Players, coaches discuss impact of the infield shift
MLB's new Commissioner, Rob Manfred, got people's attention right out of the gate.
In an interview that aired on ESPN on Sunday, his first official day at the helm, Manfred responded to a query by Karl Ravech by saying he was open to the possibility of doing away with defensive shifts. This stirred up immediate chatter in social media, on sports radio and among sportswriters, which was a good thing, according to the game's 10th Commissioner.
"The context of that discussion was, 'Tell me something radical you might be willing to consider,'" Manfred explained on Monday. "I'm prepared to have a conversation about it. Having said that, I don't mind that this office is viewed as a place where people are thinking about the game every day.
"We have not only the one or two things, like pace-of-game changes, we're focused on, but also a laundry list of things about which we are having conversations. That doesn't mean it's going to become part of the agenda. It means we're thinking about it."
So is everyone else, in no small part because the number of defensive shifts has increased nearly 500 percent, from 2,464 in 2010 to 13,296 in 2014, according to the 2015 Bill James Handbook. And at least one big league manager would be on board with banning the shift. It's a conversation Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez had with former Braves GM Frank Wren following the 2013 season.
"Frank made the point that good players are run out of the game sooner rather than later because of the shift," Gonzalez recalls. "I didn't buy in completely at first, because as managers we have to get and dissect information and act accordingly. But the more I've seen the shift at work, the more I think Frank isn't all wrong."
Gonzalez expressed concern that left-handed power hitters who pull the ball will be overshifted to a point at which their value will decrease so much they'll be out of a job. "In my opinion, you shouldn't be able to have three infielders on one side of the infield," Gonzalez said. "That, to me, is an illegal defense."
As the rules stand, there isn't much with regard to defensive positioning that isn't legal. MLB rules state that all players on defense, aside from the catcher, must play within fair territory. The pitcher must be in contact with the rubber as he delivers the ball. That's really it, and while the shift may be hailed as a modern tactic brought about by the sabermetric revolution, today's managers are hardly the first to take advantage of that option.
The shift first garnered attention in the 1920s, when opposing managers realigned their defense to deal with left-handed Phillies slugger Cy Williams. In 1946, another Williams forced the shift to prominence again, when Indians manager Lou Boudreau used the now infamous "Ted Williams shift" -- six fielders on the right side of second base -- against the fearsome Red Sox hitter. During the '46 World Series, Cardinals manager Eddie Dyer tried several different types of shifts against the Splendid Splinter, who would see variations of the shift for the duration of his career. Initially, Williams didn't change his approach much at all; Ty Cobb publicly called him "stupid" for not being more adaptable.
Eventually though, even the great Williams caved. "There were seven guys over there, I had to change," Williams said in a 1993 interview. "I got advice from one of the greatest guys, Paul Waner, to move a bit away from the plate so everything is away from you and you're forced to go that way."
In the '40s, managers used the shift based on anecdotal evidence and what their eyes told them. If you ever saw Ted Williams swing a bat, you knew he pulled the ball with power. Today, managers are merely doing what the numbers tell them to do.
THE CASE FOR THE SHIFT
New Cubs manager Joe Maddon often gets credit with making the shift in vogue again. During his time with the Angels in the late 1990s, Maddon, always glued to his laptop, started seeing patterns. One day, he went to manager Terry Collins and said, "Hey, do you mind if we shift Ken Griffey?" The rest, as they say, is history. In 2008, as manager of the Rays, Maddon shifted his way to the American League pennant, but there is no hard evidence of that fact; comprehensive data wasn't kept on the shift until 2010.
Maddon, for his part, wholeheartedly disagrees with eliminating the shift. "For the same reason I'm Republican when it comes to finances," Maddon quips. "Let the market work its way out. You don't need extra rules and regulations in clubhouse. The players will work it out. It'll lighten up as players start to make the proper adjustments."
That is, as pull hitters start to hit pitches to the opposite field, as Minor Leaguers begin to place more value on the ability to hit to all fields and lay down bunts and the pressure of the shift devalues power hitters who can only go one way, the shift will shift away. And to those who argue that the shift gives the defensive team an advantage, Maddon adds: "So did Ozzie Smith."
Others within the game echo that sentiment.
"You should be allowed to put players where you want to, because when you put them somewhere, you're opening up gaps somewhere else," said Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. "Taking away the shift would take away from the uniqueness of what you can do on a baseball field. That's like telling a basketball team or a football team you can't play zone defense."
