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New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred would consider eliminating shifts
0:56 | MLB
New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred would consider eliminating shifts
Tuesday January 27th, 2015

“Modern managers have come up with new strategic concepts. The main difference is that they now platoon their pitchers and there is no way of platooning the hitters. Fresh pitchers keep streaming in. Once upon a time a hitter could adjust to a pitcher after he’d come to bat a couple of times and the pitcher is beginning to tire. Now they get no chance to tire and the hitter has no opportunity to adjust. The game has become one-sided.

“My idea would be to clamp a ceiling on the number of pitchers on a squad. If a manager was limited to eight, he wouldn’t be so quick with the hook.”

-- TONY KUBEK, NBC BASEBALL ANALYST, JULY 12, 1968

Can we talk? Apparently not. Commissioner Rob Manfred simply says he is “open” to the idea of eliminating defensive shifts and the guy gets vilified as if he suggested hair highlights for the Mona Lisa, a welding repair job on the Liberty Bell or a wash, dry and fluff for the shroud of Turin. His critics missed the point.

It’s not strictly about the shifts, which have tripled in use just since 2012. Shifts have proliferated because they work, especially against slow, lefthanded hitters.

But they haven’t been as influential as the proliferation of strikeouts, modern bullpen usage and a lower strike zone in the great stifling of offense. And Manfred likely wasn’t talking about the idea of outlawing shifts altogether, but rather a governor such as requiring two infielders to be on either side of second base, which still allows shading.

The point is that Manfred kicked off his commissionership this week with a proclamation that he is open to change -- at a time when baseball faces its greatest offensive drought in more than 40 years. He has a choice: He can put his feet up on his new desk and do nothing because … well, because baseball is such a perfect game that “these things run in cycles” and “hitters will adapt,” or he can be proactive and actually consider ideas to modernize the game and keep it in balance.

It’s an easy choice for Manfred. He is not sitting back. Rest assured the game will look different five to 10 years from now (especially its pace) and provide better content to consumers – an admittedly heartless, but accurate distillation of this $9 billion “pastime” -- because of institutional change, just as it always has evolved with tweaks and shoves. As recently as 1993 you could run over a catcher with abandon and take performance-enhancing drugs without fear of being caught, an umpire’s call was the last word even if it was blatantly wrong, and a second-place team could win 103 games and not make the playoffs. None of that is true today.

Go back further – to 1968, when Kubek’s observation reminds us that baseball has been open-minded when the offense-defense balance gets out of whack. Under commissioner William Eckert, a baseball rules committee did step in on Dec. 3, 1968 with three major announcements: the mound was changed to not only shorten its height from 15 inches to 10 inches but also to mandate a gradual slope; the strike zone was redefined as smaller (from the top of the knees to the armpits, rather than – get this -- anything between the shoulders and the knees); and an enforcement of the rule against illegal pitches (i.e., foreign substances on baseballs).

Eckert called the changes “a good step forward” toward generating “more action.” What’s old is new again.

Less well known, though, is that baseball considered many other ideas at the time, including radical ones such as shortening the distance between the bases, increasing the size of the baseball and easing teams’ travel schedules to allow more time for the players to rest.

Also, according to the New York Times, “the committee said it had not considered strengthening the 20-second limit for pitchers, or the long-discussed ‘wild-card pinch-hitter’ for pitchers.” What would have become the WCPH under such terminology, and a concept Connie Mack proposed as far back as 1906 in another offensively challenged era, became the designated hitter just five years later. The new mound and the DH rebalanced the game.

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Manfred has decided it’s time to at least have a conversation again. Internal movement already is underway. At the owners meeting this month, executives discussed cribbing ideas from soccer’s Premier League (such talk would have been heretic just a few years ago) by beginning all games on the final day of the season at the same time to create a true “finish line” to the season (borrowing from the excitement of the Night of 162 in 2011), limiting the number of timeouts and forcing hitters to keep one foot in the batter’s box, and limiting games that are scheduled the same time as the Futures Game and the First-Year Draft, when baseball competes against itself during two of its few “tentpole” events (small as those tentpoles are).

Moreover, at the most recent general managers meeting an executive brought up an idea I have advocated for consideration before: increasing the minimum number of batters a reliever must face from one to three.

Change of some kind, but not likely to be drastic, is coming. Why? The major league batting average last year was .251. It is harder to get a hit in the major leagues than at any time in the 42 seasons since the DH was added. Runs per game have sunk to their lowest level since 1976. The strikeout rate has gone up nine straight years, hitting unprecedented levels, but the overlooked corollary to this trend is that walks have sunk to their lowest level since 1968.

Frank Franklin II/AP

You might ask, “So what’s so bad about going back to 1976-style baseball?” Here are three reasons why the rate of runs today is far more problematic than in 1976, the last time it was this low:

1. Inaction

Pace of play is a euphemism for the real problem: dead time. As society speeds up baseball slows down. What other business today, other than a meditation retreat or a monastery, would dare ask more of your time and give you less action? Baseball games take longer than ever to produce fewer and fewer runs and balls in play. Games are being extended not by action but by sheer nothingness.

It took an average of about two hours, 25 minutes to score the average of 7.98 runs per game in 1976. Last year it took 3:02 to score 8.14 runs in the typical big league game. That’s an extra 37 minutes of nothingness in which you have to wait, on average, almost 40 percent longer to see a ball actually put into play.

2. Competition 

Baseball had so few entertainment competitors in 1976. At 8 p.m. on Mondays in ‘76 your television viewing choices were little more than The Captain and Tennille, Rhoda, Little House on the Prairie and whatever your local PBS station was airing. When the World Series aired, almost half of all the televisions in use were tuned in to see the Reds sweep the Yankees.

