By Benjamin Rubin
New York City, New York
Sports change. They develop alongside changing skill levels, strategies and technology. Technology has produced a host of complexities, many of which have already left an everlasting mark on baseball, from batters using launch angle to hit as many home runs as possible to coaches using split averages to create favorable pitcher-hitter matchups. The most controversial change, though: a considerable increase in defensive shifts.
Normally, there are two infielders on each side of the diamond—the first baseman and second baseman to the right of second base and the shortstop and third baseman to the left. Due to advanced statistics, however, hitters are becoming more predictable regarding where they hit the ball. For example, many hitters tend to pull the ball towards their side rather than push the ball to the opposite field. The obvious defensive response is to put more infielders on the side that the hitter favors. That is the essence of the shift, and more often than not, it works—hitters generally hit into the shift, making it a valuable defensive tactic.
Those against the shift include past and present players, coaches and fans. They argue that it is contrary to baseball’s enjoyment, that it takes away from the marvels of power hitters who routinely pull the ball. Their solution: a rule that forces exactly two infielders to play to the right of second base and two on the left. Those people and their solution are wrong.
The following is baseball’s “infield fly” rule: in a situation with runners on first and second base or with the bases loaded, and less than two outs, if there is a pop-up in the infield, the batter who hit the pop-up is automatically out, and the runners on base must tag up.
Your average person does not understand that rule, yet it is part of the game. It is winding and loopy—much like baseball itself. Baseball requires a knowledge of the game’s ins and outs that is unparalleled in any other sport. Further, baseball players, unlike other athletes, have time to think; consequently, they must have razor-sharp mental focus for a full three hours. Yogi Berra put it best when he said “90% of the game is half mental.”
The aforementioned, confusing rule certainly contributes to the mental aspect. So do the many other intricate rules that make baseball so distinct. Why should we add another rule, overcomplicating a sport that’s already complicated enough?
There are and always will be nine fielders: one pitcher, one catcher and seven others organized however a coach wants. Teams have opted to have four outfielders for certain hitters, or five infielders. Sometimes all of the seven “others” are on the same side of the field. Who’s to say that you’re not allowed to do that?
Unlike essentials like the “infield fly” rule, the proposed new rule restricts the game needlessly, giving teams less freedom in how they play. I actually find the analytics interesting: choosing how to position your team against particular hitters adds a fascinating level of strategy that’s never been seen before. Winning games at the professional level is a tall task. You need as many reliable tactics as possible, and nothing is more reliable than statistics. The shift is one adjustment in a game all about adjustments. Its ban is unnecessary.
Not only does the shift not have adverse effects, but it has a positive impact: it breeds better hitters. Hitting to the opposite field is a fundamental part of the game. From little league to the major leagues, it is crucial that players learn how to drive outside pitches; without that skill, hitters are susceptible to striking out or making weak contact, and it’s harder to get on base when you can only hit to one side of the diamond.
Opponents of the shift want to see more offense. They want more base hits, more runs and although the shift does not help their cause, the true root of offensive woes in recent years is the strikeout. Strikeout rates have consistently risen for decades—if you want more offense, focus on putting the ball in play first, then worry about where the defense is. And if you find yourself being shifted against, listen to Willie Keeler’s hitting advice: “Hit ‘em where they ain’t.”