New Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred certainly made news on is first day on the job when he revealed the latest “in thing” in the game–the radical extreme defensive shift– may not be around forever.
Manfred said he might be in favor of eliminating the strategy. Is that an over-reaction to the use of statistical models that have taken the game from what was played on the sandlots to a mathematical formula on the major league level? Or it is admittance that there are so many “dumb” hitters in MLB that taking away the extreme shifting lifts the burden of them learning how to beat them?
Legislating against strategies–usually defensive strategies–is certainly nothing new in sports. Basketball has widened the foul lanes to keep big men from dominating. Introduction of the shot clock kept teams from stalling and the three point line opened up the court. The sport on the professional level has had many rules brought in…and taken out restricting what defenders are allowed to do. The object generally has been to help the fans see more offense. Defensive players in the NFL know all about that. Over the last few decades they have been legislated from doing what comes naturally many times.
In the case of football some of the new rules have tried to make the game safer to play. In basketball the rules have tried to make offense easier to play. Once the coaches started emphasizing defense and the players started playing it the game game was not as entertaining. Perhaps Manfred is thinking of that when he suggests radical shifts could be legislated out of existence.
From the birth of the shortstop position in the 1800’s baseball’s defensive alignment was quite standard. Only slight movement on defense was seen. One of the main reasons was players hit with little power for the first 50 years and stationing the defenders in standard spots made sense.
Then came the big swinging, mostly pull hitters. There are no records of extreme shifting used against Babe Ruth, but no doubt some managers thought about it. Playing the outfield over toward right field would have been a major gamble had Ruth elected to hit the ball the “other way.” Ruth might have been able and willing to do it. Remember he made contact and was a high average hitter in addition to his home runs. Stories were written about Ruth striking out a lot. He did–for his time, but he never fanned as many as 100 times in a season. (The Houston Astros had seven players strike out more than 100 times in 2014 and none of them were named Babe Ruth.)
That is why extreme shifts have made sense in recent years. There are fewer contact hitters and more high strikeout all or nothing pull hitters in the game. The charts of where players tend to hit the ball are well known by all clubs. Teams know that unless a hitter swings very late and hits off the very end of the bat he will hit the ball in certain areas.
It is sound strategy against many hitters to use extreme shifts. Those are the hitters than have no ability to take the outside pitch the other way or to try to beat the shift when a single will score a run. Instead they keep swinging hoping the defense won’t matter because they will hit the ball over the fence.
That is a low percentage strategy, but more and more common in MLB often resulting in a ground ball right into the hands of a defender well out of “normal” position. No RBI, no hit, no real action.
Rob Manfred wants to see the game be played more between the ears than between computer models. Eliminating the extreme shifts doesn’t require the hitters to actually get any smarter. They will have more hitting holes automatically. The lefty hitters (David Ortiz is one that immediately comes to mind) that have to face a second baseman 20 feet on the grass covering the hole to the right of the first baseman presumably wouldn’t have to deal with that any longer. They will get hits on hard hit balls in the hole instead of 4-3 outs.
Deciding what constitutes an extreme shift shouldn’t be that difficult. Simply say that two infielders must be stationed on each side of second base and one outfielder must be in at least two of the three outfield areas. Teams could still have defensive adjustments, just not as extreme as some use now. And that is what Commissioner Manfred might be considering outlawing– the extreme.
Should baseball legislate against extreme shifts or hope that players, instructors, coaches and managers figure out ways to beat them? Once they no longer serve the purpose intended and/or work to the efficiency level some do now they will fade from the game on their own.