Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Banning the shift isn’t a fix for what’s wrong with baseball

So long to the shift.
So long to the shift.
Illustration: (Shutterstock)


As he has a habit of doing on the reg, Rob Manfred opened his mouth and let out more bile about the game he governs. Or at least he exhibited how he fails to see the problems with the game as they really are. As it has been in the past, this time it was about infield shifts.

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Appearing last week on the Dan Patrick Show, Manfred placed the onus/blame onto the game’s competition committee of the shift being “a hot topic.”

Much like Manfred’s war on the length of games, he’s only looking at the symptoms.

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Creating more singles dribbled through a hole isn’t going to suddenly make the game more attractive to teenagers. Because the problem is baseball doesn’t have enough of those grounders as it is. It doesn’t have enough of all types of contact.

Baseball has a contact problem. Strikeouts once again outnumbered hits in 2020, just as it did last season, and the year before that. While requiring players to remain in fixed areas would increase singles, and probably bring hits above strikeouts in total, it wouldn’t create fewer strikeouts. And of course, you might see pitchers even more afraid of contact, knowing that their infield wasn’t optimally positioned. This might boost walks, and even bounce up Ks a little bit as well. And there’s evidence that the shift doesn’t really have the effect people think it does.

When it comes to increasing offense — and, really, increasing action is the real goal — the leagues that have done so successfully have set out to reward the evolution of the athlete and game, and cull those who couldn’t keep up.

For hockey, the change was eliminating the clutching and grabbing that set the sport back a decade or two in the late 90s and early 2000s, a move that left lead-footed defensemen gradually phased out of the NHL (unless you’re the Blackhawks).

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In basketball, the change was to open up driving lanes by doing away with hand-checking and more physical defending. If you couldn’t move your feet, you couldn’t keep up with players who were quicker to the hoop than ever before.

The NFL may have gone overboard with its crackdowns on pass interference and defensive holding, but the idea was the same.

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Banning the shift in baseball only seeks to penalize strategy, which is a natural extension/evolution of the game. It isn’t punishing bad players the game should be leaving behind. It could be argued, if you wanted, that weaker defenders are “protected” by the shift, i.e. not having to have the range they would have in past eras as their positioning would make up for it. But what baseball is aiming for is to keep better offensive players around.

It’s always hard to compare baseball to other sports, because it is just so different. What the aim should be is how to move on from the players at the bottom of the talent pool now and essentially bring the mean of talent and skill up.

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It’s harsh to pin that on relievers, but that’s the problem. Guys who throw 45 pitches per week are unquestionably the worst players on any given roster. Certainly the most limited, to be more fair about it. Velocity and specialization of pitching is the problem here. Contact is the problem. Action is the problem, in that the seven fielders spend so much time standing still. Plays like the ones that ended Game 4 of the World Series are rarer and rarer (although pure calamity isn’t what Manfred is after... I think). What baseball wants is just that, more plays with multiple runners in motion on the basepaths and fielders in motion all over the field either retrieving the ball or setting up cut-offs or getting ready to receive a throw.

To punish velocity by moving the mound back, on its surface, would seem to be punishing the natural evolution of the talent on display. And in some ways, it is. But while starters have seen their velocity increase along with the specialized relievers, they are also throwing breaking pitches more devilish than anyo era before them. They have more offerings, and would adjust to having more ground to cover with their pitches. Meanwhile, relievers who really only throw hard would find their one and only weapon taken away from them with the mound moved beyond six feet, six inches. They are the most limited players, and the game would move on from the ones who can’t vary their game in some way or offer anything else.

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While the three-batter rule was only a naked attempt to shorten game-times, indirectly it had a small effect in this way. Pitchers who can only throw to one batter at a time are clearly the bottom of the roster, and either had to improve or be replaced by someone who can take a full inning. Baseball left a caveat in there to keep them around by allowing them to simply finish an inning without facing three batters, but it should go the full way and just say no more mid-inning pitching changes. After two or three months, no fan is really going to miss the LOOGY.

Moving the mound back from its current location would reduce the effect of velocity, making contact more prevalent, and increase the value of pitchers who can do more than simply throw. The drawback may be that added reaction time for hitters would have something of a “Tiger Woods Effect” on non-velocity based pitchers, i.e. that when golf courses started having to elongate to deal with the distances Woods and others could drive a ball, they kept those golfers from obliterating their course but also made it impossible for those who were 260 off the tee to keep up. Pitchers that rely solely on movement and location could be squashed in the same way. The counter to that is if you have superior control, you’ll always find a way.

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In order to get hitters’ reaction time to where it was in 2010, when the average fastball was a full two MPH lower than it is now, the mound would need to be set to 61 feet, nine inches.

Baseball doesn’t need to kneecap how its strategy has evolved. It needs to find a way to simply cut the wheat from the chaff.

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And it isn’t all that hard.

Have you ever looked at a dollar bill, man?

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