It feels like an annual tradition at this point, so let's talk about bunting vs. the shift. During yesterday's Opening Day game between the Rangers and the Astros, the Astros flashed a very different look at Rangers' first baseman Joey Gallo, in which third baseman Alex Bregman went to left field to play as a fourth outfielder, while shortstop Carlos Correa stood above second and second baseman Jose Altuve played in shallow right.
In essence, the Astros were showing four and a half outfielders to Gallo (that's not an Altuve is short joke, he was just playing really shallow in right). The Rangers lost 4-1, and Gallo went 0 for 4 with a strikeout and three fly-outs.
In 2017, Gallo batted .209 with 41 home runs. So now, everyone is asking the question that every power hitter hates: "Why don't you just bunt?"
"I'm sure I'll try to lay one down here and there, but it's not like I've been a master bunter all my life," Gallo said, via The Star-Telegram. "Everyone sees the left side of the infield and says, 'Just bunt it. Just bunt it.' It's not that simple."
The reason you don't have Gallo bunt is simple.
First: All of the shifting in the world won't take away a home run. If Jeff Banister had Gallo bunt every time he took the plate, A.J. Hinch doesn't have to worry about that part of the lineup in the same way. Batting Gallo second is as cute as you're going to see Banister get with his best power hitter. Gallo had a .333 OBP last season, not to mention .537 slugging. He had a lot of four-base at-bats. So when you take a pretty bad batting average and mix it with solid slugging, you know where your guy's forte lies.
Second: When's the last time anyone saw Gallo bunt? Sure he probably does it in batting practice, but that's more "get your two out of the way so we can get to the good stuff." When you're taking BP, you treat guys like Gallo differently. He could foul off four in a row, but if you're a manager you eventually shrug and go "good enough." It's not the same as the guy batting first or sixth. With a batter like Gallo, you want him to do what he's good at. The people asking about this are likely the same people asking why Aroldis Chapman doesn't start a game in emergencies. It's not what they're trained to do.
Third: The guy on the mound matters -- something that Gallo himself acknowledged. Against Justin Verlander isn't where you start trying to move out of your comfort zone. "It's not that easy against a guy who is throwing 107 with a ton of movement like Verlander. I don't want to come out of my game to do it. If I bunt and don't reach, it's like 'what the hell are you doing?' It's kind of a lose-lose situation," he said, per SportsDay.
Now, there is one major argument for Gallo improving: Bunting against the shift does work for those that do it (and can lay it down). "The Shift" author Russell Carlton tweeted yesterday that batters bunting against shifts has a success rate of 58.1 percent, with the important caveat that the ball is put in-play in fair territory. If the Rangers want to play those odds, the onus will fall on Banister and Rangers' hitting coach Anthony Iapoce to get Gallo comfortable with laying it down. Until then, you're sacrificing at-bats... And not in the good sacrifice bunt way.
The bottom line, however, is simple: Joey Gallo doesn't like bunting, and the Rangers don't like Joey Gallo bunting. The shift has become part of baseball. The Cubs used it so much that Anthony Rizzo became briefly playable as a second baseman in fantasy last season. But it became part of baseball because it's effective. If guys like Gallo dropped the barrel every time a team cleared the left side, we would see the shift die.
Which is why, moving forward, we may see Banister have Gallo lay down one or two, just to keep defenses honest. But the first step is probably moving Gallo to third or fourth in the order so that the Rangers can have some baserunners on for him. Batting Gallo second puts a lot of extra pressure on a career .201 hitter. If he gets some guys on base ahead of him, that could break the ice. Of course, even in yesterday's game, he left three on base in his trips to the plate. But you want a guy like Gallo to have people on-base to drive in.
To break it down, if you replace the word "job" with the word "bunt," this is a pretty accurate representation of Gallo.
The Rangers will need to make a change. That particular shift is a whole new level of disrespect. But it will take some work between Gallo and Iapoce to make that happen. Just under 44 percent of Gallo's hits in 2017 were homers. It's the key part of his game. Asking him to change it is like asking Andrew Miller to throw more change-ups. And those days didn't go well for Miller either.