As the MLB Winter Meetings get underway, it appears Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, has company in his long-held desire to limit the defensive shift. Rumor has it that MLB may start by limiting shifts, but ultimately even ban the strategy.
The competition committee, which includes general managers and field managers, former players, and the presidents of some teams, appears to be leaning in that direction too. However, the MLB Player’s Union would also have to approve any changes.
The shift, (most frequently the placement of three infielders on one side of second base) has been around since the 1920’s or even earlier. In 1946, Cleveland Indian’s player/manager Lou Boudreau targeted Ted Williams. Despite the shift, Williams stuck to his approach at the plate to the point that Ty Cobb accused him of being “stupid”.
Manfred, concerned about fan interest, wants to increase the action on the field, a commendable goal. This year’s batting average of .248 marked the lowest point since 1972’s .244. Even more troubling, for the first time in the history of the sport, there were more strikeouts than hits.
Fans can all agree that there is nothing more mind-numbing than watching a guy hack at three or four pitches and walk back to the dugout. But shifts have little or nothing to do with the increase in strikeouts. Instead, strikeouts have increased thanks to the emphasis on home runs, to say nothing of the current crop of pitchers with their 95 mph fastballs and gravity-defying breaking balls.
Super agent Scott Boras warns that defensive shifts have “broken” the game, but statistics don’t agree. Instead, the shift may have slightly “bent” the game. Against the shift, players batted .248 as opposed to .258, but slugging increased slightly, as did walks.
Most players, especially Kris Bryant, would probably agree with Houston Astros infielder Alex Bregman, who told Sports Illustrated “When I’m hitting, there should be no shifts, but when we’re on defense, we can shift whenever we want.” Bryant, the Chicago Cubs’ third baseman faced the shift in 54.8 percent of plate appearances. Why? Bryant pulled 84 percent of groundballs he hit.
As third base coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Andy Green enthusiastically endorsed defensive shifts. In 2014, the D-Backs employed the shift 587 times and ranked 10th in baseball. Those numbers paled, however, compared to the Tampa Bay Rays under Joe Maddon. The Rays led all of baseball with more than twice that number of defensive shifts.
With their current clubs though, Green and Maddon have depended far less on shifts. The Cubs shifted for 5.1 percent of plate appearances, 28th in baseball, the Padres 7.6 percent of plate appearances, 26th.
As a former player, Green recognizes the impact of asking players to change the way they have defended since they were kids. They need to have some level of comfort in defensive positioning, which can’t be achieved by an edict from above. Paradoxically, pitchers may also be affected, although extensive and relatively recent shift data shows inconsistencies in multiple measurements. For some reason, pitchers may tend to nibble a bit more and throw fewer fastballs when the infielders play out of position.
The data indicate that defensive shifts reduce the number of singles, but do nothing to inhibit doubles, triples, or home runs, the hits most likely to score runners. Furthermore, shifts have absolutely nothing to do with the pace of play, another of Manfred’s bugaboos.
“Rather than vilifying the shift, Manfred should be broadcasting the ambiguities of it,” writes Sam Miller of ESPN.com. “He should be emphasizing each team’s unique approach to it. The shift might or might not be working. But it isn’t boring.”
Baseball has always been about making adjustments. It’s not surprising that teams would position defenders with the purpose of creating the optimal result for their purposes. If Manfred and the powers that be really do want to increase fan interest in the sport, they must address far more compelling trends, including Major League teams deliberately tanking. San Diego fans know all about that dispiriting strategy.