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Verducci: baseball should think about an “illegal defense” rule to combat shifts

Jul 23, 2014, 9:28 AM EDT

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 9.19.46 AM Getty Images

I suppose General Cornwallis hated it and considered it unsporting for the Continental Army to hide behind rocks and trees and stuff rather than march in formation and fire from established lines during the Revolutionary War. I doubt he proposed some formal rule change about it. But when it comes to baseball, some folks aren’t as easy-going and open to change as the 18th century British Army was.

Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci writes about the prevalence of defensive shifts and talked to many people around baseball who are frustrated by them. He then concludes that something should be done about them. Or, at the very least, we should think about doing something about them:

Support of an “illegal defense” rule – or at least the consideration of it – is gaining some traction in baseball. Such a rule might stipulate, for instance, that you cannot have three infielders on one side of second base. A shortstop would be able to shift as far as directly behind second base on a lefthanded hitter, but no farther.

Is it time for such a rule? My gut reaction is that it is time to at least think about it.

This is stupid for a host of reasons:

    • Shifts stop singles. They don’t stop doubles, they don’t stop homers. They stop singles. So while, yes, shifts have led to a lower batting average, they do not necessarily translate to lower offense. Big bad power hitters’ power numbers are not being hobbled by shifts.
    • What’s really hobbling offense — and making the game one of increasing inactivity — are the massive increases in strikeouts. I don’t have any game film or spreadsheets ready at the moment, but last I checked a shift doesn’t affect strikeout rates. Maybe we should look at how umps are calling balls and strikes on lefties these days (eyeballing it, my verdict is: poorly) or, you know, encourage hitters to be a bit more selective and shorten up their swings;
    • Shifts reward teams with athletic and versatile players, both in the form of defenders who can play out of traditional position and hitters who can hit to all fields. I bet I don’t have to go back too far in Verducci’s archives to see complaints about slow, lumbering take-and-rake dead-pull hitters, inflated offensive numbers and teams not focusing on defensive skills being baseball’s biggest problem. Now it’s this.

But more fundamentally, Verducci — who is considered by many, either on the merits or by virtue of his high-profile job, to be baseball’s top analyst — should know better than anyone that contexts in baseball change all the damn time. Dead ball, crazy ball in the 1930s, station-to-station ball of the 50s, base-stealing and new deadball in the 60s through the 80s and back to crazy ball in the 90s. It’s now swinging back to pitching and defense. Hitters will adjust again, just as they always do, and the cycle will continue ever-onward. Messing with the Rules the way Verducci suggests here is to mess with one of the sport’s greatest traits: evolution and changes over a long timeframe, rewarding those fans who see it happening.

Verducci correctly notes that there have been rules changes in the past such as outlawing the spitball, lowering the mound and installing the DH. But the spitball and DH weren’t solely about offense — the spitball was a safety issue and the DH was in part to boost sagging attendance, which is not a problem today — and lowering the mound was about uniformity and combatting some team’s unfair advantages as much as it was about boosting offense (some mounds, like Dodger Stadium, had been made crazy high). Strike zone rules and interpretations had a LOT to do with low offense in the past as well.

If, as was the case leading up to those alterations of the game, there are other, structural reasons for a rule change, cool, let’s talk about them. But let’s not make as radical a change as the institution of some “illegal defense” rule simply because offense is temporarily down. To do so would be wrongheaded and reactionary. It would constitute the validation of a temper tantrum over some short term frustration on the part of some lefthanded hitters who are no longer getting what they used to get.

166 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. byjiminy - Jul 27, 2014 at 8:38 PM

    “Does anyone really thing that teams are neglecting training their players and just giving away an easily gained developmental advantage?”

    Yes, I do. I think the best way to deal with the shift is to bunt. And players don’t like to bunt. And teams don’t make them. These guys make millions of dollars, and they want to hit home runs, not get in a foot race to first four times a game. But chances are they’d beat the throw (if anyone got to the ball in time to make a throw) at least half the time. It really bugs me when players won’t do that. Instead they say crap like, I’m not paid $15 million a year to bunt. I’m here to help my team by hitting home runs and doubles and getting rbis. Well if you did it for a while, and practiced until you were good at it, you wouldn’t have to do it for very long. Defenses would give up the shift and your life would be much better than it is now. And you’d have a shiny, bright batting average for hitting .500 or higher for the entire time they gave you the left half of the field to bunt it.

    And I think the reason they don’t is

  2. tmc602014 - Jul 30, 2014 at 8:02 PM

    How about all these baseball men in the minor leagues teach players how to play? I think Edgar Martinez was amazing, but for every one like him there are ten guys still on the rosters who simply cannot play. Vlad Guerrero was a great example of a guy who could still hit but had to play in the field, in the WS, and embarrassed himself and cost his team. He shouldn’t have been out there. It seems now that we have an endless parade of guys who have about 110% runs/HR ratio, and what good is that? Teach ballplayers how to manage an at bat, force a pitch that can be hit, tire the pitcher with foul after foul, work him for a walk, but no. Instead we have any number of guys who strike out, fly out to the track, hit into the DP, pop up, or homer. Teach them to actually hit and there won’t be any shifts.

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