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The shift: An evolution or a nuisance to the game?

Updated: Jun 6, 2021

picture of a shift via Checkdown aports

Other than the DH, I know of no other polarizing topic than that of the extreme defensive shift used by almost every team against certain hitters. Because of their favorite player being affected by it, some want to ban the use of it. Others want to take out the extreme of having five guys to one side. Yet there is the third group that says, “Leave it alone and make the hitters adjust just like they have done for over 100 years!”

The defensive shift has been around baseball as long as there has been baseball. Only lately has it become a point of contention. The fact is, there have been all sorts of defensive shifts; shifts for the double play, shifts to prevent the extra-base hit, or play to a hitter's strength. Going back 10-15 years ago, it was just a minor shift of the outfielders to the left or right depending on the batter, and his tendencies and the infield backed up or toward the line. However, nowadays, with analytical baseball and Sabermetrics, it has become an eyesore to some fans. Some shifts have three infielders on the left or right side. Others tend to go to the far extreme by shifting infielders to the shallow outfield or leaving one whole side of the diamond exposed, as evidenced by the photo below.

Overplayed Shift by Houston via MLB

While these shifts seem crazy, and to a fan, easy to beat, that is not always the case. In some ways, the shift does its job. A case in point is against the dead pull hitters like Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals. Since teams have overplayed the shift on him, his productivity has steadily gone down. Now big flyball types still see a shift, just not as pronounced. It is primarily your pull hitters who hit ground balls or line drives that seem to draw the bulk of the extreme shift—none of this new. Ted Williams faced extreme shifts in his day.

Extreme shift vs Ted Williams via Pintrest

Note in this shift, Cleveland has the left fielder playing deep short. The third baseman is playing to the right of the second, and the shortstop is playing where the second baseman usually plays while the second baseman is playing a shallow right field and the right fielder is playing deep. Now notice where Williams hit the ball. I know that comparing Ted Williams to Matt Carpenter is preposterous, and I am not trying to. I am just pointing out that extreme shifts have been used throughout baseball history and that players have beaten it.

Since the infusion of sabermetrics and analytical data into the game, the shift has taken on a different meaning. However, wouldn't you think that there would be ways to beat the shift with all this analytical data? I mean to the day-to-day fan, it is obvious. Swing later, lay down the bunt, close your stance. There are ways that a hitter can beat the shift. Wouldn't you think that what sabermetrics gives, sabermetrics, can also take away?

The Commissioner Weighs In

Rob Manfred via MLB

Commissioner Manfred has weighed in that the competition committee should entertain the idea of limiting the shift. Why? Is it not the priority of the defense to keep the opponent from scoring? Should hitters not learn how to hit to all fields?

The shift is just one more whipping boy that the stuffed shirts in New York are using to change baseball fundamentally. They point to declining TV viewership and want to look for a culprit. The culprit is in New York. The culprit IS MLB. They have done everything in their power to appeal to millennials and their complaints:

1) The game is not exciting!

2) The game takes too long.

3) We hate seeing pitchers strikeout.

Do you know what I have to say to these whiners? Stuff a sock in it. A sporting contest is not a TV show that is scripted. It happens as it happens in real-time. For the last few years now, MLB has been shifting focus or directing the offense in baseball with launch angles and exit velocity. They think the excitement is the home run.

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa vis Sporting News-Getty images

Back in 1998, the McGwire and Sosa “Home Run Chase” was credited with saving baseball. That may have been true back then. However, I don't think lightning will strike twice. The circumstances are different. In 1998, MLB was still lagging numbers from the 1994 work stoppage. The McGwire/Sosa chase brought fans back.

Barry Bonds M. Spencer Green - AP

Then when Barry Bonds made his assault on Hank Aaron, it drew fans back to the park. Now in 2021, it is not really sagging numbers. The pandemic set in motion things mostly taken out of baseball's control by city and state governments. It is due to Robert Manfred, who seems to want to listen to critics rather than fans. Critics say baseball is too long because of countless pitching changes or games going into extra innings. They claim that the stolen base takes away from the game. Then in the same breath, these people want more offense. They hate to see the pitcher strike out so much. Well, let look at the complete hypocrisy of that idea. More offense means more batters per inning which means that games will take longer; DO THE MATH! If you are truly trying to speed up the game, you will allow the defense to use whatever strategy at their disposal to keep the other team from scoring, thereby limiting the time it takes to play the game.

The backlash against the shift to me is as senseless as a backlash against the prevent defense in football or the zone defense in basketball. Just because a group of hitters (and we are talking a small number) can't figure out what it takes to beat the shift is no reason to add more regulations to baseball. Manfred and the MLB need to make up their collective minds. Do you want 15 -10 slow-pitch softball scores, or do you want BASEBALL? With an ever-increasing or seemingly increasing need to create more fan excitement, why would you eliminate the shift?

There are ways for a manager to fight the shift. The most obvious is to bunt the ball. What happened to lay down a bunt? It really doesn't have to be down the line, just anywhere to the opposite side of the shift. You could also adjust your order where getting to the hitter the opponent wants to employ the shift against means going through an even more dangerous hitter in front of getting on base. Work with hitters for fewer fly balls and ground balls and more line-drive hitting. The more you take away or legislate in the game, the more strategy you eliminate. Do we have fans that obtuse that they can't see that the excitement in baseball is the strategy used? Do we have a commissioner that ignorant to think that he can snap his fingers and people will fall in line? Is baseball the next sport to give into entertainment convenience and ignore its tradition and grandeur?

The majority of baseball fans are growing tired of the constant changes to issues that are minor. New tweaks to the game, such as the three batter rule, using the international softball way to play extra innings (starting with a man on 2B), and making doubleheaders back-to-back 7-inning games instead of a full 9 innings, are wearing on many fans. The doubleheader switch is labeled as an attempt to save pitching and rosters. However, I, for one, am not sure how much water that holds. In recent years doubleheaders have been more a day game and a night game affair with space in between to clear the park and reset concessions, and so on. It also gives the players sometimes two to three hours between games. Now that they have 30 minutes between games playing 7 innings, is there really a "saving" of the players going on here?

What is next, Rob? After 13 innings, you have a Home Run Derby to determine the winner? Or start every inning with a runner on to increase scoring? What is the next big, grandiose idea to come out of your little rules committee?

I will admit I am a traditionalist. I'm not too fond of the DH and think it should be banned. I hate that the game has been turned into an analytical numbers game. I want to see pitchers go 7 and 8 innings with consistency. I want to see the stolen base, the hit and run. I want to see a 1-0 pitchers duel where both pitchers go into the 8th or even the 9th inning more often than once or twice a year for the entire league. This effort against the shift is just another attempt to alter the face of baseball for no reason. Note to hitters: learn how to hit to all fields and SHOVE the analytics!

Sorry, not sorry for the rant. Thanks for reading.

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