I want to share a screenshot from the beginning of a Youtube clip of Willie McGee making a great catch in Game 3 of the 1982 World Series. You probably know the play.
As you can see, there are three infielders on our left side of second base, presumably from left to right, Ken Oberkfell, Ozzie Smith, and Tom Herr. It’s an obvious shift and a somewhat pronounced one at that for righty hitter Gorman Thomas, who I can only assume was known to pull the ball.
This picture is both telling and misleading. Telling because it shows that shifts are not some new radical phenomenon cultivated within the last five to ten years, an era in which every single clubhouse is at least sabermetrically inclined to a modest degree. But it’s misleading if the takeaway is that shifts today are just like the shifts of 1982. That it’s always had a big influence on the game. That is false. In an article from this past May, Mike Petriello of MLB.com noted that teams were shifting on approximately 17 percent of plate appearances for the year, which was a four percent increase from just two years prior. I couldn’t find the numbers for 1982 or even 1992, but I think we can stipulate that the respective percentages paled to the current ones.
It’s on that foundation that Jayson Stark of the Athletic noted on Wednesday that there is real momentum not just with Commissioner Rob Manfred, but in other circles which matter, to ban the shift. From the article:
The commissioner has been contemplating “eliminating shifts” since the week he took the job back in 2015. And now, we’re hearing, support for that idea is building.
At last month’s owners meetings, baseball’s competition committee gave the commissioner “strong” backing to try to “put something in place” to limit shifts, according to sources who spoke directly with members of the committee. So next up, it’s time to run this – and more – past the players’ union.
I get it. Pitchers are better and throwing harder than ever, resulting in strikeouts at an all-time high, reaching 22.3 percent in all of plate appearances in 2018, a near-five percent increase from just ten years ago. The league batting average in 2018 was .248, the first time it had dipped below .250 in almost 50 years. We have a balls in play problem, and it’s not unreasonable to think that banning the shift would not only be a helpful remedy but also make the game more aesthetically pleasing for serious and casual fans alike.
The problem as I see it is two-fold. First – and this is a strictly personal opinion rooted in nothing of value whatsoever – the idea of banning the shift, eliminating a defensive strategy that has been permitted for many, many years, offends my baseball sensibilities more than three infielders standing on one side of a bag. Fair enough? Fine.
Second, and more important, enforcement of such a ban sounds, I dunno, burdensome? If the idea is that the shortstop can’t drift beyond his side of second base (and vice versa with second basemen), will there be an imaginary line to which they can’t cross before the ball is pitched, to which an umpire is supposed to police with his naked eye? Will there be an actual line extending into the outfield? (Side point: That would be a bit ugly, no?) Or would it be dependent on an opposing manager to make an illegal shift challenge? Would the manager have to make such a challenge before a ball is pitched or can he do it afterwards? And if such a challenge is upheld, what is the result of the preceding play? Such questions seem endless.
And if we still consider pace of play a problem – the Commissioner’s original bailiwick – and assuming a shift will be challengeable, are we ready for stoppages mid-play while replay officials in New York pick apart whether an alignment actually constituted a shift? Zoom-in cameras on a shortstop’s left foot to see precisely where it lies on the diamond. That doesn’t seem to right any existing wrongs, which is the intended purpose of replay, it just makes the game possibly longer and certainly more complicated.
To be clear, I don’t know what banning the shift actually looks like, and maybe if such an idea came to fruition it would not at all resemble what I described above, but prove to be completely practical in both application and enforcement. I do agree that aggressive shifts are not always conducive to the most watchable brand of baseball, or fun for proud members of the Matt Carpenter Fan Club.
So I’m not denying that a problem exists. As I conceded earlier, there are too few balls in play, too much of the Three True Outcomes in contemporary baseball, and anything that advances the goal of making the sport more enjoyable for all is at least worthy of a discussion. So at the very least, that’s what this is. A worthy discussion. But outside of a cosmetic fix, whether by moving the mound back six inches or lowering it still, this seems like one of those problems better left to evolution rather than a new rule that fundamentally changes the game and, at first glance, sounds very hard to enforce.