The game of baseball has provided its fans with an abundance of quotes, phrases and mottos over the years. Most of these sayings meet the criteria for a decent laugh or smirk at the very least, while others qualify as pure gold.
One particular slogan that stuck with me over the years, was the motto embraced by former Baltimore, Brooklyn and New York outfielder William “Wee Willie” Keeler, who famously said, “Hit ‘em where they ain’t.”
How did these words of wisdom work for “Wee Willie?” During his playing days between 1892-1910, Keeler (a left-handed hitter) produced a .341 career batting average, collected 2,932 hits and won consecutive NL batting titles in 1897-98.
The Brooklyn, New York native was notoriously difficult to strike out. To this day, Keeler still holds the MLB record for at bat-to-strikeout ratio. He was considered one of the premiere contact hitters during his playing days, often referred to as the “Dead Ball Era.” Keeler was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939 with 76% of the vote, his fourth year on the ballot.
“Wee Willie’s” famous quote was taken nearly 100 years before I was born. So, I’m not going to pretend to understand what the game was like more than a century ago; however, it’s interesting to consider whether or not that philosophy works in 2019, especially considering the recent trend of defensive shifts.
In the 2019 Major League Baseball regular season there were a total of 184,558 total plate appearances, and during 47,188 of those at-bats, respective MLB defense’s featured a defense shift. On average, MLB teams used a shift 25.6% of the time during the regular season.
The Los Angeles Dodgers utilized the shift most frequently during the 2019 season, moving their defenders around 50.6% of the time. The Chicago Cubs used the defensive shift the least - 12.7%.
The reason behind a team implementing a defensive shift is to expose a weakness or a tendency in a player’s metrics. Initially this tactic was used to take advantage of left-handed hitters' tendencies to pull the ball to the right-side. However, as time goes on, these shifts are getting more creative and individualized.
So considering the popularity of the “defensive shift movement” in the modern game - is it possible to be successful with a “Hit ‘em where they ain’t” mentality? The obvious answer is no, because if it were that easy to hit the ball to a desired location, we wouldn’t be experiencing this modern day trend of the defensive shift.
Hitting a moving ball is arguably the most difficult task in all of sports. Major League ballplayers are facing pitchers who throw 100+ MPH and feature a number of secondary pitches that dip, dive and duck bats in all directions. Making solid contact is beyond challenging, so trying to do so in a particular direction - nearly impossible.
However, this doesn’t mean a hitter can’t beat the shift. As we mentioned in the article, “The Lost Art of the Bunt Base Hit,” the ability to lay down a variety of bunts is more important than ever! For players like Brett Gardner of the New York Yankees, who have a little “small ball” up their sleeve, there is no better time to utilize those skills. Bunting or even “slap bunting” is a realistic way to beat the shift; however, taking a full-swing and hitting the ball to a desired location without regard of pitch type, speed or location - Good Luck.
Hitters looking to model their game after Hall of Famer “Wee Willie” Keeler might want to modify that philosophy to - "Bunt 'em where they ain't!" If a player strives to make contact, hit it hard and in a particular direction - chances are they will be a twisted mess - metaphorically and literally speaking.
The best approach a hitter can take in the batter’s box is to “hit the ball where it’s pitched” - whether that be inside, outside or down main street. This method is the most organic approach to hitting, allowing a hitter to simplify their thoughts and let their talents and instincts take over.