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Ban the Shift?

December 27, 2018
 Over the years in Stat of the Week we’ve analyzed the significant increase in shifting in baseball that has occurred since 2012. We have been proponents of this defensive strategy as we have demonstrated in many different ways that, when employed against the right batters in the right situations, shifting is very effective. Of late there has been some additional discussion about the possibility of limiting shifts. According to a recent article written by Jayson Stark:

"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."

Hopefully this "strong backing" doesn’t come to fruition. I will not mince my words. It would be totally ridiculous to try to limit shifting.

Last week, one of the best baseball writers in the game, Joe Sheehan, wrote a thorough essay looking at why banning the shift would be a bad idea. He goes through several arguments before landing on an important part of the discussion. He gave us permission to reprint his comments here.

Let me share some of my thoughts before you get to Joe’s excellent article:

- As effective as shifting is, it only drops the overall batting average in baseball by a few points. And they are pretty much all singles that are saved. If the idea of eliminating the shift is an idea to increase offense, it won’t. Not in any significant way.

Shifting in baseball is a defensive strategy that is similar to defensive strategies employed in other sports. Football is a good example. Think of the 3-4 defense. In 1972, the Miami Dolphins were the first team to win the Super Bowl with the 3–4 defense, going undefeated on the season. Should the NFL have banned the 3-4 defense because it was too successful for the Dolphins? What about the nickel package, the dime package, the cover-2, etc. These defenses where players are positioned in different areas of the field add to the strategy and excitement of the sport. Would the NFL be more exciting if they eliminated some of these strategies?


- What would the commissioner’s new rule look like? It could be that no infielder can position himself different from the old-school "formation" that crosses a line from home plate extending through the second base bag. What if this were done in basketball? What would that look like? There was a time when high school girls basketball did exactly that, like this:

No one can cross the midcourt line. Three guards from one team defend against three forwards from the other at each end. Players are limited to two dribbles. Officials run the ball up the court after a basket. It looked like two separate three-on-three games played on the same court.

Seems ridiculous but these were rules that were in existence as recently as the 1994 state tournament in Iowa.

Doing this in basketball again would be completely silly. The idea of doing something similar in baseball would be just as silly.

By the way, I highly recommend a subscription to Joe Sheehan’s Newsletter!

From The Joe Sheehan Newsletter, December 20, 2018:

Two weeks ago, Jayson Stark (congrats, sir, well deserved) reported that MLB, led by Commissioner Rob Manfred, was seriously considering rule changes to limit how the defense can position its fielders -- what we popularly call "the shift." Jayson’s deeply-reported piece reminded me that I’d promised someone, I think on Twitter, that I would do my own shift piece in the offseason.

My position on this is established, although I am not sure I’ve ever done a full column on it. Simply put, to limit how a team can play, how it can best align its talent to win games, is a generally bad idea. The shift, as much as it has become more common in recent seasons, isn’t a new concept. Teams were shifting on Ted Williams 60 years ago, and did so on comparable hitters in each succeeding generation. We’ve seen four-outfielder concepts as well, back to Willie McCoveyin the 1960s and Jim Rice in the 1970s.

Even the standard defensive alignment to which traditionalists cling is an adaptation; the various basemen don’t stand on their bases, but rather, in the general vicinity of them, because early in baseball prehistory they noticed that’s where the balls were being hit.

What’s changed is the collection of data. The shift is the most visible representation of the data revolution within the game. Whereas teams, as recently as the last decade, had to rely on scouting information to determine where players were most likely to hit the ball, we now have perfect information for every player in the majors on their tendencies.

The shift isn’t new; the reliability of the information about when to shift is new. If you’d given this information to Joe McCarthy in the 1930s, he’d likely have shifted on Hal Trosky and Earl Averill. If Casey Stengel had it in the 1950s, Billy Martin would have been playing short right field against Larry Doby. You think Earl Weaver wouldn’t have welcomed knowing exactly where Reggie Jackson and Carl Yastrzemski were hitting their grounders, wouldn’t have used that information to put Mark Belanger exactly where he damn well pleased?

The entire point of having defensive players is to turn balls in play into outs. They’re not decorative, they’re not out there to conform to some airy notion about what a baseball game should look like. Forcing someone to stand somewhere near third base against a player who hits a ball on the ground that way once a month is nonsense. Every manager in baseball history would agree; it’s just the current ones who can act on the idea. Limiting defensive positioning is just the league forcing teams to play baseball badly, and isn’t that what we have pitcher batting for?

