Baseball

The Case For the Shift: Why Banning It Will Only Exacerbate the Problems With Modern Baseball

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As part of their negotiations for the collective bargaining agreement, the MLB Players Association agreed to allow Major League Baseball (MLB) to ban shifts starting in 2023. MLB views the shift as a damper on the offensive potential of the game, and hopes that banning it will increase run-scoring and defensive action. However, MLB’s vision is near-sighted. Banning the shift will only reward the players who are hurting the game the most.

Case for the Shift: History

In baseball, a shift is any movement of fielders that deviates from the traditional positioning of the nine fielders.

Understanding Every Baseball Position and Their Role – Baseball Training  World

While the alignment of players displayed above has been accepted as the default for baseball, there are no official rules in baseball regarding where fielders should be positioned. Managers have always moved their players around to be tailored to specific hitters and the rise of analytics has magnified that effect.

The shift is not entirely new. In fact, teams have been shifting since the 1920s, when Phillies outfielder Cy Williams faced defenses almost entirely on the right side of the field. In 1941, Ted Williams faced the first modern shift, with three infielders on the right side of the infield.

But even at the most basic level, shifts are integral to baseball. In little league, kids are taught to shift to the left or right according to the hand the batter hits with, and back up or creep in relative to the hitter’s power.

In recent years, shifting has been elevated to new heights. It is no longer reserved for just pull-heavy left-handed hitters. Since 2016, the percentage of plate appearances with a shift has skyrocketed from 13.7% to 30.9%. Over 50% of left-handed batters and 20% of right-handed batters are shifted, which is generally defined as three fielders on one side of second base. Teams have gone so far as to experiment with four-man outfields, as baseball moves towards a positionless state. As teams get more data on hitters, they can tailor their defense more accurately to hitters’ strengths.

Case for the Shift: What A Ban Would Look Like?

MLB’s main concern is with infield shifts like the one implemented by the Padres in the video above. In Double-A, there is already a ban on shifts, implemented by MLB as a test for the 2021 season. That rule requires teams to keep four fielders on the infield at all times, but still gives teams the freedom to position players on whatever side of the infield they want. This could be the rule that MLB chooses to implement, but they could also potentially go farther and mandate that teams have only two defenders on each side of second base. One or both of these changes is likely to be implemented in 2023 if current negotiations hold.

Case for the Shift: Don’t Ban the Shift!

While on the surface banning the shift may appear a solution to inject more excitement into baseball, it will likely have the opposite effect.

For starters, the effect that the shift is having on limiting offensive production is not clear. Yes, it is true that batting average on balls in play is lower when players are shifted, but, the amount is not greatly significant. Baseball Info Solutions reports shifting caused 213 would-be hits to be turned into outs in 2020. Banning the shift and making those outs become hits would result in an increase in runs of less than 1.5 percent in a typical season. In addition, there is a growing amount of evidence that shifts cause pitchers to walk batters more than the number of hits they prevent, indicating that banning shifts might hurt the number of runs scored, even if marginally.

The main problem with banning the shift is that it rewards the players who contribute the least action to the game. While the relationship is not super strong, players that strike out the most also tend to be the players that are shifted the most.

As you can see above, both among left-handed and right-handed hitters, there is a general trend that players who strike out more are shifted more. This is likely because players who pull the ball more are shifted more, and players that pull the ball more usually attempt to hit harder and thus strike out more. Nobody epitomizes this more than Joey Gallo, who is shifted 95% of the time and boasts a whopping 34.6% strikeout rate.

Banning the shift only helps out players like Gallo, because more of their ground balls get through the infield, more of their line drives get over the head of the second baseman, and more of their flyballs fail to be caught when teams are unable to have four outfielders. That becomes a problem for the league. The entire goal of banning the shift is to increase activity, but rewarding the players that strike out the most only serves to decrease the amount of action.

So it is already clear that banning the shift would fail to accomplish MLB’s goals of increasing action and run-scoring, but the rationale behind banning the shift does not make much sense in the first place. As mentioned previously, teams have been shifting since the 1920s, to best adjust to their opponents. The shift is a fundamental part of baseball, and changing the rules surrounding positioning is altering the foundations of the game.

The notion that players cannot adjust does not make much sense. The fundamental motto of hitting since the 19th century has been “hit it where they ain’t.” If a certain type of coverage in football is extremely successful, offenses adjust and gameplan against it. And there’s reason to suggest that MLB batters are adjusting as well. They may not be bunting onto the other side of the infield, but players are hitting far more balls into the air when shifted.

But, arguably the best rationale for keeping the shift is that the shift itself increases action in the game and makes it much more unpredictable. For 100 years, every hitter has faced the same defensive alignment, with balls hit to certain locations being guaranteed hits and other ones being guaranteed outs. Seeing ground ball singles up the middle turn into routine ground ball outs keeps viewers more engaged because they do not know what is going to happen. Seeing four-man outfields for the first time is an exciting event. MLB’s actions towards banning the shift will ruin that element of surprise for fans, and probably make the game more boring in the process.

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