Reports that surfaced Sunday regarding Major League Baseball and its players union agreeing to ban defensive shifts as early as 2023 has triggered much discussion on the topic and had me pondering whether I liked the idea or not.
At this point, I’m not completely sure where I stand, but I’m learning toward liking the idea.
As an older baseball fan, I grew up in the era where shifts weren’t nearly as big a part of the game as they are today. And I have to say that I found it reassuring to know that when a batter stroked a pitch up the middle, most of the time it was going into center field for a base hit. It was simply a fact; you never had to give it a second thought. Now, though, it seems that all too often an infielder is stationed directly behind the bag and easily turns that would-be base hit into a routine out at first.
The same goes for a line shot to short right field. For many years, that was a sure single. Now, though, it’s common to see an erstwhile infielder playing in short right – and turning that one-hopper into an out at first.
And when it happens to the team I’m rooting for, I hate it.
But is that reason enough to ban teams from deploying their defenders as they see fit? Shouldn’t hitters be able to adjust, and take advantage of the holes that the shifts actually create? After all, they’re professionals, right?
Yes, they’re professionals. But I hate to watch hitters try to steer a pitch in a certain direction. It just doesn’t feel right.
The shift has become a staple of defensive alignments in recent years. In 2021, two teams – the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets – employed shifts in more than half of their opposition’s plate appearances. The Pittsburgh Pirates ranked 12th among MLB’s 30 teams at 33.5 percent, according to Baseball Savant. The numbers were heavily tilted toward left-handed hitters; the Pirates shifted 64.7 percent of the time against lefties and just 9.6 percent against right-handed hitters.
Banning the shift wouldn’t be an unprecedented move, as it was outlawed at the Double-A level in 2021. During the first half of the season, no infielder was permitted to stand in the outfield once a pitch was delivered. During the second half, that rule remained in effect and also two infielders were required to stand on each side of second base.
According to an article in The Athletic, an entity known as Sports Info Solutions crunched some of the Double-A numbers and found the percentage of ground balls and bunts that wound up as outs dropped from 71.5 percent in 2019 to 70.5 percent in 2021. The Athletic also reported that, according to Baseball America, batting averages on balls in play (BABIP) rose from .305 in 2019 to .307 in 2021.
I don’t know what to make of those numbers; math was never my forte. But I don’t see the harm in instituting similar rules – two infielders on each side of second base and no infielders in the outfield — at the big league level in 2023, just to see what happens. If the results have a major negative effect on the game, then just go back to allowing the shift in 2024. It’s not as if the game will be irreparably broken. And in the meantime, it will result in a better “look” for us old-timers.