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The Great Debate: Should the MLB Ban the Shift?

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What has always interested me, as America’s Past-time, there has always been this aura where we should not change the game of baseball. Of course, that’s impossible, and there have been numerous changes throughout the ages – from the ball, the height of the mound, even the number of games.

It was reported by Jayson Stark of the Athletic that Rob Manfred has “strong backing” to limit the shifts in baseball. Key note 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.”

History of the Shift

Here was MLB.com’s write up on the history:

“The shift first garnered attention in the 1920s, when opposing managers realigned their defense to deal with left-handed Phillies slugger Cy Williams. In 1946, another Williams forced the shift to prominence again, when Indians manager Lou Boudreau used the now infamous “Ted Williams shift” -- six fielders on the right side of second base -- against the fearsome Red Sox hitter. During the ‘46 World Series, Cardinals manager Eddie Dyer tried several different types of shifts against the Splendid Splinter, who would see variations of the shift for the duration of his career. Initially, Williams didn’t change his approach much at all; Ty Cobb publicly called him “stupid” for not being more adaptable.”

So how would this effect the Astros?

The Astros have been on the “bleeding edge” of analytics and part of that has been embracing the shift to an extreme, shifting for a league leading 37.3% of plays (League average is 17.4%, and they do it a full 7.3% more than the second highest team.

Baseball Savant / Statcast

Hinch was interviewed earlier in the year in regards to his opinion, here was his take:

“I don’t think the problem is the shift, I think the problem is the commitment to trying to beat it,” Hinch said Saturday. “You have guys that don’t want to hit the ball the other way, then we’re going to continue to shift. We’ve never had an offsides in baseball — that would be rare, that would be weird.””

”To me, shifts are designed to take away the strengths of the hitter or what the tendencies of the hitter are,” Hinch said. “If those tendencies could change then the hits would change. But it’s not a fail proof situation where we’re not giving up something — we’re giving up half the field sometimes to some of these guys.”

”I think we can fix the game in a lot of different ways,” Hinch said. “I would hope that they would take a longer look at other things before they worry about where a certain player is standing on the field.”

Fangraphs did an article on the topic as well, deep diving to see if there has been statistical evidence to show the results of the shift. BABIP and Ground balls have stayed fairly consistent, and while we don’t know if there would have been an increase if the shift had not occurred, it doesn’t seem to be a primary factor on “killing” offense. They found the leading cause to be the improvement in pitching. Here is a snippet from their article.

“But if baseball is concerned about action, or pacing, I don’t know what killing the shift would accomplish. Some events would play out differently, yes. But it’s not like fly balls are out of control. Compared to a decade ago, league-wide ground-ball rate is down exactly one-tenth of one percentage point. It’s basically hovered between 43 – 45%. Eliminating the shift could well incentivize more fly balls. If baseball’s worried about action, I don’t think the issue is the shift. I don’t think the issue is the hitters. The issue is the pitchers.”

My Thoughts

Well baseball is constantly evolving, and I tend to agree with the sentiments that were listed by Fangraphs (and many others), that truthfully, the shift is not the problem. I understand why it bothers purists, but it has been around in baseball for an eternity, it simply has been embraced more and more as the data to make educated decisions on the shift give it credibility.

I know that Manfred is looking to infuse more offense and action into baseball, but I don’t think this is the area of focus. If I were commissioner, I’d start the discussion of utilizing technology to improve the game. While I look back fondly in my remembrance of Greg Maddux (even with his slaughter of the Astros in the playoffs) and his ability to get the “outside edge”, I think that’s a larger issue than the positioning of players.

The technology exists in today’s day and age to accurately measure what is a ball or a strike. This of course, would be a massive undertaking, both from the perspective of battling the Umpires union, to the baseball purists. In fairness, I do think that fans today would embrace it though.

Tell me, what are your thoughts on banning the shift?

Poll

Do you want the MLB to ban the shift?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Yes
    (21 votes)
  • 88%
    No
    (260 votes)
  • 4%
    Who cares
    (14 votes)
295 votes total Vote Now