When Rob Manfred ascended to the throne, accepting his new role as MLB commissioner, he laid out a clear path for where he wants the MLB to go. He essentially suggested a five-pronged approach.
First, he seeks to emphasize youth outreach, ensuring that the very best athletes across the country not only play baseball but also develop a love of the game from Little Leagues to the NCAA.
Second, the commissioner wants to embrace technology, something the MLB has long put off. Manfred wants this to happen through a) continuing to develop instant replay, which has been met with extremely mixed reviews, and b) developing a pitch clock to cap game length, which is currently being tested in Arizona Fall Leagues and will expand to the minors this season.
Third, he wants to unify MLB as a single entity. He began this process by creating a series of new jobs within the central office, with the intent of expanding communication within the executive branch of the MLB as well as from the execs to each individual team.
Fourth, Manfred hopes to see player-league communication improve, both from a collective bargaining standpoint as well as in day-to-day business. The man sounds downright reasonable at this point.
And fifth, he would just love if defensive shifts were eliminated from the game. Wait, what?
Now, before we jump to rash conclusions, let’s give the good commissioner credit where credit is due. Baseball saw a sizable drop in offense last season in an era in which defensive shifts became standard procedure for many of the more innovative teams in the MLB (see: the Tampa Bay Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers).
It is somewhat stunning that it took baseball teams this long to embrace the simplistic philosophy of the defensive shift: understanding where players are most likely to hit the ball based on their personal past performance and adjusting the defense accordingly.
It is even more stunning that there is still opposition to defensive shifts from many clubs, intent on winning with the long ball, but more surprising that there is opposition from the new head of the MLB.
What Manfred is attempting to fight is the back-and-forth nature of play that baseball has undertaken ever since its popularization as a sport. The first major shift in the game was that of pitchers throwing the ball overhand, giving defense an advantage. Then there was the deadball era, the home run and offense explosion of the ‘30s, the decline of run support in the ‘60s (which led to lowering of the mound, thereby benefiting hitters) and finally the steroid era.
Surely, if the commissioner lets the league run its course, we will be free from an era in which the defensive shift is even necessary. The longer the shift sticks around, the more hitters will be able to hit around it. And that is necessary for baseball.
Today, we have hitters who are totally incapable of doing anything but pulling the ball really, really hard. If they have to face the shift every time they come to the plate, perhaps they will grow as hitters and learn to, I don’t know, hit the ball the other way every once in a while (looking at you, David Ortiz). MLB scouts will begin to value minor leaguers who can hit the ball to all fields instead of guys who can crank it 500 feet to their pull side. The game will change. And that sort of change is natural.
Instead, Manfred is attempting to play into the economics of the major leagues. It’s no secret that casual fans of the game are substantially more interested in seeing a home run loaded slugfest ending 11-8 than a 1-0, 13-inning pitchers duel. And the more casual fans there are, more seats are filled every game, more jerseys are sold and more ads can be sold.
Eliminating the shift speaks to money rather than allowing the sabermetric route the MLB is taking to further develop.
Now, logistical questions abound in terms of this proposed new rule. Would there be a line drawn in the middle of the field that players could not cross? That sounds ugly. Who would enforce the rule? Do we need another umpire? What would the penalty be for committing the egregious error of playing in a shift? And really, at the core, comes the final question: Should teams be allowed to place fielders where they know hitters are more likely to hit the ball?
To answer no to that question fights the tides of baseball. It fights the brilliance of managers like Joe Maddon, it devalues the moneyballing strategy Billy Beane has undertaken. In short, it pits the natural direction of baseball with the monetary interests of owners.
It handcuffs managers and fielders at the expense of more money in the pockets of people who might not even be in attendance at the game. Baseball has already been sizably moved in the commercial direction. Let’s not take another step.