The argument against the shift is largely aesthetic. There are people with voices and platforms who just don’t like the way it looks when a hard grounder up the middle or a line drive to short right field becomes an out, rather than a single. To whatever extent there’s a "hard" argument for eliminating the positioning that creates those outs, it’s that doing so would create some more hits, more baserunners, more movement. I’m certainly in favor of that, and in the linked piece, Stark cites Sports Info Solutions data that show eliminating the shift would turn 500 outs into singles, mostly for lefty pull hitters. That’s not nothing -- the league batting average would jump three points, and that’s before you consider any knock-on effects, like more pitchers throwing out of the stretch, etc.

On the other hand, Russell Carleton has made a strong case that shifting’s effect on pitcher effectiveness neutralizes its effect on hits on balls in play, so if pitchers pitch better under a new rule set, even a little bit, the effect on overall offense will be muted. Also, the hitters getting those singles back won’t be, for the most part, lively baserunners, so you’re not suddenly bringing back the 1970s.

The fact is, while it’s a highly visible practice whose successes you notice, the shift isn’t that big a factor in the modern offensive environment. It’s taking 500 singles (a handful of doubles are in there, too) a year and turning them into outs, largely from a group of players who aren’t dynamic baserunners. Singles themselves aren’t a key element in run scoring in the modern game, because they require other events, other balls put in play, to have value. One-run strategies and long-sequence offenses have largely been killed by strikeout rates.

There’s a pretty serious causation error driving the thinking about the shift. The idea is that batters are swinging for the fences because the shift has taken away hits on the ground. That’s completely backwards. Batters are swinging for the fences because it’s the most effective way to combat pitchers who throw 97-mph cutters and 90-mph sliders. You’ll hear citations of players like Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn from people who never saw anything faster than 70 mph in high school. Well, pitchers have evolved, mostly by throwing harder but also by getting more movement, into witches, and you can’t just slap the ball against the witches. That kind of batting style is obsolete. Batters have always tried to hit the ball hard and far; we just call those things Exit Velocity and Launch Angle now.

The dominant batting style of the day is an effect, not a cause. If pitchers couldn’t throw above 90, couldn’t get unreal spin on their breaking stuff, you’d see more contact hitting. Hitters have sold out for pull power as a strategy, and defenses have adapted to that by moving their infielders to where the balls land. The shift is the third thing that happened, not the first, and any rule changes that address the shift without addressing the pitcher/batter conflict are intentionally missing the point. Everything. Comes. Back. To. Velocity.

That’s not even my argument, though.

Eliminating the shift is actually going to incentivize the hitters who are being shifted to double down on their behavior. As it stands now, Joey Gallo and his ilk can do what they always do, and risk hitting a one-hop single to right that becomes a 4-3. They can, if they’d rather, drop a bunt down the third-base line or slap a ground ball anywhere to the left of the pitcher’s mound for a single. The incentives for them to change their behavior are clear...and they’re not changing their behavior. Oh, you’ll see the occasional bunt, and any time a guy like Gallo gets jammed and fists a four-hopper into left, the play-by-play guy will excitedly exclaim, "He beat the shift!" For the most part, though, this class of player has made his choice.

If you force a team to leave short right field open and cover the left side of the infield against someone like Gallo, you’re giving him a gift. Now he can employ his preferred style of hitting with much of the penalty for it removed. If you thought these guys were swinging for the fences now, what do you think will happen when you give them 20 extra singles a year for doing so?

That’s not even my argument, though.

In Jayson’s piece, he cites The Bill James Handbook: Of the 30 hitters who saw the most shifts, 29 were left-handed batters. (Edwin Encarnacion is the 30th.) The shift is aimed at hitters with predictable tendencies, which is largely pull hitters with power. The need, within the rules of baseball, to keep first base covered, means you can only do so much against right-handed batters. So the main targets of the shift are left-handed pull hitters with power. Anthony Rendon isn’t seeing many shifts. Andrelton Simmons isn’t. Christian Yelich isn’t.

There have been times in baseball history when rules changes have been necessary to balance offense and defense. We’ve outlawed flat bats and fair-foul hits. We’ve stopped letting pitchers put everything short of Play-Doh on the baseballs. We’ve raised and lowered the mound, manipulated the strike zone. All of these rules have served to balance the scales between the guys trying to score and the guys trying to keep them from scoring.

