Moving fielders around to try to prevent hits is as old as baseball.
You might recall a phrase attributed to 19th Century star “Wee” Willie Keeler: “Hit ‘em where they ain’t.”
Connie Mack, the famed manager of the old Philadelphia Athletics, used to wave a scorecard from the dugout to help place his fielders:
Then there was the shift put on Red Sox star Ted Williams, supposedly invented by Indians manager Lou Boudreau (though others had done it previously). You can see in this photo that Williams defeated the shift on this particular play by going the other way:
Then there’s this one, from the Polo Grounds, the Giants shifting all their infielders to the left side against Pirates righthanded power hitter Ralph Kiner:
In recent years, though, shifting has become done by rote as analytics help managers position fielders to help prevent hits. How many times have we seen this? [VIDEO]
The second baseman ranges deep into right field, far from his “normal” position, to record an out. Sometimes it’s even the third baseman playing in that position, leaving the left side of the field empty.
The result of all this shifting is fewer balls in play. Players have been taught launch angle, and their answer to the shifts has become “hit the ball over the shift.” What results are more home runs — HR records were shattered in 2019 — but also more strikeouts and walks.
MLB wants to change all this. One of the very first things Commissioner Rob Manfred said in an interview upon taking over the job was that he wanted to ban defensive shifts.
That was just the first of many things that turned fans against Manfred, and now the idea of banning shifts is rearing its ugly head again. My view on shifts: If the defense shifts on you, learn to adjust and hit the other way! Occasionally, you will see Anthony Rizzo bunt to the left side, where there are no defenders, for a hit. Of course you wouldn’t want to see Rizzo turn into a singles hitter, but a bunt like that every now and again might spread out the defense. Or have Rizzo or other hitters who are shifted on learn how to take baseballs the other way, Ted Williams-style.
Instead, per this article by Andy McCullough in The Athletic, a ban of the infield defensive shift is being considered, and one way it could be put into the rule book would be to require that two infielders would have to be on each side of second base — or even force them to play on the dirt. I’m not sure how you’d enforce that. Fielders could line up that way and move when a pitch is made.
A number of managers weighed in on this topic in a Zoom call, and one manager dead-set against banning the shift was former Cubs manager Joe Maddon:
Angels manager Joe Maddon has become one of baseball’s most vocal skeptics about the perceived overrun of analytics in the modern era. “We’re clamoring for the real baseball game to resurface, and putting it back in the hands of the athletes,” Maddon said. “Who need to be informed, based on all the information out there, and then they need to be turned loose.” At the same time, he acknowledged that a crucial ingredient in the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays’s run to the American League pennant was their usage of data to arrange their defenders. He does not want MLB to erase the shift.
“If you don’t like hitting into the shift, then learn how to not (hit into the shift) in the minor leagues,” Maddon said. “It all comes down to methodology: What are you trying to do here?”
Other managers, including Don Mattingly, Dave Roberts and Bob Melvin, either came out in favor of this change, or weren’t against it. This, from Melvin, seems cogent:
“You know, if you asked me that last year or the year before, I would have said, ‘Absolutely, I have problems with it,’” Melvin said. “But you know what? Sports are about entertainment. When you have a left-handed pull hitter up there and you’ve got an extra outfielder out there or someone playing a rover out in right field, and the guy squares one up and hits it right to that guy — it’s frustrating.”
That’s a reasonable point. Personally, I take Maddon’s position here. Teach players to not hit into the shift in the minor leagues, as they are learning the game. Baseball has always been a game of adjustments. This, in my view, is no different.
There’s no doubt that the “three true outcomes” game that baseball has become as we enter the 2020s has become somewhat monotonous and dull, not to mention more time-consuming. So far, the minor changes Manfred has pushed through (automatic intentional walk, limiting mound visits, three-batter rule) have not done one thing to improve the pace of play, nor the way the game is played.
That ought to be on the players, not on the rule book.
Some other things that might improve balls in play without banning shifts were noted in this Yahoo article by Tim Brown:
On a recent call with 30 managers, Manfred was lobbied by at least one to deaden the baseball. There are those who believe defensive shifts are detrimental. Others would support lowering the mound or moving it back. Not every idea would have merit. But it suggests a willingness to have ideas, to offer them and to live — if only briefly, if necessary — with the consequences.
Brown’s article also discusses several rule changes that were made in the 60-game pandemic season, including the universal DH, seven-inning doubleheaders and the runner-on-second in extra innings. Many of the managers quoted in Brown’s article said that it was a good idea to try those things out in an “abnormal” season, and some of them turned out to be liked, or at least not as disliked as some thought they were.
Melvin summed it up pretty well:
“Change is abundant now, in every walk of life. And if you don’t embrace it you get stuck in the mud. So, you know, again, we had quite a few rules changes last year, they worked out well and I think it lends to me being a little more onboard with more changes.”
He’s right. Baseball is not some immutable thing that was created one day, never ever to change. It’s changed and adapted for over a century. With teams now having parades of relievers who can throw 95-plus, the game’s already different than it was 10, 20, 50 years ago.
Just for the heck of it, watch all or some of this game, a Cubs/Pirates game played at Wrigley Field 41 years ago, September 22, 1979.
It will look familiar to you, no doubt, but it’s also very different in the way it was played, from the pitch speeds to the pace pitchers played at to the way hitters approached at-bats.
I’m not being all “get off my lawn” and saying the game was better then. It is, however, different from what you see now. And 50 years from now, presuming baseball’s still around, the game as it was played in the early 2020s will look very different from what it’s like in 2070.
Baseball has to adapt, or die.
MLB should ban defensive shifts...
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