Game changers: A shift in keeping score
The scorebook tells a story. It gives baseball fans an at-a-glance glimpse into the daily installation of the soap opera they have been watching for over a hundred years. The circle that signifies a popout, the backwards "K" that equals a man caught looking, the penciled-in diamonds that tally runs; they are all as familiar as the lines of the field itself.
We can all see a "5-3" in our heads; a sharply hit grounder up the line, collected neatly by the third baseman. Perhaps he pumps once or twice to better his grip, but the throw comes, a beeline across the field for the putout at first base. Or maybe it was a slow-roller, charged upon and thrown, cross-body, on-the-run. Whatever the pace of the play, 5-3 tells us how and where it went down. Until, of course, it doesn't.
In 2015, according to Baseball Info Solutions, the shift was applied in some form nearly 18,000 times in Major League Baseball. That's up from 2,400 times in 2010. Which means, countless times, that 5-3 was completed by a third baseman, standing to the first-base side of the second-base bag, who fielded a ground ball up the middle. Yes, the man designated as the "5" made the play. But his designated position was far, far away, and the 5-3 that we have always so faithfully trusted no longer tells the full story.
The shift, it seems, is here to stay. And it is changing the way we look at and judge defense. So, the debate ensues. Should official scoring change with it?
"We're aware that this is something new, and that it presents some scoring challenges, but as yet, we haven't had anyone who was unable to score it," said MLB senior vice president Phyllis Merhige, who oversees official scoring. "As long as we're consistent, no one is concerned about it."
But, Merhige adds, the topic of scoring the shift will likely be a part of the conversation when the official scorers gather for their annual seminar this winter.
As it stands, Rule 10.03(a) of the MLB rulebook reads as follows: When a player does not exchange positions with another fielder but is merely placed in a different spot for a particular batter (for example, if a second baseman goes to the outfield to form a four-man outfield, or if a third baseman moves to a position between the shortstop and second baseman), the official scorer should not list this as a new position.
Many scorers, like Howie Karpin of the Mets, are fine with the system as-is.
"I'm old school," Karpin said. "To me, if you move the guy around, he's still the third baseman. I don't care if he plays by the first-base dugout, he's still a 5 on my scorecard."
Others are embracing the need for a bit more information. Rockies official scorer David Plati adds a small dot to his scorecard when the shift is on, to show where on the field the ball was hit.
"That way, if someone asks me later on, I'll remember the shift was on and I can tell them where the ball went," Plati said. "I'm kind of into a change, because just putting down '5-3,' doesn't ever tell the full story."
Steve Hirdt of Elias Sports Bureau adds a right-pointing arrow above the "5" on a "5-3" if the third baseman was shaded to the right side of the field. But, Hirdt is quick to add, he also adds an asterisk to his scorebook if a catch is extraordinary.
"If Endy Chavez makes a catch with his elbow over the left-field fence, all the official scorer writes is '7,'" Hirdt said. "I put a bunch of asterisks around it and circle it in my scorebook. But the official scorer's job is to be utterly prosaic."
Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who helped popularize the shift when he was with the Rays, cares little about the scorebook. However, he does want to know where the ball is hit in every situation.
"The scorers can write whatever they want in their books," Maddon said, "as long as I find out where the ball went later on." For that info, Maddon relies on the latest defensive information kept by both individual clubs and independent stat companies.
One such company is Baseball Info Solutions, whose defensive metrics were used in 2015 by 22 of the 30 Major League clubs to track fielders' performance.
"Our system grades players on a play-by-play basis, on how often a play is made compared to other fielders at the same position, and gives them credit for making plays other guys at their position wouldn't have made," said company president Ben Jedlovec. "At first, we thought if a shortstop was making plays up the middle on balls he wouldn't normally have gotten to because he was positioned differently in the shift, so be it. Whether it was good positioning or good range or whatever, it didn't matter as long as he made the play. That was our line."
And then, in 2013, then-Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie broke that system. Toronto began shifting Lawrie to the first-base side of second base, which allowed him to make plays half a field away from his designated position, giving him a range no other third baseman in baseball possessed.
"It made him look ridiculously good, and by the All-Star break, he was set to destroy every defensive record for the past decade," Jedlovec said.
So Baseball Info Solutions made an adjustment to their metric, giving the Blue Jays credit for team defense when they were successful in the shift, rather than crediting Lawrie for a superhuman play that wasn't.
How, though, could the box score be adjusted? In the 1990s, Bill James suggested dividing the field into zones, designated with letters and numbers. But the division was complicated. A simpler system could be used, segmenting the field into purely positional zones. For example, if the third baseman is playing in the "second base zone" along with the actual second baseman, what would be currently be ruled a 5-3 would instead be ruled a 4-3. Still, that scoring would not be an accurate representation of the play at hand.
Perhaps just add an "S" to the box score when the shift is on? Or go with Plati or Hirdt and use a dot or an arrow to show the location of the batted ball?
"There needs to be more talk about conceptualizing the box score," said Jedlovec, who points out that the scoring system devised by sports writer Henry Chadwick in the late 1800s looks much the same today's scorebooks, yet the game has obviously changed.