I’ve never had too strong an opinion on whether or not Major League Baseball should ban the shift.
If they do, we can expect batting averages to increase for left-handed power hitters, and that’s good. Hits are fun, and more of them is never a bad thing. On the other hand, learning to adapt and overcome the shift is something I think more hitters should try to learn. While hitting away from the shift is near impossible, bunting makes hitting to one side of the field much more reliable and I’m shocked that more powerful lefties haven’t spent an offseason learning to bunt to get around the shift, and perhaps encourage teams to stop shifting against them.
Now, you might be thinking: “By bunting, they might get on base more often, but that’s essentially taking the bat out of your best hitter’s hands,” but I disagree. If said hitter reached base on just 50 percent of his bunts in play, that would essentially be the same thing as walking in 50 percent of his plate appearances and I doubt anyone would consider that a bad thing.
The point is, I’ve never cared either way. Ban it? Cool. Don’t ban it? Fine by me. I just want baseball. So, when MLB and the MLBPA announced earlier this week that banning the shift would be one of the terms in the new league CBA, I just sort of shrugged and hoped that decision helped inch us closer to the start of the season.
Several fans were dissatisfied with the news though.
“That’s alright. To each their own,” I thought. “If you’re unhappy with the rule changes, you have every right to be.” Then, I saw this tweet:
I thought, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Why? Because the NFL already sets strict shift regulations. They just happen on the offensive end. If the offense doesn’t line up with seven people on the line of scrimmage, it’s a penalty. There are very particular guidelines for when a player is set in motion. The NFL has to implement these rules because the offense innately has a competitive advantage because it is in possession of the ball. The defense has to react to what the offense does.
This is the same case with any other sport. In soccer and hockey, there are offsides. You can’t just sit on one side of the field or rink and wait for the ball/puck to come your way for an easy goal. In the NBA, we have the three-second rule. You can’t just sit in the paint and wait for a pass right underneath the hoop for an easy bucket. These other leagues already have restrictions in place to give the side with the advantage more of a challenge.
However, it’s different in baseball. The defense only reacts to what the offense does after the ball is hit. It’s the defense that determines pace of play and the offense must first react to the pitch before making a move. Want to steal a base? Wait for the pitcher to move toward home. If you don’t, you can get picked off. Want to hit a single? React to the pitch and send it back up the middle. Baseball is the only major sport where the defense has the competitive advantage and by limiting their ability to set up however they like, MLB is merely mirroring what other leagues have done in order to instill competitive balance between both sides.
What’s that? You don’t think being on defense is advantageous in baseball. I mean, in a sense, you’re right. You can’t score on defense in baseball like you can in other sports. However, you can’t tell me that being able to shift to exactly where hitters are likely to hit the ball and then pitching into an area designed to get that hitter to hit the ball to said area isn’t advantageous. Not to mention the hitter doesn’t know whether it’s going to be a fastball or off-speed pitch, whether it’ll be high or low, come straight at their face or break toward the zone. A pitcher might specifically pitch inside or outside to induce contact to one side of the field. Hitters can pick up on that, but there are still several other factors that the hitter has to react to.
Now, the baseball puritans among you might be thinking: “Why not just hit it where they ain’t?” That is the age-old saying, right? But the game has changed. It may have been easy to do so when fastballs were topping out in the low to mid-90's, but now Jacob deGrom is throwing 100 with ease. Combine that with devastating movement on his slider and changeup, and it’s a wonder anybody makes contact nowadays. Yu Darvish’s slider tops out at around 86 mph. You try taking this down the third base side from the left side of the plate.
While banning the shift may go against the whole idea of “natural selection” or “change with the game or get left behind,” it’s not anything we haven’t seen before in other sports. It’s merely the first time we’ve seen this happen on the defensive end, but that’s where baseball needs to instill changes, because that’s where the advantage lies. Wouldn’t you get upset if hockey eliminated the offsides rule or if the NBA just allowed an entire offense to sit in the paint and tussle for positioning while Steph Curry worked 1-on-1 up top. If he misses, his teammates are in position to get the rebound and try again. It wouldn’t be fair, and that’s sort of what the shift was in MLB.
Of course there are ways to work around it, such as learning to bunt. While I and many others might be OK with seeing more bunting to adapt to the shift, let’s be honest with ourselves. Is more bunting what baseball, a sport suffering in popularity, really needs? It would probably just turn more people away. Like I said, it’s cool if you dislike the shift ban, but don’t pretend like it’s something we haven’t seen before.