Houston Chronicle

Hinch committed to his shifty maneuver

Manager perfectly willing to concede a bunt hit to Gallo

- By Hunter Atkins hunter.atkins@chron.com twitter.com/hunteratki­ns35

ARLINGTON — Lefthanded slugger Joey Gallo, one of baseball’s most frequent pull hitters and home run threats, stared out from the batter’s box at the audacity of the Astros. A forest of defenders bloomed in the right-field grass.

Teams began shifting pullheavy lefthanded hitters with regularity in 2012. Voluminous data since then has influenced what Rangers manager Jeff Banister called “severe shifts.”

During a four-game series between the Rangers and Astros at Globe Life Park, Banister watched his counterpar­t over the weekend, manager A.J. Hinch, more than double the number of men in the outfield to defend Gallo.

Gallo either strikes out or homers in nearly half of his at-bats. His 94 strikeouts lead the majors, and his 17 home runs rank in the top nine.

Fielders cannot defend one of his mammoth dingers, but his spray chart of balls in play reveals a littering to the right side of the field.

Teams have shifted to defend Gallo more than any other player. He has seen shifts in 87.3 percent of his plate appearance­s, according to Baseball Savant.

When the Astros and Rangers competed on opening day, Hinch captured attention for relocating third baseman Alex Bregman into left field for Gallo’s first atbat. Hinch looked like a genius when Gallo proceeded to fly out to Bregman.

Hinch scrapped that configurat­ion this time around for something that appeared bolder but was specified even more to Gallo’s tendencies.

Hinch shaded outfielder­s toward the right-field line and arranged the four infielders into an isosceles trapezoid that spanned shallow right. Aside from the catcher and pitcher, the defenders nearest to Gallo were Bregman, who stood to the right of second base, and first baseman Yuli Gurriel. Bregman and Gurriel played so deep that their heels touched the outfield grass. Several feet behind them, second baseman Jose Altuve and shortstop Marwin Gonzalez formed an even line of defense.

Hinch sent a clear message to Banister and Gallo: Beat that.

Gallo had 14 plate appearance­s in the series. He walked thrice, struck out seven times and put four balls in play.

He had one hit. It symbolized both a victory and a concession.

With Friday’s game close but firmly in Justin Verlander’s control, Gallo watched the Astros vacate the left side of the field.

“I have to try something,” Gallo thought, according to a televised interview he gave reporters after the game.

Gallo, a man with enough power to blast a baseball 490 feet, did the importable: He laid down a bunt single.

Bregman scurried to retrieve the fast-rolling ground ball where he normally would have fielded it. Verlander looked miffed. The crowd of nearly 32,000 rejoiced.

“I happened to lay a pretty perfect bunt down, but obviously, the situation dictates it,” Gallo said. “If you're down 10 runs, you're not bunting.” Banister called it “beautiful.” The Astros won 7-3, but the bunt still stung a bit for Bregman and Verlander.

“He can hit the ball farther than anybody in the game, but it’s a free hit,” Bregman said. “That’s a free one right there. My defensive WAR gets to wear it.”

“Bunting is part of the game,” Verlander said with a shrug, uncharmed by the novelty. “That made me work harder. Maybe it cost me another inning.”

Verlander said he would rather the Rangers “work for a base hit the old-fashioned way.”

Baseball set a record for the fewest bunts last season. But in an era driven by the mathematic­al efficiency of totaling as many bases as possible with one swing, Verlander deemed Gallo an innovator.

Hinch, however, was satisfied. It mattered little that Gallo executed the bunt. Hinch wins the bigger battle when he can keep a power hitter to first base.

“That's why we give it to him,” Hinch said. “He can bunt as much as he wants.

“Maybe I risk too much by over-shifting, but if I get the next guy out or I have a great matchup for the next guy, I win. I got you to hit a single, and I got the next guy behind you, who doesn't hit this guy very well.”

Banister admired the bunt, but he did not glorify it. He understand­s the psychologi­cal war that Hinch and other teams are waging with Gallo.

“Shifts were not employed to always take away the hits,” Banister said. “Shifts came into play because we’ve collected more data and we’ve seen hitters progressiv­ely stay in their power stroke. You go to the shift, and then all of the sudden he goes, ‘Oh, let me do something I don't do normally,’ and that's what (the opponent wants) them to do.”

Anything that makes a hitter question his strength will make him weaker.

Sluggers remain resistant to bunting for multiple reasons: It is difficult against elite pitches, such as Verlander’s slider or Charlie Morton’s 97 mph sinker; power numbers help players earn more valuable contracts; fans do not want to see the best players drop multiple bunts a game; and, as Hinch said, “It’s not a sexy play; it's not a machismo play.”

Gallo has seen 3,953 pitches in his career. He has turned three of them into bunts. His only other bunt hit against the shift was on April 25.

“For outfield grass flies, I’d put nine guys out there if I could,” Hinch said with a smirk. “But I can’t. One guy’s got to catch.”

 ?? Karen Warren / Houston Chronicle ?? Alex Bregman originally found himself in left field as part of the Astros’ shift against the Rangers’ Joey Gallo this season, but A.J. Hinch now deploys him just to the right of second base at the lip of the outfield, as seen here in a May series at...
Karen Warren / Houston Chronicle Alex Bregman originally found himself in left field as part of the Astros’ shift against the Rangers’ Joey Gallo this season, but A.J. Hinch now deploys him just to the right of second base at the lip of the outfield, as seen here in a May series at...

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