The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
MLB Thinking About Outlawing Defensive Shifts

Major League Baseball’s front office R&D staffs may have outsmarted themselves.  Their strategy of using defensive shifts to cut down on the number of baserunners has had a positive effect in preventing runs.  But it’s also had an unintended effect of making the game less attractive to fans who want to see more offense rather than less.  Concerned about this situation, the MLB Commissioner’s Office recently stated they are now looking at potentially outlawing shifts.  It raises questions about whether that is an appropriate response.

For several years now, the latest generation of baseball analysts, aided by their new technology tools, have been looking at new opportunities for run prevention.  Prior to the analytics era, Major-league teams occasionally utilized extreme defensive shifts to combat some of the best hitters in the game.  Probably the most notable was the Cleveland Indians’ use of what famously became known as the “Williams Shift” against Boston’s premier hitter, Ted Williams, in 1948.  However, since 2014, the number of shifts has increased almost three-fold, as there were over 38,000 occurrences in 2018.

Teams even deployed shifts that left only one or two fielders on the left side of second base for specific left-handed batters.  These batters won’t attempt to hit to the opposite field to try to avoid an out.  And now with the emphasis on home runs, most batters facing a shift will more likely go for the home run, even risking a strikeout, rather than trying to hit a single to the opposite field.  The Dodgers’ Justin Turner was quoted as saying, “You beat the shift by hitting over it, not through it or around it.”  After all, in today’s game, the rewards for hitters are because of their home runs, not singles.

According to NBC Sports, left-handed hitters face the shift almost 30% of the time, whereas righties face the shift only about 9% of the time.  Texas’ Joey Gallo is the poster boy for left-handed major-league players refusing to try to beat the shift.  (By the way, he hit more home runs (40) than singles (38) during the season.)  Teams know that about him, so consequently he faced the second-most shifts in all of baseball last year.  Left-handed pull hitters like Gallo are being eaten up by the shift.

Teams have gotten clever with using analytics to identify hitter tendencies.  It doesn’t seem right that it should be taken away as a weapon for a team.  How is this different than using strategies to expose batters’ weaknesses in hitting specific types or locations of pitches?  Banning defensive shifts in baseball would be an analogous to something like the NFL doing away with blitzes or other defensive packages.  It’s become part of the game now.

Whatever happened to players trying to hit singles to the opposite field?  How about trying to bunt to the side of the field when there are no infielders?  It would seem like batters could learn how to take advantage of the shift, just like they have to adjust their approach when facing certain pitchers?  If they did, over time it would likely become self-correcting.  Can you imagine legendary hitter Rod Carew, who was a master at bat control, playing today against the shifts?  Teams just wouldn’t do it because he’d eat them alive.

Major-league baseball has a problem with fewer batted balls being put in play.  Home runs, strikeouts, and walks now account for over 30% of plate appearances, and run production has declined.  The question is whether eliminating defensive shifts would actually help the situation the most.  For example, limiting the number of pitchers used in a game might have more effect on run production (as well as contribute to reducing the time it takes to play a game.)

One of the options being tossed about is to limit the number of situations per game in which a manager can deploy a defensive shift.  I guess if this was done, we’d have to put another statistic on the scoreboard to keep up with the current count for each team.

There is a precedent for changing the rules to create more offense in the game.  Following the incredibly low scoring in 1968, MLB changed the height of the pitching mound from 15 feet to 10 feet to give pitchers less of an advantage over hitters.  The designated hitter (DH) was instituted in the American League in 1973 to make the game more interesting to fans.

Maybe those darned baseball geeks are just getting too smart.

Add a Comment

(Enter the numbers shown in the above image)