Outlawing the shift would be the first change in baseball history that is specifically benefiting a subset of hitters or pitchers. Remember, while there’s a gameplay issue right now, there isn’t an overall offense one. There were 4.45 runs scored per team per game last year, pretty much baseball’s historical average. This isn’t 1968, or even 1992. As we’ve seen, too, banning the shift isn’t going to move the needle on offense very much, anyway. It’s 500 singles and a few doubles a year over 185,000 plate appearances.

What banning the shift will do is provide an enormous benefit to the small class of hitters who are losing lots of hits to the shift each year. It’s the Logan Morrison Career Revival Act of 2019. It’s MLB literally picking winners and losers, saying that, aw, poor Travis Shaw, it’s not fair that they know exactly where you’re going to hit the ball, we’ll stop them from putting players there.

How is there any difference between saying you can’t put your fielders where the batter will hit the ball, and you can’t throw the batter pitches you know he can’t hit? Two years from now, will we have a rule that says you can’t throw Cody Bellinger curves down and in? Or that throwing Javier Baez a slider off the plate is an automatic ball?

Banning the shift is doesn’t balance offense and defense. It is a welfare program for a subset of players who won’t adjust on their own. Baseball has never, in its long history, picked out handful of players and made a rule just for them. That’s what banning the shift would be, and it’s a terrible precedent to set.

That’s my argument.

Mandating where a team can play its defenders is a terrible idea. It’s a subsidy for a specific class of players. It won’t put more action into the game. It won’t slow the trend towards dead-pull power hitting, and in fact, it will encourage it by taking away the penalty for doing so. It will provide the illusion of a solution while ignoring the real problem, the evolution of pitchers.

Baseball’s gameplay problem isn’t the fate of balls put in play, it’s the lack of balls put in play. Again, I say to Rob Manfred, if you want to baseball to look more like baseball, stop worrying about where the shortstop is and start giving him more to do.

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COMMENTS (21 Comments, most recent shown first)

Love this article. Eliminating the shift would be like applying the Americans With Disabilies Act to baseball. What is next, mandating that hitters without warning track power can't have fielders deeper than 250 ft? No bunting on poor fielding fat old pitchers?

Players who can't take gift hits or bunts the other way shouldn't be in the Major Leagues unless the analytics show that their 32 home runs per year overcomes a .205 ba. If it does, more power to them. This is a meritocracy.
2:31 AM Jan 18th
It's the other way around. Goaltenders are not allowed to play the puck behind the goal line except within the trapezoid.

Just because the NHL has a history of legislating against exceptional skill (remitting a penalty after a goal is scored because Montreal's power play was too good, eliminating coincident minors because Edmonton made better use of the extra space, limiting goaltender movement because Martin Brodeur was so much better at handling the puck than other goaltenders) is no reason for baseball to prohibit teams from taking advantage of opponents' tendencies.

Football and basketball are played by freaks and thus have nothing useful to say to baseball (add emoticon here).

Legislating against the shift is not addressing the balls-in-play problem, it is avoiding it. The solution is to be found in the strike zone and in the ball itself.​
5:40 AM Dec 29th
I give dispensation to anything that actually uses the word "trapezoid." :-)
7:05 PM Dec 28th
There is a defensive three second rule in the NBA. You just can't stand in the paint and guard the hoop by yourself unless you're also "defending" an opponent in the vicinity. They've relaxed "zone" defenses to an extent but not to the point that anything goes.

Football has all kinds of formation rules on both sides of the ball for scrimmage plays, kickoffs, etc.,

In hockey, goaltenders are not allowed to touch the puck in the trapezoid area behind the net nor are allowed to cross centre ice.

Just saying there is a precedent in other sports for positioning of defensive players to gain what is perceived to be an unfair advantage.

I'm meh on the shift, mostly against it, but I'm not nearly as passionate as the guys here who are REALLY for it. I guess my question is what does the shift really add to the game?

My Best-Carey​
6:52 PM Dec 28th
Here's another one to which the "committee" might be moved to give "strong backing" about limiting or forbidding. :-)
Probably the only thing stopping them is that they didn't think of it.
Also perhaps that it's rarely done -- but just give the teams a little time, especially if they read these pages. :-)

Shuttling pitchers back and forth with position players, including with another pitcher who's playing a position.
(I think there's already a rule limiting this to once per inning.)

