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New commissioner Rob Manfred's talk of banning shifts makes no sense

New baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is open to banning defensive shifts. That is a terrible idea.

Rob Manfred officially became baseball’s 10th commissioner Sunday morning. In so doing, he stepped out of the shadow of predecessor Bud Selig and into a white-hot spotlight that immediately scalded him. In a SportsCenter interview with ESPN's Karl Ravech, Manfred stoked the ire of baseball fans by not only throwing his support behind the idea of pitch clocks -- which I’ve already railed against in this space -- but by saying that he would be willing to eliminate defensive shifts as a means of boosting offense.

That idea has been floated before, but to hear it come out of the commissioner's mouth is shocking. That’s not just because it would be incredibly difficult to codify (for reasons included below), but because, even more than the idea of pitch clocks, banning shifts would fly in the face of the very nature of the game.

If the first rule of hitting is Wee Willie Keeler’s maxim to “hit ‘em where they ain’t,” the first rule of defense is “play ‘em where they hit ‘em.” Defensive positioning is such a fundamental part of the sport at every level that it’s absurd to even consider limiting a team’s ability to position its fielders however it wants. At every level, fielders come way in for the weaker hitters, move way back for the big boppers and shift around for the rare lefty. Are we to believe that major league hitters need more protection from defensive strategies than Little Leaguers?

Why pitch clocks would be ugly and unnecessary step for MLB

It’s true that the 8.14 runs scored per game in 2014 were the lowest in the majors since 1981 and that the 8.24 runs per game scored over the last two seasons mark the lowest two-year rate since 1975-76. However, even those numbers are well north of what they had been in the late 1960s, when per-game averages dropped to 7.72 runs from 1963-68 and a paltry 6.84 in the last of those years. In response, MLB made two significant moves meant to inject offense back into the game: the decision to reduce the strike zone and lower the mound before the 1969 season, and the introduction of the designated hitter in the American League for the 1973 season.

Those moves worked. For the first 20 years after the debut of the DH, there were an average of 8.51 runs scored per game. That period of balance gave way to the juiced era. From 1993 to 2009, there were an average of 9.60 runs scored per game, a total that had not been reached in any single season between 1951 and '92. Clearly the game was out of whack during that period, but thanks in large part to MLB's increasingly strict performance-enhancing drug policy and the larger size of some of the game’s new ballparks, balance has been restored in recent years. In the five seasons since 2009, there have been 8.49 runs scored per game, effectively returning the game to the run-scoring levels of that long period of balance in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Yes, runs scoring has continued to trend downward, but given that historical context, we’re nowhere near the point at which MLB has to consider a drastic rule change to correct that trend. Using the examples of 1968 and '72, that point wouldn’t arrive until run scoring threatened to dip below seven runs per game. Even in 2014 it was still comfortably above eight runs per game.

What’s more, there’s very little evidence that shifts are to blame for the recent decline in run scoring. The primary purpose of the shift is to increase the number of balls in play turned into outs. Borrowing from the work done by sabermatrician John Dewan in late July, here are the league-wide batting averages on balls in play over those last five seasons along with the total number of shifts (note, I’m using Dewan’s projected number of shifts for 2014, but the BABIP figure for 2014 is official):



















From those numbers, the dramatic increase in shifts the last two seasons appears to have had no overall impact. How is that possible? Because despite that notable increase from recent years they still don’t happen all that often. There were 183,941 plate appearances in the major leagues in 2014. If we bump up Dewan's projected number and assume there were 14,000 shifts, that would mean that defenses shifted on just 7.6 percent of those hitters. If we assume that 67 percent of those batters would have made an out with or without the shift (that works out to a .330 BABIP for those hitters, well above this year’s league average of .314), that means there were just 4,620 at-bats that could have been impacted by the shift, or 2.5 percent of the total. Take out the times that those hitters still reached base -- be it by a hit, home run, walk or hit by pitch -- and the number of at-bats affected by the shift are reduced down to a number so small as to have had no meaningful impact on league-wide scoring levels.

