Would Banning Defensive Shifts Make Baseball a Livelier Game? Don't Count On It
Few things get grumbles from older baseball folks than the shift. Since the strategy proliferated five years ago, the sight of an extra player on one side of the infield is a guaranteed blood boiler for those who remember the way the game used to be played, when groundballs rolled through for hits instead of being turned into outs. As it so happens, the rise of the shift has coincided with a league-wide downturn in things like batting average—last year’s .248 mark was MLB’s lowest since 1972’s .244—and singles, which are now amid a fifth straight year of decline. Woe unto the shift, cry the sport’s elders, for it has robbed us of our offense.
Well, we may not have the shift to kick around much longer. Per The Athletic’s Jayson Stark, support for banning the shift—or at least limiting it—is growing around baseball. At November’s owners meetings, MLB’s competition committee signaled a desire to Commissioner Rob Manfred to “put something in place” to reduce the number of shifts. As Stark reports, the shift has been one of Manfred’s bugaboos since he took office, and with owners now potentially on board, the league may soon approach the players’ union about doing away with the shift. Stark expects that they’ll also be on board, noting that both hitters and pitchers aren’t fans of it either. “I think it’s a lay-up to get approved by the players,” an anonymous executive told him.
Don’t be surprised, then, if this offseason sees the end of the shift as we know it, with the goal of bringing some more on-field action into a game now dominated by strikeouts. But would eliminating the dreaded shift actually have a positive effect on the game? Don’t count on it.
Start with the fact that, as omnipresent as the shift may feel, it’s not all that common. As MLB.com’s resident stats guru Mike Petriello pointed out on Twitter, only 17% of all plate appearances last year featured a shift. Reducing the number of shifts won’t have a pronounced impact on most of the sport as it’s already played—just a few times per game, all told.
Consider also what exactly the shift is robbing us of: groundball singles, the cheapest hits of them all. Shifts don’t prevent home runs or steal away doubles and triples—the hits that more often lead to runs. And while the single may be dying, it hasn’t taken offense down with it; runs totals aren’t decreasing. “I wonder if singles impact run-scoring as much as we assume,” one AL manager told Stark, and the answer is almost certainly no.
That’s true even if you give back all the hits that the shift has taken away. Stark’s research shows that, last year, some 500 balls that should have been hits were turned into outs by shifts. That may sound like a lot, but as he points out, that’s 500 hits spread out over 2,400 games, or about three extra hits a day across the entire league—and all of them singles. Not all singles are created equal, but that doesn’t sound like a sudden explosion of offense or action to me.
Then there’s the matter of who would be helped the most by the shift’s disappearance: slow lefthanders who pull the ball. A groundball to the right side of the infield has regularly become an out thanks to the shift, and the effect that has on lefthanded hitters is easy to see. Stark points out five hitters who had the most plate appearances against a shift last season—the Mariners’ Kyle Seager, the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, the Braves’ Freddie Freeman, the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo, and the Athletics’ Matt Olson, all lefties—and their respective batting averages, which range from okay (Olson at .260) to downright ugly (Carpenter at .161).
Unmentioned, though, is that the majority of those hitters are doing fine even with the shift. Despite constantly battling an overloaded right side, Carpenter’s season line was a stellar .257/.374/.523. Per the Statcast numbers at Baseball Savant, he saw an infield shift in 83.2% of his plate appearances last season and posted a weighted on-base average of .371 in them. That doesn’t look like a hitter who has much reason to curse the shift, beyond a few lost singles. The same is true of Freeman (a .365 wOBA versus the shift) and Rizzo (.363).
There are hitters who are getting clobbered by the shift. No one sees more of them than Chris Davis, at 91.9% of the time, and his resulting .243 wOBA suggests they’re having an effect. He’s not alone: Greg Bird (78.6%, .294 wOBA), Jay Bruce (77.3, .265) and Eric Thames (71.2, .283) are among other notable names whose numbers have suffered with the shift’s rise. But why should MLB bail them out for hitting weak groundballs? Carpenter and Freeman have to face the same shifts but succeed anyway.
How? The answer is simple: They put the ball in the air. Freeman had the highest line-drive rate of any qualified player last year, at 32.3%; Carpenter was 10th at 26.7 despite being one of the most pull-happy hitters in the league. If you hit the ball hard and off the ground, no infield shift can stop you. Paradoxically, per Stark, that’s part of the competition committee’s reasoning for getting rid of the shift: to cut down on the number of hitters putting the ball in the air, and cut down on the launch angle fever gripping the game that, they believe, contributes to more strikeouts.
But that logic doesn’t hold. Players will keep trying to hit flyballs because they recognize the simple truth that groundballs result in outs more often than not, shift or no shift. And while strikeouts have risen alongside the increase in shifts, that probably owes more to the fact that pitchers nowadays regularly throw 95 mph to go along with freakishly hard breaking balls. MLB pitchers have never been better in than they are right now; if anything, the new fixation on launch angle is a reaction to that, not the shift.
Besides, as Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer told Stark, that’s nothing new. “For 100 years, guys have been trying to hit fly balls and line drives into the outfield,” he says. Launch angle isn’t a new concept; the terminology around it is. Hitting the ball in the air is here to stay; unless pitcher velocity decreases, so are more strikeouts.
So will getting rid of the shift accomplish what the league would want? It’s unlikely. We’d see a few more singles and an accordant uptick in batting average, but if MLB is serious about getting more action into the game or speeding it up, there’s a far easier and more effective way to do it: a pitch clock to cut down on all the dead time during at-bats.
Besides, there are bigger problems the league faces than fewer singles. Tanking is far more detrimental to the sport’s long-term health than the shift. So is the reluctance among owners to spend in free agency, or how minor leaguers are severely underpaid. Banning the shift is a quick-fix idea that solves nothing. But if nothing else, it would make some of the older color commentators happy.