When I was a kid, I had a hard time understanding why there was only one shortstop on the infield. Someone probably explained to me that there are more right-handed hitters than left, but I still found the whole concept of infield imbalance unsettling. Why not be equally as prepared for left-handed hitters as you were for right-handed hitters? My childhood self is now vindicated, as the infield shift is apparently one of the Great Baseball Debates of our time, or at least it seems to be every few months, now.
Yesterday, USA Today published an interview with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, allowing him to wander through his various ideas on how to improve baseball, or at least, in Manfred’s opinion, keep it on the right track. Since taking over for Bud Selig in 2015, Manfred has floated potential tweaks to the game, sometimes radical ones, as apparent trial balloons. One of Manfred’s earliest suggestions was to ban infield shifts; in yesterday’s USA Today report, Manfred seems to have softened his stance to “limiting” infield shifts.
Manfred told USA Today that there were “2,400 infield shifts employed by teams just five years ago, [...] and now baseball is on pace for 28,000 shifts, killing batting averages for everyone not named Jose Altuve.”
Through yesterday’s games, major leaguers are hitting .256, slightly up from the last few years, but significantly off the post-WWII high of .271 in 1999.
A lot of people in baseball and at home on their couches have strong opinions on shifts—though I’d question how often the non-fanatics really notice the uptick in more subtle shifts, considering how infrequently broadcasts show defensive positioning—but Manfred’s position is the one that counts. In his tenure, Manfred has made boosting offense and speeding up pace of game his top priorities. (Those concepts are so often contradictory that I am almost impressed with the duality of Manfred’s thinking) He argues that fans want to see batted balls, not the Dodgers forming a human wall to get an out in extras. Sure, fine, I was a kid during the ‘90s and I love dingers, but I also enjoy seeing new strategic concepts take hold in a game that is fundamentally formulaic and repetitive.
Data on shifts is still somewhat in its infancy (but as MLB’s Statcast develops, we will probably see more advanced contextualized data on shifts). FanGraphs introduced shift splits earlier this year, but noted the following:
It’s also important, when looking at team and league data, to remember that players are shifted for a reason. You can’t simply look at league/team BABIP or wOBA with the shift on or off to determine if shifting works because the population of shifted plays and non-shifted plays do not contain the same hitters. If you want to do a proper analysis, you need to calculate an expected statistic for each group based on the quality of the players in each weighted by PA.
In 2014, John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions (which provides shift data to FanGraphs), argued that shifts don’t actually affect batting averages to any significant degree when looked at en masse—maybe 1 or 2 points off the leaguewide batting average on balls in play. And as shifts have increased exponentially, BABIP has stayed consistent. Dewan broke down how shifts mostly affect left-handed pull hitters on grounders and line drives—which accounts for just a small percentage of the situational outcomes of hitters across a given season—but noted that despite the minor effect on batting average, shifts had accounted for 127 saved runs between Opening Day 2014 and July of that same season. It ain’t nothin’, especially in an time of suppressed offense.
(It should also be noted that some teams and players are affected more heavily by the shift than others: The Yankees, and especially Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira, have been particularly boned by the increase of shifting.)
Without getting further into the weeds and into the takes on shrinking the strike zone to inflate offense (another idea Manfred acknowledged in the same USA Today story), or theories on whether the league is juicing balls, let’s think about how in the world MLB could actually implement this idea. To outright ban “overshifts” would be easy: they could require shortstops to stay on their side of second base. But to “limit” shifts is a murkier concept that raises more questions than it answers.
The three most recent rule changes in baseball—dealing with replay, home plate collisions, and takeout slides—have all been fairly dramatic, but only the first has affected managing strategy. This would likely be another.
To limit shifts, baseball would have to put a hard cap on how many times a manager could deploy a shift in any given game—like replay. (Manfred doesn’t seem to be afraid of this concept: He’s also been floating an idea to limit the amount of pitching changes a manager can make.)
Offensive strategies like pinch hitting and pitching changes are naturally limited by the 25-man roster rule, in a way infield shifts are not. So then how many shifts would baseball allow during a game? Two? Three? One? And what is defined as a shift anyway? Is it when the shortstop plays second? What about when the third baseman moves off the bag? An infielder playing deep? Are all shifts weighted equally?
Even so: Two shifts in a game when a left-handed pitcher is starting are much more valuable than two shifts in a game started by a righty. Managers would have a huge new learning curve on situational shifting—do you shift against a lefty pull hitter in a high leverage situation, like two runners on with a one-run lead in the second? Or do you reserve your shift opportunities for later innings in relief, when a single run may be more dicey? These are surely strategies managers consider now, but the stakes are not as high when the manager can merely shift in both instances.
As a Giants fan, I’ve certainly been baptized into the church of Bruce Bochy, so I’d be fascinated to see when and how managers choose to make decisions on shifts—would there emerge a certain threshold of win probability swings before teams would use their shift?—but I recognize I’m probably in the nerd minority here.
The concept of a rule to limit shifts, though, is blatantly inconsistent with the current infrastructure of baseball’s rule system, and while I fall into the “KEEP BASEBALL EVOLVING” camp, I am not sold on artificial hard limits for defensive or offensive strategies.
Is there a way to limit shifts without a hard limit? Maybe, though I can’t think creatively enough to picture another outcome. (Can you? If so, let’s hear it.)