So, then, the question: Are you for banning defensive shifts in baseball or against it?
Simple, right? Except the more you think about it, the more complex it gets. My unwavering opinion in initially mulling this over was: I have no idea, but baseball so desperately needs more action that anything is worth trying.
What we do know is that defensive shifting — placing three infielders on one side of second base — is increasing, and it’s no longer confined to a handful of analytically tilted teams. According to MLB’s Statcast data, teams shifted 12.1 percent of the time in 2017. Last year, that number rose to 34.1 percent. Only one team, Atlanta, shifted on fewer than 18 percent of plate appearances. The Los Angeles Dodgers shifted 55 percent of the time. (Remind me who won the World Series?)
Shifting, of course, is designed to stack the defense to the side where players most frequently hit the ball — normally their pull side. The idea is obvious: take away hits. So to determine whether you want to ban shifting, you have to understand whether you would be creating more offense.
The answer: You would but maybe marginally. Baseball Info Solutions reports shifting caused 213 would-be hits to be turned into outs in last year’s shortened 60-game season, which translates to 575 hits-to-outs over a normal, 162-game season. Turning those outs back into hits would result in an increase of less than 1.5 percent in a typical season. That doesn’t feel like a sea change.
In talking to officials at both the team and major league level, it’s interesting how much debate there is within the sport. Some people believe that even a slight uptick in base runners would beget more base runners because the presence of base runners results in more pitches in the strike zone and more fastballs to the following hitters, which would lead to more contact earlier in counts, which would result in fewer strikeouts, which might put an emphasis back on players who can hit from gap-to-gap, etc.
Others dismiss that line of thinking as a reach. It’s why the four-infielders-on-the-dirt experiment is happening in the minors: to see real-life results. As one team’s head of baseball operations said, “A lot of this, I’m taking a wait-and-see approach.”
What’s not up for debate: Baseball needs more action. Think of the sport’s most exciting plays. No, not the home run. Home runs are boring, and I’m serious about that. What’s more exciting, and where does more tension build: in the few seconds in which the crowd anticipates a flyball sailing over the wall? Or when there’s a runner on first and a ball is hit into the right field corner?
The former is followed by applause and a jog around the bases. Yawn. On the latter, there’s almost too many places for the eye to look: at the right fielder to see how quickly he can dig the ball out; at the runner to see where he is relative to the throw; at an infielder to see whether he cuts off the throw or lets it sail through; at the third base coach to see whether he puts up the stop sign or wheels his arm around; at the catcher to see whether he can come up with the ball; at the on-deck hitter to see whether he is signaling his teammate to slide; and back to the runner to see whether he beats the throw.
Whew. There’s a lot going on there. Got excited for a minute.
Now, what does that second play and others like it — going from first to third on a single to right, scoring from second on a single to left, stretching a double into a triple — require? Why, a ball in play. And there just aren’t enough of them these days.
Over the past several years, baseball fans have increasingly been subjected to discourse about the “three true outcomes” — home runs, walks and strikeouts, plays on which the defense does not participate. Debate whether swinging for the fences and shrugging off strikeouts is a smart approach all you want. The reality is the three true outcomes are here in record numbers, and they’re minimizing the opportunities for excitement.
Take 2005, when the Nationals played their first season in Washington. That year, 27.3 percent of major league plate appearances ended in a home run, walk or strikeout — the low rate for this century. Since then, that collective rate has risen steadily, if not quite annually, to a whopping 36.1 percent last year. That’s right: More than one in three plate appearances ended without a defensive player being involved in the outcome, other than a catcher hanging on to strike three. That’s just not enough action.
The shift hasn’t encouraged many players to shoot the ball the opposite way — a task made more difficult when pitchers pitch to the shift by pounding hitters inside. Rather, the shift has encouraged players to focus on raising their launch angles and trying to beat it with brute strength rather than finesse and strategy. That, in turn, has an impact on what kind of hitter front offices tend to value: power hitters.
So the reality is this: The best practices to build a roster — filling it with hard-throwing pitchers and selective hitters who sell out for power, don’t mind whiffing and take their walks — do two things: win games and ruin the product. And the people who build those rosters and run these teams know it. One of the most interesting, self-aware utterances on the topic came from Theo Epstein on the day last fall when he stepped down as president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs.
“The executives, like me, who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures to try to optimize individual and team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game in some respects,” Epstein said then.
And what was his next move? Join MLB’s main office as a consultant who is concentrating on “on-field matters” — code for “How do we make the game more aesthetically pleasing and entertaining?” His voice is already proving valuable.
My inclination, after 150 years of allowing infielders and outfielders to play wherever they please, is to require strategies to evolve rather than overhaul the rules. But if preventing infielders from roaming the outfield would help create action, it’s worth a shot. If keeping the shortstop and third baseman to the left of second base would help further, let’s at least find out.
This summer, in the minors, the sport could discover something new. What’s clear even before the experiment starts is that baseball needs more balls bouncing across the grass and over the dirt, and whatever tweaks help get to that end have to be explored.