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Rob Manfred says defensive shifts might be banned in 2022

Good idea? Bad idea?

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In January 2015, just days after Rob Manfred was installed as Commissioner of Baseball, he mentioned that he might want to ban defensive shifts in an interview he did with ESPN’s Karl Ravech:

Rob Manfred: “For example, things like eliminating shifts — I would be open to those sorts of ideas.”

Karl Ravech: “The forward-thinking, sabermetric defensive shifts?”

RM: “That’s what I’m talking about.”

KR: “Let’s eliminate that?”

RM: “Mmm-hmm.”

KR: “So all of the work that the Cubs and/or Angels and/or whoever has done, you’re willing to say, ‘I appreciate that, good idea, but it’s killing the game in a sense’?”

RM: “Yeah ... I mean, we have really smart people working in the game. And they’re going to figure out way to get a competitive advantage. I think it’s incumbent on us in the commissioner’s office to look at the advantages that are produced and say, ‘Is this what we want to happen in the game?’”

My first reaction to this was “No”:

About that “really want to like Rob Manfred” part of that tweet... uh, that hasn’t happened and probably won’t.

Back to the topic at hand: Defensive shifts have, over the last few years, been perceived to be even more of a drag on offenses, with players resorting to the launch-angle theory of defeating them: If you can’t hit a ball through the shift, hit it over the shift. This has resulted in more home runs — but also more strikeouts. This has created a game in which MLB felt it wise to hire former Cubs executive Theo Epstein to help bring more varied offense to the game — after Theo was one of the executives at the forefront of putting more shifts into baseball, to the point where fielders carry cards in their pockets noting their defensive positioning for each opposing hitter.

Experiments in modifying or banning shifts have been carried out in some minor leagues this year. And per this AP article, Manfred has suggested shifts might be banned in MLB in 2022:

“Let’s just say you regulated the shift by requiring two infielders each side of second base. What does that do? It makes the game look like what it looked like when I was 12 years old,” he said. “It’s not change. It’s kind of restoration, right? That’s why people are in favor of it. And they do believe, I think front offices in general believe it would have a positive effect on the play of the game.

“So I’m hopeful without going into the specifics of rule by rule, that we will have productive conversations with the MLBPA about — I want to use my words — non-radical changes to the game that will restore it to being played in a way that is closer to I think what many of us enjoy historically.

“Remember, the game evolves, right? What we play today don’t look all that much like 1971. And the question is, which version would you like to get to?”

Manfred is right (shocking, I know!). The game doesn’t look like it did in 1971, and the question is: Do we want to “restore” (Manfred’s word) baseball to closer to what it looked like 50 years ago, or keep the home-run friendly game the sport has evolved into?

I’d say a combination of that might work. Hitters are stronger and better than they were in 1971, but pitchers also throw much harder than they did back then. Simply banning the shift might not change a thing when hitters are facing a parade of pitchers who all throw 95-plus.

Personally, I have been opposed to banning the shift. We are getting away from a game where field managers have control. Managers now have to limit time visiting the mound and have to leave relief pitchers in for at least three batters. Now you want to take away their ability to position their fielders? I have long said that if the defense shifts against you, learn how to hit the other way.

But that doesn’t appear to be happening, and this is a cogent point:

Maybe it is time to kill the “extreme” shift, where a team sends its third baseman to play in short right field. How many times have we seen Cubs lefthanded hitters ground out into shifts like that, on balls that 20 or 30 or 50 years ago would have been base hits?

Give it a one-year experiment, see what happens. I hate to admit that Rob Manfred is right about anything, but it’s worth a try.


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