One of the first issues Major League Baseball's new commissioner has said he'll consider is the rising popularity of radical defensive shifts.
Last season clubs across baseball implemented a modern day interpretation of the Ted Williams shift, putting three infielders on the right side of the infield against lefty pull hitters.
Rob Manfred said eliminating the shift could result in increased offense and make baseball more exciting and popular. But is adding artificial rules really an improvement? Or is it watering down a game for the sake of fixing an issue that isn't really a problem?
I'm not a fan of the shifts. It's not because I think it's unfair when other teams employ them against the St. Louis Cardinals. Instead, it's because I think it's a risky move from a defensive standpoint.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
If teams play three infielders on the right side of second base and one on the left, it's nearly an automatic free hit to anyone who wants to take it. A small threat could turn into a serious problem if a batter is willing to swallow his pride and take a single instead of trying to launch a ball over the defensive alignment into the bleachers.
Williams was loathe to do so because he was as hardheaded as ballplayers came. He wanted not just to win the battle. He wanted to dominate and prove to the opposition that there was nothing it could do to stop him. He’d almost never bunt or slap the ball to the left side, no matter the game situation.
Besides moving fielders from normal hitting lanes, radical shifts can also make double plays extremely difficult to turn.
They can force pitchers to alter their strategy. If you throw pull hitters pitches that are difficult to pull, it's like a gift to give them a free hit the other way. When they've honed their craft to coax a ball to the shortstop, it doesn't help if the shortstop is 20 feet out of position... If I was a competitor, I’d want to use my best stuff against my opponent’s best stuff than go with pitches in which I have less faith to try to exploit a perceived weakness.
Any advantage a particular hitter's spray chart indicates a shift will give is completely negated by their changing intentions. That spray chart which shows a lefty batter pulls the ball 90 percent of the time is worthless when the hitter decides he's tired of trying to beat the shift and he learns to slap the ball into left field.
Sure he pulls it 90 percent of the time when there aren’t three guys between first and second. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of stroking the ball to left field.
Baseball is beautiful because it doesn't have so many rules to remember that it would give a tax attorney a headache. National Football League games are constantly stopped by flags for this or that. In baseball, it's simple: You're safe or you're out. It's foul or it's fair. It's a ball or it's a strike. No one calls back a home run for illegal procedure or wipes out a play because someone was offsides.
So let's stop this nonsense about a pitch clock, the clear as mud rules about collisions at home plate and a ban on shifts.
Baseball is a game that is always evolving. As more hitters take advantage of the opportunities the radical defensive alignments allow, teams will be forced to play things straight or suffer the consequences. We don't need big rule changes.
Let's not forget that baseball decided to solve a perceived problem of lack of offense by adding an experiment called the "designated hitter." More than 40 years later, we're still stuck with it.