The first time I heard of it was in the '60's, when the Indians moved a pitcher named Mike Paul, a lefty, to first base for one batter so that a righty (Stan Williams) could face the guy. (Yes, I had to look it up, I didn't remember the details.)
BTW it didn't work. I mean, the umps let them do it OK, but they didn't get guys out.

The main other time I noticed was when the Mets in extra innings shuttled Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell between the mound and the outfield, also shuttled a little bit with the other corner outfielder according to who was batting in the inning.
That one did work. Orosco even caught a line drive -- one handed, and sort of laughing, which was an impressive bit of multi-tasking.

That all's got to be made illegal, doesn't it -- just a slippery slope away from ruining Western civilization.
4:12 PM Dec 28th
I'm a subscriber to Joe Sheehan's newsletter, which is the source of most of this article. Some time back, I asked Joe for permission to post an article of his to the Reader section of this site. He granted it on condition that I include the subscription information that has been left out here. So:

The Joe Sheehan Newsletter is an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, a mix of analysis, commentary and opinion, all linked by a deep love of the game. You can subscribe to the Newsletter for $39.95 for one year, $69.95 for two years, and $99.95 for three years, using a PayPal account, or credit or debit card.

Here are the PayPal links for one, two and three-year subscriptions:​out/openButton​heckout/openButton​c#/checkout/openButton

This article is a good sample of the quality of Joe's writing. Like John, I recommend subscribing.
4:04 PM Dec 28th
Thanks, Maris Fan, and yes, thank you, Jack - that pretty well sums up probably why the umpire didn't allow it. I won't psychoanalyze him, but he simply didn't know that there isn't a rule against it, so since he had never seen it before, he refused to allow it. I told him about Willie McCovey shifts, but he refused to believe me and the umpire was too young to know him - and this was too long ago for him to have seen the current shifting craze. Our league did have some special rules, which ironically the other team did not adhere to and was allowed to get away with it, but none of this funny moving players around during the inning business.
3:55 PM Dec 28th
I find it amazing that people even consider banning a defensive maneuver. As has been pointed out in the article, the shift isn't anything new and if the data available now was available at the turn of century and beyond, managers would have used it. What's next? Banning "bullpenning"?

If batters won't even attempt to adjust or make the defense suffer by dunking a single (or double) in the vacated area, then it's their fault they keep pulling outside pitches into the shift. Maybe with banning the shift, they should ban the armor batters wear and then crowd the plate with no fear of being hit, effectively taking away the inside of the plate from the pitcher. Can you imagine what Bob Gibson or Sal Maglie would have done if a batter came to the plate like that?

What baseball needs to do is enforce the strike zone in the rule book:

According to rule 2.00 of the Major League Baseball rule book, a strike zone is defined as "that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap" and is determined by "the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball."

When is the last time an announcer said, "Strike across the letters"?

Maybe this would force batters to swing at more strikes instead of working counts all the time and move the pace of the game along for the casual fan. It all comes down to batters adjusting and the better ones will and mediocre ones won't.
3:03 PM Dec 28th
I'm pretty sure I know why Hotstatrat wasn't allowed to shift his infielders around: because the (amateur) umpire was aesthetically offended by it. That umpire had never seen this done at any level, and dad gum it, he wasn't going to let it happen in HIS game. If pressed, he probably would have justified his decision as having to do with not letting the manager make a travesty of the game or some such nonsense.

I see this all the time in softball and kickball leagues. (I umpire in softball and kickball leagues in Austin, Texas.) Umpires are often petty tyrants who have lost sight of the fact that the games are not about them.
1:38 PM Dec 28th
....not to take things too far off topic (since my post is sort of blocking Hotstatrat's new post):

I'm totally with what Hotstatrat says -- very well said.
And I have to wonder, WHY weren't you allowed to shuttle the infielders like you wanted, what basis was there to forbid it.....

12:36 PM Dec 28th
The football rule about requiring 7 players on the offensive line has puzzled me, along with the "eligible receiver" thing and the penalty for ineligible receiver downfield. In a way those are analogous to saying where fielders can or can't play.

(You all probably know that kids don't know from those football rules, or at least didn't back in the day, when one of our favorite plays was "everybody go out for a pass.")

I've sometimes brought up the question among fellow football watchers, and no real wisdom has come of it. How about this: You can't send everybody out for a pass because then there's nobody blocking for the QB and he gets killed. :-)

Sometimes (maybe usually) rules like that get created to address some problem that was happening, but I don't know if we know of any such history.