Dewan puts the impact at around 0.1 runs per game, which suggests that without the shift there would have been 8.24 runs scored per game in 2014, rather than the actual 8.14. That’s a change so small that it can be absorbed by year-to-year fluctuation. Consider 2010 and '11 in the chart above. The number of shifts actually went down in 2011, but so did run scoring, from 8.76 runs per game to 8.56, a change twice as large as Dewan’s estimated impact of all of the shifts in baseball in 2014. Whatever is dragging down run scoring — rising strikeout rates, bigger ballparks, fewer performance-enhancing drugs, a simple shift in the balance of talent within the game — shifts are an insignificant part of it.

Meanwhile, shifts add entertainment value as an extra level of strategy. Will this lefthanded slugger give up his power stroke to bunt or slap the ball the other way? Can the hitter hit successfully into the teeth of this shift or muscle up and hit one over everyone, rendering it irrelevant? And how exactly did the manager decide to align his players? Did he bring the third baseman or the shortstop over to the other side of the bag? Where is the second baseman? Are the outfielders shifted as well? 

Derek Jeter's famous dive wasn't the only memorable defensive moment of the July 1, 2004 game between the Yankees and Red Sox.

Derek Jeter's famous dive wasn't the only memorable defensive moment of the July 1, 2004 game between the Yankees and Red Sox.

The July 1, 2004 game between the Red Sox and Yankees in the Bronx is best remembered for Derek Jeter’s dive into the stands behind third base, but one of its most compelling aspects came in the bottom of the 12th inning. With a runner at third and no one out, Boston manager Terry Francona not only brought his infielders in, he called one of his outfielders in to play the infield, giving him a five-man infield. After lefthanded pinch-hitter Jason Giambi struck out, Francona shifted the best defenders of those five to the other side of the diamond while the righthanded Gary Sheffield batted. It was a wildly entertaining scene with fielders exchanging gloves and positions with each batter in an attempt to prolong the game. It ultimately worked, as the Red Sox got the second out of the inning at home plate when Bubba Crosby hit into that overstuffed infield defense. Boston would eventually lose in the 13th inning, but those unorthodox defensive alignments heightened the night's drama and made the game more memorable.

Those sorts of defensive oddities are fun, and they're nearly as old as the game itself. According to Peter Morris’s A Game of Inches, defensive shifts have been a part of the game since at least the 1870s. Bob Ferguson, a 19th century manager, was a pioneer in the use of shifts against both leftthanded and righthanded batters. Lefty Roy Thomas, who played from 1899 to 1911, was often the subject of extreme shifts, according to contemporary pitcher Ed Reulbach. Most famously, Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau shifted against Ted Williams in 1946, an idea mimicked by the Cardinals in that year’s World Series, but Morris reports that opposing managers shifted against Williams in 1941, as well. Poor Williams only managed to hit .406 that year.

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How exactly would a ban on shifts work if, as is most common, it was a lefthanded batter at the plate? Well, Manfred could require there to be two infielders on each side of second base, but managers could get around that by moving an infielder into the outfield and using the leftfielder as the deep-set infielder on the right side, or by simply notifying the umpire that he is switching his third baseman and leftfielder, making the leftfielder technically an infielder. Manfred could require three fielders on each side of second base, including outfielders, but given that centerfielders typically play close to straightaway in a shift because of the extra bodies in rightfield, it wouldn’t dramatically impact the shift to have the centerfielder, leftfielder and an infielder on the opposite side of second base. Manfred could require that there be three fielders on each side of second base, not counting the centerfielder, but, again, the manager could simply switch his centerfielder and the third baseman or shortstop on the lineup card before instigating a shift, then having his “third baseman” or “shortstop” play centerfield, all of which would only serve to slow the pace of play even further.

All of that is, of course, ludicrous. The games of cat-and-mouse should be between the players on the field, not the managers and a poorly-thought-out new rule.

A far better solution to the shift is having hitters learning to hit to all fields. Indeed, the game can regulate itself up to a point, and we are nowhere near that point. Shifts are a reaction to a style of hitting, and hitting styles will change in reaction to shifts. That’s baseball, as is positioning your fielders where the opposing hitters hit the ball. That the game’s new commissioner would express an apparent disregard for that on his first day on the job is tremendously disconcerting.