For better or worse, baseball is trying to adapt. Prior to the 2017 season, Major League Baseball unveiled yet another batch of rule changes, most notably accelerating the replay review system and introducing the no-pitch intentional walk. Fans are constantly told that these new changes will speed up the game, thereby making it more “watchable.”
As a dedicated baseball fan and moderate “purist,” I’ve been opposed to many of these so-called “improvements.” But the most frustrating part of this “transition phase” of baseball is that they’re attacking the wrong problem.
The most serious issue facing baseball today is not the duration of games, but rather a lack of consistent excitement during those games. As awe-inspiring as it can be to watch an all-time-great ace like Clayton Kershaw effortlessly mow down hitters, the casual baseball fan craves something more entertaining: offense.
Last season, teams plated 4.48 runs per game on average. On the bright side, this was the highest mark since 2009, largely due to a drastic increase in home runs. But before 2009, you have to go back to 1992 to find a lower average. We are in an age of dominant pitchers, and with bullpens only getting deeper and stronger, there’s no end in sight.
Now to be clear, I personally have no complaints with the current dominance of pitchers. But this is a league that is clearly not content with its identity and is doing everything it can to improve its accessibility and appeal. It should start with offense.
Would the average casual fan rather watch a two-hour pitching duel that ends in a 1-0 victory, or a three-hour game full of home runs and lead changes that ends up, say, 10-9. Pace of play is not an issue as long the game provides constant entertainment.
The question is, of course, how do you increase offense? Pitching cannot be touched; you can’t punish players for simply being too good. Hitting is not easily improved either, and formally adjusting the strike zone won’t change much (also, automated strike zones are a horrible idea, but that’s a separate issue). That leaves one option: leave the pitcher alone, but adjust the defense behind him.
We are in the age of the infield shift. Joe Maddon, current manager of the Cubs, helped popularize the shift back in 2012 with the Rays, and it has since become an integral part of the game. In essence, the shift moves fielders around the infield according to their hitting patterns, overloading one side of the field. David Ortiz, for example, was known to pull the ball to the right side on almost all of his hits in play. Nearly every time Ortiz stepped to the plate, either the third baseman or the shortstop would move to the right side of second base, leaving only one player on the left side. If it sounds too crazy to work, you haven’t seen it in action.
The shift has never been used more often than it is today. Last season alone, teams shifted an astounding 34,801 times. This is even more remarkable when you consider that only six years ago, in 2011, teams employed the shift a grand total of 2,347 times.
Over the years, the best hitters (Ortiz included) have adapted to the shift, learning to hit against their scouting reports to compensate. Recently, speedier batters have countered the shift by simply bunting down the third base line. But against major league pitching, these adjustments are far easier said than done.
The data is still coming out on the shift’s effectiveness, and shift detractors are quick to show that league-wide batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has remained a constant .297 over the past few seasons. However, as FiveThirtyEight demonstrated (https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/yes-the-infield-shift-works-probably/) last year, the shift is hurting the players who face it the most.
All players decline as they age. But heavily shifted batters decline earlier, and much more dramatically, than players who hit to all fields. The wRC+, or weighted runs plus (basically a fancy sabermetric which measures a player’s offensive value), curve for the most-shifted third of batters actually shows a negative result—while for all other players, it remains positive.
Moreover, ground balls hit to a batter’s pull side (so for a lefty, the right side), which may otherwise find the gap between the first and second basemen, are eaten up by the shift. As a result, batting average on pulled grounders has dropped from .200 in 2011 to .183 last season. Bottom line: the shift works—and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The discussion of banning the shift came to the forefront in August of last year, when MLB commissioner Rob Manfred suggested eliminating the tactic. He has since backtracked, instead arguing for “limiting” rather than banning altogether, such as allowing a team only five shifts per game.
Understandably, the statements generated plenty of criticism. After all, labels like “second baseman” are, well, labels. With the exception of the pitcher and the catcher, managers have the freedom to position their fielders wherever they please. Taking away this freedom would be a rewriting of baseball’s fundamental rules.
On top of the backlash, there was the obvious question: How would the league enforce the ban? Manfred has never directly addressed this, but the solution would be quite simple: Two infielders must be on each side of second base. Or, to prevent savvy managers from switching an outfielder with an infielder to circumvent the rule, mandate three players on either side of the field, with the center fielder forced to remain in the center of the outfield.
So after all of this, am I in favor of banning the shift? Not really.
I do know for certain I’m not in favor of the new intentional walk rule (now we’ll never have moments like this, or newly-expanded replay (like on plays involving the “neighborhood rule”). The infield shift, like the four-ball intentional walk, like the shortstop gliding over second base on a double play, is part of the game. Unfortunately, Manfred disagrees. And if MLB is so eager to change, banning the shift is a considerably better move than many of the recent tweaks.
Home runs are great. They can completely change a game in an instant, they are not affected by the shift, and there are few more electrifying plays in all of sports than a walk-off home run. No one really knows why home runs have increased dramatically, but some have speculated that MLB has silently introduced a new “juiced baseball” that flies farther upon contact. Although this theory is speculative, if proved true, it would show that Manfred is already making behind-the-scenes changes to boost offense.
But home runs can only do so much. Scoring rallies—with contributions from numerous batters, smart baserunning, and timely hitting—are usually far more exciting, and more indicative of strong hitting teams as a whole. Hitting is half of the game, and while the explosion of long balls has helped to overshadow the offensive drought of recent years, singles will always be just as necessary for good baseball as home runs.
Banning the shift does not guarantee more hits, but it sure gives predictable batters a better chance. More hits would inevitably lead to longer rallies, more runs scored, and more entertaining baseball—and that’s the goal, right?
The beautiful game of baseball doesn’t need changing. But if Manfred insists on improving its “watchability,” eliminating the infield shift would be a good place to start.