Shifty business: Is MLB really going to limit or eliminate shifts?

What if a baseball game were played, but players in the field were not allowed to roam anywhere they want? What if defensive shifts were limited or eliminated completely?

Would officials in Major League Baseball really take such action?

This week, Jayson Stark of The Athletic wrote an excellent article examining this topic.

“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,” Stark wrote. “So next up, it’s time to run this - and more - past the players’ union.”

“I think it’s a layup to get approved by the players,” said one front office official to Stark.

So this must mean limiting shifts or eliminating them seems to have some level of backing, from the highest levels on the management side and from many players as well. There appears to be growing sentiment against defensive shifts.

Baseball is looking to improve pace of play while putting more action back into the game. The combination in recent years of increasing strikeouts, players going more often for homers and players making more outs through the shifts is eliminating some action from the game.

Davis-White-After-Strikeout-Sidebar.jpgAnd there is not just the effect of limiting run scoring, but shifting could be cutting down on great plays made by infielders. With more balls hit right at them, there are fewer chances to have to range to make acrobatic and athletic plays that are exciting and fun to watch. Is there anything exciting about seeing Chris Davis hit a hard ground ball on the right side only to see a second baseman playing in short right field throw him out?

Of course, one way to beat the shift would be to simply hit the ball where the infielders are not playing. Sounds easy, but it must not be. Players either seem unwilling or incapable of hitting the ball the other way to get hits that defenders are begging them to take. These are the best players in the world, but they can’t hit a ground ball to a wide-open area of the infield.

So would less shifts simply be rewarding players for their shortcomings?

Stark’s excellent and deep dive into shifting quotes this stat from Sports Info Solutions: The batting average in 2018 when players hit into a full shift was .224. A full shift is defined as one where three infielders are on one side of the field, as in three infielders on the right side of second base when defending Davis. But the average with a partial shift is .280. That is a big difference. A partial shift is when the defense might have a third infielder near second base, but not shifted with three on one side of the field. Less shifting produces more hits, more action and more chances for great defensive plays as well.

Is this what the game needs right now?

Maybe a good move would be to use the minor leagues as a place to experiment with limiting or eliminating shifts. See how it plays out at those levels and learn from it. Is that the way to go - try it out first on the farm?

Each year, we see more shifts and each year it seems fewer hits. It’s reached the point where MLB officials and players are considering changes. These would be pretty drastic changes - changes that legislate where defenders can and cannot play.

This is where I draw the line. I’m just not in favor of a sport that tells the defense where it can and can’t play. Even at a time when it might produce more action and offense in the game.

Click here for Stark’s article in The Athletic (subscription required).

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