The only things I can think of:

-- Maybe teams used to cluster all the offensive players around the guy who was going to carry the ball, sort of in concentric layers, and that made it too easy to gain several yards all the time.

-- About "ineligible receiver downfield": A couple of things:
Maybe it made it too easy for offenses to disguise whether it was going to be a run or a pass, if you didn't have to keep players behind the line of scrimmage for a pass;
or, it made it too easy to complete passes and gain big yardage with them if you could send extra blockers down there....

But I really don't know. I wonder if some people do.....probably yes but I haven't found them.
12:34 PM Dec 28th
My arguments would be:

1. An unecessary rule is a bad rule. There is not enough evidence that shifting is making the game significantly more boring. Also, I would think that this is something offences will eventually better adapt to, anyway.

2. Freedom, creativity, and cleverness are good things and should not be stiffled or punished. I still resent the umpire who prevented me from switching positions back and forth between my shortstop and best fielder and my third-baseman (my very inexperienced young son) depending on the situation - in a championship game - 16 years ago.
12:32 PM Dec 28th
Football offenses are required to have seven men on the line. There is no corresponding requirement for defenses.
8:07 AM Dec 28th
Waisanhart: Thanks for mentioning that about the NBA no longer disallowing the zone defense.
'I did not know that!'
(wonder how long it's been.....always thought it was dumb to disallow it -- almost as much as I think this would be dumb, the difference being that I care a lot more about baseball; also somehow it just really feels more ridiculous to dictate where fielders can or can't play)​
10:08 PM Dec 27th
LOVE everything in the article.
(Except of course seeing that there was "strong backing" in something called the competition committee about doing something to limit shifts.)

Please as many of us as possible, and as many of everybody as possible, join John in screaming: Hopefully this "strong backing" doesn’t come to fruition. I will not mince my words. It would be totally ridiculous to try to limit shifting.

BTW, we've been discussing this on Reader Posts:

10:05 PM Dec 27th
The analogy about other sports placing limits on defensive positioning is simply factually wrong. Defenses in football are NOT required to have a minimum or maximum of down lineman or defensive backs--or anything. The 3-second rule in basketball doesn't limit defense--it applies ONLY to offensive positioning. Even the rule in the NBA disallowing zone defenses has gone away.
9:05 PM Dec 27th
"pitchers have evolved, mostly by throwing harder but also by getting more movement, into witches, and you can’t just slap the ball against the witches."

Witches? That is not a term I have heard before. Well, not in this context. Can someone clarify? It makes more sense if it is a typo for "pitches", but still does not really work.
7:51 PM Dec 27th
> In football, defense must have a minimum/maximum of down linemen

I don't believe this to be true. There *is* a rule against having more than seven players on the line on the same side of the football, but I've never seen this called on a play other than a kickoff.

I do recall seeing the Patriots go with zero down linemen in a game against the Ravens (if I recall correctly) about five years ago.
5:38 PM Dec 27th
Not a fan of the shift. In other sports there are limitations placed on the position of the players. In football, defense must have a minimum/maximum of down lineman and the offense is subject to all types of restrictions when it comes to formations. Basketball has the three second key, etc., So the argument that there aren't any positional rules in other sports doesn't hold.

That being said, I don't feel that strongly about it. I guess I don't like the "look" of the thing in that it doesn't feel like real baseball in some respects having the 3bmen run over to short right field on the occasional batter and such. It does add time to the game. Also, it would preclude other, more radical strategies (6-man infields or something), that may really "change" the way the game is played.

It seems dumb to encourage the more exciting hitters to play away from their strengths. And it is not like anyone is being discriminated against if you would ban the shift. Everyone would be treated the same both individual and team-wise.

I guess the author said it himself. It really only effects a small percentage of AB's anyway. It does seem like a lot of fans prefer a few more singles so why take them away.

My Best-Carey

4:04 PM Dec 27th
And I'd like to see an article for the 'ban shifts because it looks like a 43 man infield now and that sucks' side of things.
4:02 PM Dec 27th
Good article, John. I couldn't agree with you more. Banning or legislating defensive shifting is attacking innovation in the game, which is virtually always a bad idea. I'd much rather see whether batters try to counter-innovate, to beat the shift, or just keep swingin' the way they're swingin', as you state here.
2:28 PM Dec 27th
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