The consumer today, whether through network, cable or streaming options, can watch whatever he or she desires whenever he or she wants. That’s not all. The video-game business, which essentially didn’t exist a generation ago, now dwarfs the revenues of baseball and Hollywood.

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It sounds trite to say “people’s attention spans are getting shorter,” but as technology delivers more choices (or diversions) on a moment’s notice it is changing the way our brains work. A UCLA professor of psychiatry, Gary Small, concluded in a 2007 study, “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.” The magazine Wired referred to that study in 2010, writing, “Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.”

As New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote this week, as we more often turn away from reality and toward so many screens, “We are either the most bored people in the history of our species or the ubiquity of distractions has made us act that way.”

Baseball’s research shows that getting kids involved in the game – by playing it and especially by the experience of going to a major league ballpark – is the greatest factor in building future loyal customers. The challenge for baseball is that a game that relies on the beauty of perseverance, patience, critical thinking and the pondering of what might happen, not just what actually happens now has to reach a generation who virtually from the cradle onward clicks and swipes from one diversion to the next.

3. Trendline

If your idea is to sit around and wait for baseball to self-correct, get very comfortable. Left unchecked, pitching will continue to dominate for years. Cubs manager Joe Maddon believes every advance in baseball’s technology age favors run prevention over run production, and that it will take the training of another generation of hitters, not the current big leaguers, to mount a counterattack to the power of pitching. We haven’t even hit bottom yet. The rates of declining offense are accelerating. In the past five years alone, walks are down 16 percent, runs have decreased by 12 percent and strikeouts have risen 11 percent.

The amateur market, driven by the radar gun and short learning curves (it’s much easier to teach somebody to throw hard than it is to teach them how to hit), is flooding the game with power pitchers. The son of a friend of mine took part in the most recent Area Code games, a showcase for elite high school talent. The kid had 12 plate appearances against 12 different pitchers. He never saw a fastball below 93 mph. Said one college coach, “If I lose a pitcher [recruit], it’s no problem at all. I can easily get another one. But if I lose somebody who is a legit hitter, that’s a real problem. You just can’t find them.”

General managers and managers have figured out how to leverage this steady flow of arms: use more and more pitchers who throw harder and harder in increasingly shorter bursts. The formula has been wildly successful – even despite the increase in Tommy John surgeries, which tells you how abundant is the supply.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, major league teams used 692 pitchers last year, an all-time record and a 24 percent increase since 1998, the first year with 30 teams. The game has changed dramatically very quickly. Here is a look at the average number of pitchers used per team per year in 10-year increments in the Live Ball Era (with 1994, a strike-shortened season, replaced by 1993):

 
Year Pitchers Per team
1924 13.6
1934 12.6
1944 14.1
1954 14.0
1964 15.6
1974 14.3
1984 15.1
1993 18.1
2004 21.1
2014 23.1

What should be done? The first thing that needs to happen is what Manfred tried to do: create dialogue and keep an open mind. Alarm about “banning shifts” is misplaced. Shifts are a small piece of the equation.

The more you study baseball the more you realize how much it evolves and changes. The lowering of the mound after the 1968 season may seem now like a drastic measure, until you realize that before 1949 a mound could be any size up to 15 inches high with any kind of slope. Rick Ferrell, the former catcher who served on the 1968 rules committee, said groundskeepers would change the height and shape of the mound on a daily basis depending on who was pitching. Bob Feller wanted a high mound and got it. Walter Johnson, with his low release point, “pitched from virtual ground level.”

Back to Kubek’s suggestion about limiting the number of pitchers a team can carry: Ferrell said in 1968 that the idea “rates serious investigation and deliberation.” It is true again today, when teams carry 12 or even 13 pitchers. The back half of baseball games – just when games should be getting exciting -- has become a slog of pitching changes interspersed with strikeouts and the rare hit.

(It’s overly simplistic to say the answer to the offensive drought is to have players beat the shifts with bunts and hit the ball the other way – like it’s just that easy. Hitters have to face more pitchers than ever before and these pitchers are throwing harder than ever before while umpires are calling more strikes.)

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Perhaps an even better idea than Kubek’s limit on pitchers is the three-batter minimum, which would slow the parade of relievers. Maybe the least aesthetic baseball game ever played was a 4-3 win by the Houston Astros over the New York Mets on April 30, 2012. More aptly, it was a game between Brad Mills and Terry Collins, the two managers. They used 11 pitchers to get the last 16 outs. It is the only game in history in which seven pitchers faced only one batter. Nobody bought a ticket so they could watch Mills and Collins, but that’s what they got. What fun.

The one pitcher-one batter strategy has parallels to what is happening with shifts: it works and its usage is exploding, but, in conjunction with where baseball fits in the entertainment spectrum, it raises the question on whether it’s best for the long-term health of the game. Over the past decade relief appearances increased 8.2 percent, but the number of one-batter relief appearances per game shot up 23 percent – and 183 percent in 30 years.

Kubek, who had been a Yankees shortstop from 1957-65 before beginning a long career as a broadcaster, made his comments in 1968 to Arthur Daley of the New York Times. Daley wrote that Kubek was, “like other men who have spent their adult lives in the sport … appalled by the complete subjugation of the hitters by the pitchers.” Said Kubek, “The game has become one-sided.”

We have a long way to go before it’s again 1968, when the major league batting average was just .237, runs were 16 percent harder to come by than they are now and attendance was declining. But Manfred sees where baseball is headed. He sees a game that takes longer and longer to play with more and more pitchers and fewer and fewer periods of action while his customers have more and more diversions, and so he is open to ideas designed to rebalance the game.

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