Doug Wolter: Ban the shift? Why limit defensive strategy?
Major league baseball’s tinkering with the rules has, in most cases, cheapened the experience. I refer, of course, to instant replay and to the outlawing of runner-catcher collisions.
In keeping with trends, then, it is only logical to assume that sometime in the near future MLB will ban the defensive shift.
Many baseball sages have declared war on the shift, a technique increasingly employed which positions fielders in places where hitters (pull hitters mostly) are most inclined to drive the ball. Hence, against some left-handed batters, you get the shortstop playing on the right side of second base, the second baseman nearer the first base line, and only one infielder -- the third baseman -- on the left side of the infield.
The positioning differs, of course, according to the player. But the strategy is obvious -- force hitters to squeeze their hits between smaller holes in the defense when they swing normally, or tempt them to learn to use all the field.
When Rob Manfred gave his first public interview in 2015 upon becoming commissioner, he spoke favorably of banning the shift. Since then, more voices have joined the chorus, literally advocating the buffoonish idea that infielders and outfielders shouldn’t be allowed to position themselves where they choose.
What’s next, forcing pitchers to throw underhand?
I’m not against all change. Really. After 1968 they lowered the pitcher’s mound to come to the aid of hitters, who were being dominated that year. Indeed, the American League’s collective batting average was .231, the lowest ever. Hitters needed an adjustment after that.
But this proposed tinkering of defensive positioning is completely off base. First off, I see no need to cry crocodile tears for hitters just because (a) they never learned to bunt, or, (b) they can’t bring themselves to hit to the opposite field. I suppose that if they’re power hitters, they don’t want to swing late because they won’t collect as many home runs as they’re accustomed to. So they continue flailing away at the shift, which decreases their batting average and on-base percentage.
Secondly, why should anyone else care about shifts being employed? Are major league baseball execs worried, as in 1968, that batting averages are too low? Are teams cheating when they employ shifts?
Of course not. Defenses can, and should, position their players anywhere they choose. And hitters, if you don’t like it, put in a little more time with your batting coach.
Tactics are important in baseball. Tactics make baseball a thinking man’s game. Baseball eliminates defensive strategy at its own peril.
To me, defensive shifts bring to mind the classic theory on warfare. It’s the one where armies continually work at developing new and more successful weapons to counter superior defensive tactics. But then, the other side comes up with new and novel ways to counter the superior weapons. And back and forth they go, the way nature intended.
Why should baseball be any different?