Baseball has a shift problem. The great game, which has always adapted and figured it out, is not figuring this one out with any rapid pace. Hitters are not getting more productive against the alignments. In fact, they are getting much worse — especially the left-handed ones.
Three true outcomes have a negative impact on the user experience and stagnating strategy. Purists don’t have the luxury of plugging their ears to the critics and hoping it all gets worked out. There has never been a more crowded entertainment ecosystem and baseball cannot afford to cede further cultural relevance.
Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci put forth an idea in his column today that could actually work. It’s a compromise. Shift all you want on the infield, but make the shifting fielders actually play the infield.
I have come to believe that at the very least baseball should adopt a rule in which all infielders must have at least one foot on the dirt portion of the infield. Years ago I believed rather than stifle innovation baseball should wait for hitters to adapt to the shifts by becoming better all-fields hitters. But here’s the problem: if you wait for that change—and there’s no sign of it coming, not when 12-year-old travel ball kids are training on “Launch Angle” tees—it will be too late for baseball.
I’m a firm believer in letting defenders play wherever they want. That is strategy and the onus should be on the hitters to adapt. In a perfect world, they would. But we have enough evidence to see that they either can’t, or won’t.
Defensive shifts and unique alignments are strategy. It’s possible that that strategy is stifling offensive strategy. An offensive attack relying solely on home runs puts baserunning, bunting, and stealing on the backburner.
It may be time for a half-measure. Completely banning the shift, to me, is outrageous. Allowing it while eliminating the fielder in shallow right field is a reasonable compromise. Sure, there would be kinks to work out. Right off the bat, MLB would be smart to allow teams to do whatever they want in the playoffs, when it’s win at all costs.
Any decision to drastically alter the game should be taken seriously and all unintended consequences considered. As someone preconditioned to be resistance to such changes, I prefer they be undertaken with great caution.
This compromise would tinker with the shift, not scrap it. Teams could employ their strategy of overloading the ground pull side. Batters could also be rewarded for hits that have long translated to safe harbor.
That’s about the best purists can hope for at this pace. Rob Manfred and the rapidly changing landscape are going to usher in all sorts of new wrinkles. This is one that could be lived with and not make a mockery of the game.
As with any compromise, of course, it will leave both sides unsatisfied. Perhaps that’s how to best maintain the old and new school stay on board.