"It seems the object of the defense is to get the offense out, and the object of the offense is to score runs," said Marlins infield coach Perry Hill. "It seems like you should be able to do what you think is right."
"I've read what Commissioner Manfred said, and I think what he meant was he wasn't closing himself off to anything," said Indians manager Terry Francona at Cleveland's annual town-hall meeting for season ticket holders. "The game makes adjustments, and it'll be interesting to see now where the offense goes to get the runs back, because it'll happen."
Scoring certainly has decreased in recent years. In 2006, there were 23,599 runs scored during the regular season. In 2014, there were 19,761. Those who fundamentally object to the shift point to it as a reason for the decline, and most anecdotal evidence supports that claim.
"[My team has] been at the forefront of that movement, and being a catcher and a left-handed hitter, I think it's definitely made an impact," said Houston's Jason Castro, whose club led MLB with a whopping 1,341 shifts in 2014, according to the Bill James Handbook. (No. 2 was Tampa Bay at 824.) "If a pitcher's attacking you a certain way and the defense is taking away the only response you have to hitting those pitches, it makes it difficult. I think hits up the middle have gone down and that gap between first and second has definitely shrunk."
Yes, the Astros saved 52 hits with the shift in 2014. But that only translated to 27 runs, according to the Bill James Handbook. Across baseball, the shift saved a total of 195 runs overall, not really enough to be blamed for baseball's decrease in scoring.
That decline can be more easily attributed to the absence of PEDs, the improvement and focus on overall defense, and the ever-increasing number of strikeouts. To wit: There were strikeouts in 16.5 percent of plate appearances in 2005. That figure has risen every year since, reaching 20.4 percent in 2014.
While the shift is far less often deployed against right-handed hitters due to the defensive team's reluctance to move the first baseman too far away from his post, Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy is so adept at hitting to right field, he has all but eliminated the use of the shift against him. (The shift against righties did increase from 40 uses in 2010 to over 4,000 in 2014). "Personally, I love when teams shift on me," Lucroy said. "I try to hit 'em where they ain't, like Willie Keeler."
Padres manager Bud Black thinks Lucroy's mindset is starting to permeate pro ball: "I do think that over time, not overnight, you'll see certain hitters take advantage and hit the ball, as they say, where they ain't. I know that's already being talked about more by hitting coaches, managers and it's starting to infiltrate the Minor Leagues."
While his two attempts at bunting to beat the shift both ended up in the visitors' dugout, no lefty has been better against the shift than Cardinals slugger Matt Adams. When the hulking first baseman earned a full-time job in the big leagues, he did what he'd always done; he pulled the ball with power to right field, over and over again. It didn't take long for the opposition to hit Adams with the shift. "It definitely surprised me, that's for sure, and it kind of messed with me mentally until I saw it for a few weeks," he said.
Adams had no choice but to simplify things and take advantage of pitchers' mistakes by going with outside pitches and driving them to the (gasp) opposite field. At the beginning of last season, Adams was in the top 10 of the most-shifted players in the big leagues. But by midseason, he wasn't. Why? Because his batting average on ground balls and short liners hit against the shift (.303) was nearly as good as his average on ground balls and short liners when there was no shift (.305). That is, Adams learned to beat the shift.
"Early last year, I'd look out and there would be three and sometimes four infielders on the right side of the field," Adams said. "But then I started going with those outside pitches, and the infield started moving back the other way, not to a normal defensive setup, but to much less of a shift."
It's been easier for Adams, though, than it has for other power-hitting lefties. No matter how skilled a hitter, seeing six or seven gloves on the side of the field where you've hit the ball for the better part of three decades is jarring mentally, and the 30-year-old habit of hitting to the pull side is tough to break. David Ortiz, for example, hit .250 on those grounders and short liners when there was no shift in 2014, and dropped to .201 with the shift. Ryan Howard went from .333 to .167, Baltimore's Chris Davis from .333 to .121.
"Will there come a time when the shift devalues the player who goes for the long ball? I don't think so," said Ben Jedlovec of Baseball Information Solutions, the company that tracks the shift data published in the Bill James Handbook. "The shift may take some hits from Ortiz, but it doesn't make him a bad player. Until we stop wanting those power hitters, nothing is going to change."
And the shift, as Manfred explained, isn't going anywhere overnight, if at all.