Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about updating the rules of baseball to remove the defensive shift. Personally, I love defensive shifting and don’t want to see it legislated out of the game, but something does need to change.
As a direct descendant of statistical analysis, the defensive shift is the most recent evolution in baseball. Now, I believe we need the next stage of that evolution to kick in.
As a quick bit of context, “defensive shifting” is the term used to describe defensive players, usually infielders, but sometimes outfielders, moving around based on a batter’s likelihood to hit the ball into a limited segment of the field. For example, facing a left-handed batter, a shortstop might slide to the other side of second base, pushing the second baseman into shallow right field. This lopsided 1-3 defense (as opposed to a standard 2-2 defense) projects to get the batter – who is statistically more likely to hit the ball on the first base side of the field – out. However, shifting the defense leaves one (or in extreme cases, zero) players to defend the other side of the infield, and many batters will try to slap a weak hit toward the undefended space, “beating the shift” and picking up an easy base hit. Ok, everyone on the same page?
Also, before we dive in, I want to say something counterintuitive: Defensive shifting makes baseball worse now but will make baseball better soon. Now, let’s unpack this oxymoron in detail.
The real problem with the defensive shift is that it changes how batters approach their plate appearances. Due to the increased likelihood of making an infield out, teams encourage batters to swing for home runs instead of base hits. The thinking goes that if a batter is more likely to make an out when the ball is hit on the ground, why not exclusively try to hit it in the air – and if you’re going to hit the ball in the air, you might as well try to hit it over the fence. This tactic is logical, but it also hurts baseball.
To be fair, this approach has an obvious upside – more home runs. But, while a single player hitting home runs is the best thing they can do, an entire team trying to hit home runs might be one of the worst things. As teams prioritize big swings, they inevitably get big misses too.
Across the league, home runs are among the highest they’ve ever been, while strikeouts have quietly climbed too. Out of the past 10 seasons, the three most recent (2016, 2017, 2018) have seen league totals exceed 5,500 homers, and during that same span, strikeouts have increased from a league-combined 38k to over 41k. In fact, strikeouts have been steadily rising without interruption since 2008. While this isn’t a comprehensive analysis of the league in general, nor are all teams equal on this issue, it’s hard for me to not draw a correlation between rising home runs and strikeouts.
So yeah, I’m not a fan of the all-or-nothing approach at the plate. I truly love the singles up the middle, sac bunts, and stolen bases that this new plate approach destroys. Consequently, you might think I’d be in favor of removing the shift from baseball; doing so could re-establish the all-but-lost, “small-ball” aspects of the game … But I’m not.
I love that defenses can and do adapt their configuration to each batter throughout the course of the game, weighing risk against reward to maximize their probability of success. Instead of cutting the shift out, what I want to see are offenses starting to adapt too.
If a team reacts to the shift by swinging for the fences, they can expect both higher home run totals and lower batting averages. This could be a worthwhile gamble for some teams, like the Yankees, whose smaller ballpark makes the likelihood of hitting the ball far enough more likely (the Yankees lead the AL in HRs in 2018). However, for other teams, like my beloved Mariners in the spacious and recently renamed T-Mobile Park, it might not be such a winning approach. Literally.
Instead, they could decide to counteract the shift by trying to hit the other way. Now, hitting a baseball is often considered the most difficult act in sports, and I believe that. But with the time, attention, and support that each professional ballplayer puts into their swings, it’s unreasonable to suggest that a highly-shifted-against hitter can’t knock a basic bunt or soft single into the undefended portions of the field.
And looking forward, what would happen if a team emphasized and prioritized these kinds of hitting skills from day one? How effective could a young, developing batter become at neutralizing the defensive shift, or better yet, using it to their advantage?
Imagine in a few years, a left-handed batter stepping into the box, watching the infield defense slide the shortstop over to the right (1-3 style), and then checking with his manager to adjust his stance, grip, and batting approach accordingly. Might he essentially force a defense to move back or deal with the statistical odds tipping out of their favor? I think so.
Very soon, I believe the shift’s effectiveness will decline as young players enter the league with a consistent infield hit-the-other-way tucked into their back pocket next to the sunflower seeds.
They’ll call it the shift-killer, and it’ll become the batting equivalent of a change-up.
While we wait for the shift-killer to become ubiquitous, we’ll watch our favorite teams (Go Mariners!) deploy defensive shifts to their advantage and hope that our struggling hitters (Kyle Seager) can develop an answer of their own.
But even if they can’t, don’t fret. I’m confident that these shift-warped days are numbered and baseball’s next evolution looms right around the corner.