-for-8 streak, but prior to that had put together a 7-for-18 (.389) streak with one home run and seven RBI.
“Obviously, the results that I wanted weren’t there when I went up,” admitted Walding. “Next time, I’ll know what to expect and should be able to settle in a little bit. I believe I can play at that level and have a good major league career, that hasn’t changed.”