Not long after Major League Baseball appointed Rob Manfred as its new commissioner in early 2015, he surprised a lot of people by saying he was open to the idea of banning the defensive shift.That’s where the defense stacks one side of the infield (usually the right) with three and sometimes four players, to lower the chance of a base hit by a lefty pull-hitter.
His comment surprised a lot of people, especially those MLB scouts and executives who use charts and statistics of all kinds to come up with defensive strategies. If you’ve seen the movie Moneyball, or if you know about Bill James and sabermetrics, then you know that analytics is now part of the game.
But is the shift really bad for baseball as some are saying? And if it’s “hurting” the game, should it be banned? Where do you stand on it?
• Does the shift annoy you?
• Does it bother you when what used to be a “seeing-eye” single through the infield is now an easy out because of the shift?
• Do you like your team to use the shift, but not the other side?
There are plenty of articles with shift-related stats, such as how many hits have been taken away and how many runs the shift has prevented or “saved.” It’s not necessarily dramatic, but let’s just say that if the tactic didn’t work, teams wouldn’t use it.
Some MLB teams use it a lot more than others, but overall the use of the shift has exploded the past handful of years. According to reports, there were about 2,500 uses of the shift in 2010. In 2014, that jumped to over 13,000. It has become part of the modern game of baseball, and that doesn’t make a lot of baseball people happy.
Joe Girardi, Yankees manager, is one of them. He’s been quoted saying as much. “It’s illegal defense, just like basketball,” Girardi explains. “Guard your man. Guard your spot. If I were commissioner, they’d be illegal. As long as it’s legal, I’m gonna play it. I just think the (in)field was built this way for a reason. Two on one side, two on the other.”
How about other sports?
He brings up an interesting point by referring to other sports (“guard your man”) because they didn’t always play fair either. We all know about “Hack-a-Shaq,” a defensive strategy so annoying the League has made some rule changes to prevent it from slowing down the action any more than it has.
In football there’s stripping the ball (which isn’t tackling). And how about icing the kicker? That’s purely a mental, get-in-the-kicker’s-head strategy. Isn’t that what the defensive shift in baseball is all about anyway?
And still, all of these run-/point-prevention strategies fall within the written rules.
It’s all about offense.
Fans come to games to see runs and action. That’s why the NBA had to make a change to their game decades ago. There wasn’t a shot clock or foul-outs in professional basketball until the mid-fifties, so games used to be snoozefests of stalling, crazy dribbling around, free throws and low scores. It was boring. Then they introduced the shot clock and foul-outs at the same time.
Here’s a very interesting quote about that era: “If you’re a promoter, that won’t do,” said Danny Biasone years later, an NBA team owner who is credited with coming up with the time clock as the solution. “You’ve got to have offense, because offense excites people.” Those changes saved the game.
And by the way, there is this relatively “new” rule in baseball called “the designated hitter,” introduced to generate more hits, more runs, and keep older players in the game. And still not everyone likes it.
Hitters are struggling.
Hits and batting averages are down, and they have been dropping over the past few seasons. There are plenty of reasons:
• Starting pitchers are getting better.
• Relief pitching is strong and it starts earlier in the game.
• Hitters aren’t as disciplined as they used to be.
• Batters swing for the fences. Everyone wants to see a home run.
Does the shift belong on that list too? Some think so, but maybe it’s for a different reason. To plenty of fans wanting to see hits and runs and action, the shift just doesn’t seem right. To them, the shift is dirty pool. It’s boring.
Also, if you ban the shift, that could pave the way for other ideas. Imagine these suggestions:
• “Players can’t hit the split-finger fastball, so ban it.”
• “Specialized relief pitching is ruining the game. Limit the number a team can use.”
• “Don’t let the third baseman take away the bunt. Make him play back.”
• “No intentional walks. Make the pitchers throw strikes and give the hitter his chance.”
The list could go on and on.
Some pitchers aren’t going for it.
Reportedly, Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw has asked manager Dave Roberts not to use the shift when he (Kershaw) is on the mound. He just doesn’t want to see it. And even though they regularly employ stats for strategy, the Dodgers oblige Kershaw. His won-loss record would seem to indicate that it’s making everyone happy…except opposing hitters.
Still, we’re talking about Clayton Kershaw.
But he’s not alone. Pitcher Zack Wheeler of the Mets explains his frustration like this: “Say a guy is a pull hitter, a lefty, and you’re pitching him away. He’s a Major League hitter (and) he’s going to go that way with it like you’re supposed to. But when the shortstop is playing second base and the ball goes straight through the hole, I’m like, ‘seriously, that’s out.’ If you’re playing baseball the way it started from day one, that would have been out. And I’m just like an old school guy: I’m young but I’m an old school guy at the same time.”
Wee Willie was right.
More than a hundred years ago, “Wee Willie” Keeler of the Yankees, a great-hitting outfielder with a .341 lifetime average, gave this hitting advice, which became one of baseball’s memorable quotes: “Hit ’em where they ain’t.”* Translation? Hit baseballs (’em) where the infielders (they) aren’t positioned.
Solid advice back then and timely advice for those facing a shifted infield. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy of the Rangers agrees. He’s learned how to go the other way when teams stack the left side of the diamond. He also knows whom to credit.
“Personally, I love when teams shift on me,” Lucroy says. “I try to hit ’em where they ain’t, like Willie Keeler.”
Ban the shift? Instead, how about a modern take on Wee Willie’s advice? Hitters—take what they give you instead of trying to get what you want.
*The complete quote is, “Keep your eye clear and hit ’em where they ain’t.”