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MLB is thinking again about banning shifts

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Baseball’s executives should be careful what they wish for.

Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

One of the very first things Rob Manfred said he “was open” to doing as commissioner was banning defensive shifts.

Of course, traditionalists (like me) howled at this.

The idea is raising its ugly head again. At The Athletic Wednesday, Jayson Stark wrote this long article about this idea (and seriously, if you don’t subscribe to The Athletic, it’s worth it just for articles like this), which apparently is being raised again, perhaps even to be instituted in 2019.

There is no doubt that there are more shifts than ever in modern baseball, and that they are indeed affecting offenses:

Did you know there were nearly 8,000 more shifts on balls in play in 2018 than in 2017, according to Sports Info Solutions. Yessir, we said 8,000!

Did you know there were nearly 28,000 more shifts this year than there were just five years ago? Yep, we said 28,000!

Did you know that there were fewer ground-ball hits in 2018 (13,213) than there have been in any season since baseball expanded to 30 teams in 1998 – and over 1,200 fewer than we saw as recently as 2015? Uh-huh, we said 1,200!

Did you know the chances of a left-handed hitter reaching base on a pulled ground ball to the right side have dropped to their lowest rate since Sports Info Solutions began keeping track a decade and a half ago? That Reached Base Rate (which is basically OBP, but includes errors) was a measly .192 this year. That’s a drop of 43 points just since 2011!

And did you know there were fewer singles this year (26,322) than in any season in this millennium – and nearly 3,000 fewer than just a decade ago? Yeah, we said 3,000!

So there’s no doubt that the game has changed over the last few years, and radically so. Stark goes on to examine what might happen if MLB did decide to ban shifts:

It’s difficult to spell out the specifics of a rule that has never existed and has barely been talked about. So even sources who would have to hammer this out aren’t certain exactly where this is going.

But what’s most likely is a rule that simply reinforces one basic principle: Each team must have two infielders on the left side of second base and two on the right side.

On the face of it, this isn’t a bad idea. Teams could even game the system by (for example) placing the two “left side” infielders just a tiny bit to the left of second base with a lefthanded hitter at the plate. This would follow the letter of the law... but not really change anything, because how is this going to be enforced? Are there going to be lines painted on the grass? I don’t think anyone wants that. And here’s another issue:

So if the idea is to quicken the pace of the game, doing something like this would almost immediately make games longer. Unintended consequences and all, you know.

Stark goes into a long discussion of “launch angle,” which essentially is the idea that if the infield is going to defense you in a certain way, the best idea to defeat that is to hit the ball over said defense, presumably out of the ballpark. You might remember that when the Cubs hired Chili Davis to be hitting coach in 2018, de-emphasis on launch angle was promoted, and putting the ball in play (never a bad idea) was what the staff wanted from Cubs hitters.

The results? 56 fewer home runs by Cubs hitters in 2018 (granted, some of that was missing Kris Bryant for a third of the season), and 61 fewer runs scored.

My feeling is that if you have a team, like the Cubs, with a fair number of power hitters, you should let them launch-angle to their hearts’ content.

One of the hitters who sees the most shifts of anyone in baseball is Anthony Rizzo. From Stark’s article:

We’ve seen Rizzo ground out to second base many, many times when defenses have shifted against him. On a few occasions, he’s bunted into the shift for hits. This is a fine idea, although you certainly don’t want to have Rizzo doing that all the time. He’s a power hitter; you don’t want him consigned to a life of bunt singles. However, doing this on an occasional basis could spread out shifts and give him more of the field to hit into. Or, he could on occasion choke up on the bat and try to poke the ball into left field. Maybe a double could result from that. The point is that there are ways to defeat the shift without making them illegal. More hitters should try this; if they did, and succeeded, teams would probably stop shifting on their own.

It seems clear to me that analytics departments are piling up data on how batters do when defenses shift, giving that data to managers, who then use it to devise ways to stop hitters by shifting. Please note: I’m absolutely not criticizing this method. Teams should use any data they can get to try to get hitters out.

But baseball has always been a game of adjustments. If pitchers and defenses are figuring out new ways of getting hitters out, in my view it’s up to the hitters to figure out ways to defeat that, not have MLB artificially do it by banning shifts. Here’s the view of one big-league pitching coach, not named, quoted by Stark:

“The reason the value of a single has gone down is that strikeouts are up,” said one big-league pitching coach. “So in this era, bunching hits is really hard to do. In our coaches’ room, we’ll sometimes ask, ‘How do you beat an ace? How do you beat a Max Scherzer?’ And it’s not by singles….You’re not going to bunch three singles in an inning against Max Scherzer. You’ve got to get a guy on and hit a ball in the seats. And that’s part of why singles are devalued. It’s just so hard to hit multiple singles in the same inning.”

And that coach continued:

“If they’re thinking this will kill Launch Angle Mania, I don’t think that’s true at all,” said the pitching coach quoted earlier. “The reason for Launch Angle Mania is, with the athletes who play in the infield and the ability to position infielders based on the information we have now, ground balls are outs. So you don’t hear guys saying, ‘We’ve got to launch.’ They just don’t want to hit the ball on the ground because they’re outs.”

Now it may be true that, if this sport banned the shift, those ground balls wouldn’t all be outs anymore. But is that enough incentive for hitters across this sport to stop launching and trying to flatten out their swings?

“I don’t see it,” said the same pitching coach. “At the end of the day, you’re still putting [two athletic infielders] on each side of the bag and you’re positioning them exactly where you know most of these ground balls are going to go. So they’ve still got to try to get the ball in the air.”

I agree with this, especially the part about strikeouts being up. With pitching staffs being handled the way they are now, in many games you get a fresh pitcher every inning or two who throws 95-plus. This wasn’t the case even five years ago. But with those sorts of bullpens, and the new “bullpenning” craze and strikeouts at an all-time high (there were more K’s than hits in 2018, 41,207 to 41,018, for the first time in MLB history), of course teams are going to try to hit home runs. It’s the natural adjustment to pitching being what it is.

There are discussions, too, about limiting pitching changes, which could have an effect similar to a shift ban. If teams aren’t permitted to make pitching changes in certain situations, that could also help increase offense.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who’s well-known for trying out-of-the-box strategies, had this to say:

“Listen,” said Joe Maddon, “I’m at the point now where whatever MLB wants to do, or attempt to do, on different things, I’m going to be on board. I did watch maybe an inning or two of the postseason, and I totally understood what they were talking about, how slow everything was. The pace was very, very slow. And now I get it. We’ve been involved with the playoffs the last three years, four years, and I was not able to watch all this. So now I saw it. Now I get it.”

Again, though, if you do that you might wind up with the scenario posited by Keith Olbermann, that the pace would slow down even further by having replay reviews on any “illegal defense rule” instituted.

For me, the bottom line is this, and Mike Bojanowski and I have discussed this many times. I don’t want to see any rule put in place that would prevent a manager from placing his defense anywhere on the field he chooses. Look at what Connie Mack was doing in this photo from around 1940:

Getty Images

That’s right. He’s moving his fielders around, likely situationally. He was famous for using a folded-up scorecard for doing that. Managers today do the same thing, only without the scorecard.

Don’t ban shifts. Let the game adjust to it naturally. This has only really been an issue for the last five or six seasons. Sometimes it takes longer than that for things to sort themselves out.

Poll

Ban shifts...

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    Yes! It might mean more scoring!
    (163 votes)
  • 63%
    No! Let defenses play where they want!
    (382 votes)
  • 9%
    Don’t care either way
    (59 votes)
604 votes total Vote Now