Arizona Diamondbacks, Baseball Info Systems, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Dick Enberg, Dustin Pedroia, Los Angeles Dodgers, Lou Boudreau, Mark Grant, Mark Teixeira, New stats, New York Yankees, rule changes, San Diego Padres, shfts, Ted Williams
On a Padres TV broadcast the other day, venerable play-by-play man Dick Enberg broached the topic of whether baseball ought to outlaw the practice of shifting most of the fielders to one of the side the field.
This surprised me.
While the commissioner has raised the possibility of eliminating the tactic, and it is a topic discussed among fans, it is the first time I can remember watching a game where a TV guy brought up the possibility of a rule change.
Of course baseball announcers on TV talk about shifts all the time. In fact, they seem to love the shift for the simple reason that they can talk about it.
The usual commentary is something like: “We’re seeing a lot more of this all the time!” or “Look where the third baseman is playing!?”
TV directors apparently like it, too. It’s one of the few times between pitches they will choose a shot that shows where fielders are positioned over one of their preferred images: closeup of the pitcher showing no expression, closeup of the batter showing no expression, closeup of a guy picking his nose or spitting seeds in the dugout, or fans in the stands eating something.
For the record the Padres announcers’ opinions on the shift broke down this way:
Enberg merely raised the question and really didn’t weigh in on it.
Mark Grant, a former pitcher, said the hitters should just go the opposite way of the shift.
Kris Budden, the roving reporter, said he found it hard to believe that baseball could afford to give it up all the offense the shift is taking away.
And boy is it.
Last year teams averaged 4.07 runs per game, the lowest since 1981. This year offense is up slightly, 4.12 runs per team per game through July 2. If the trend were to hold, it would tie for second lowest since 1981. The aggregate batting average last season was .251 — the lowest since 1972, the season that prompted the American League to adopt the designated hitter.
And you know what? Kids have fallen in love with the shift. As we were going into the park before a Diamondbacks-Dodgers game the other night, a youngster of about 8 said to his dad, “I hope we see some shifts tonight.”
Can you believe it? Well, don’t. I was just kidding.
No one is paying to see left-handed sluggers thrown on out at first base on hard-hit grounders to right field that traditionally have been singles. No one, aside from the aforementioned TV people, a handful of the numbers geeks and former pitchers finds it overly compelling to see a hitter make an out because the ball is hit right at a perfectly positioned defender.
Research from Baseball Info Systems shows that in 2,357 balls were hit in play against shifts in 2011. The figure was 13,296 in 2014.
So here you have a tactic that doesn’t produce a good spectator experience, hasn’t been a regular part of the game until recently and is spreading like kudzu. Seems like a natural for a rule banning the practice.
I know what the NFL would do. Something like this would have been eliminated about four years ago.
Baseball tends to be cautious with rule changes, and there are some who believe the hitters should adjust and avoid hitting into the teeth of the shift, as if hitting against 94 mph cutters isn’t challenge enough. Well, the hitters have had several seasons to adjust, and so far the shift continues to become more and more effective.
If baseball makes a rule change, it will probably require two infielders on each side of second base. That’s the simplest solution.
My suggestion is more complicated and radical, but I think it would be better for the sport.
Every infielder and outfielder would be assigned a starting spot in a traditional fielding alignment. They could leave that spot as soon as the pitcher started his motion toward home plate.
Leaving too early or from the wrong spot would result in a ball and a “fielder’s balk.”
If you wanted to shift radically, you still could. You just would need fielders who could get to the designated spot quickly and be ready to field, sometimes on the fly. Instead of having a second baseman in short right standing and waiting for a line drive, the player might make the play but on the run.
Or barely miss it.
You would have more players moving, which would make the game more visually compelling.
You also need more planning and team coordination to pull off a defensive realignment.
Even the number-crunchers could love it because it would give you more stats to track — perhaps something like Percentage Reached Optimum Position.
As Enberg would say, “Oh my.”