Salty working on bunting against shift

Salty working on bunting against shift

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers had to do something with the other half of the simulated game Anibal Sanchez pitched in Wednesday morning. They turned it into bunting practice for Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Yes, backup-catching candidate Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

One by one, he dropped bunts toward the third-base side. Some petered out in front of the mound. Some swerved foul. One rolled down the line and kicked over third base, drawing a cheer from the small crowd that included manager Brad Ausmus.

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It was bunting practice with a backup catcher. But to Ausmus, it was a small step in a larger battle.

"He's a guy that [opposing defenses] shift against," Ausmus said Thursday morning. "If he can take advantage of the shift at times, we want him to have practiced it rather than just trying it all of a sudden in the middle of the game."

Saltalamacchia is a switch-hitter, but if he backs up right-handed-hitting James McCann, he'll be batting left-handed in the majority of his starts. Saltalamacchia is a .251 career hitter against right-handed pitchers, but he batted .208 (33-for-159) off righties last year after hitting .221 (63-for-285) off them in 2014. That said, he was 15-for-37 (.405) last year when he pulled the ball as a left-handed hitter.

Still, even if the bunt looms as a threat more than a weapon, it might be worth the trouble.

"I've done it in the past," said Saltalamacchia, whose last bunt single was in 2012 according to STATS LLC.

Ausmus has warned for at least two years that the counterattack to the shift is coming.

"I thought we would've seen it last year, but I was wrong apparently," he said. "At some point, I feel like the pendulum's got to swing back the other way."

Part of the reason it hasn't swung for the Tigers is that Ausmus doesn't have many left-handed hitters to employ the bunt against a shift. Speedster Anthony Gose, who has been working on the bunt, and utility infielder Andrew Romine don't see the shift. Switch-hitting Victor Martinez saw the 30th-most shifts (238) among Major League hitters last year -- he batted just .190 on grounders and short liners against the shift -- but doesn't have the speed to run out a bunt.

Saltalamacchia could be an exception.

"We want him to work on it," Ausmus said.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.