Yes, it's okay to think about illegal defense

Rob Neyer

Rob Neyer

Something'€™s been bothering me. A small baseball mystery, if you will. Turns out my little baseball mystery really shouldn't have seemed so mysterious. Before we get to that, though, a bit of baseball pop culture ...


As you probably have heard, or perhaps intuited through your daily viewing of our National Pastime, it's gotten harder to score runs. Quite a lot harder, actually. Batting averages are down, and so is scoring. This has been the trend for some time now, but this season the numbers have been more dramatic than ever. Well, more dramatic than most baseball writers can remember.

Earlier this week, Tom Verducci went digging for an explanation ... and stirred up a teapot tempest in the process:

I recently asked a veteran major league hitting coach what can be done to inject more offense back in the game. His first response was to address the new defensive positioning.

“The shifts,” he said. “Get rid of them. You need to come up with a definition of illegal defense. I know you’ll say, ‘Well, you’re a hitting coach. Of course you would [say that].’ But it’s something that has really changed the game.”

Support of an “illegal defense” rule – or at least the consideration of it – is gaining some traction in baseball. Such a rule might stipulate, for instance, that you cannot have three infielders on one side of second base. A shortstop would be able to shift as far as directly behind second base on a lefthanded hitter, but no farther.

Is it time for such a rule? My gut reaction is that it is time to at least think about it. All-fields hitting needs to increase. But Maddon, himself a former hitting instructor, believes that it will take years for the counter-response to make an impact. He said the emphasis on using the whole field to hit must begin with organizational teaching in the low minors. “You can’t make the same impact with guys already at the major league level,” he said.

So you may be talking about three years or more before you start seeing real change. Can baseball keep selling such a low-scoring, low-activity environment in the meantime?

Let me answer that last question first: Yes, of course baseball can keep selling the current environment for another few years. The notion that fans are suddenly going to wake up in 2015 or ’16 or ’17 and decide there’s not enough scoring so by golly they’re not going to watch any more ... It doesn’t work that way.

Might there be a tipping point? Sure, anything’s possible. But that would require something dramatic.

What happened in 1968 was dramatic. What’s happened so far is merely a trend, gradual enough that most fans wouldn’t even notice. Throughout the trend, attendance has held steady and revenues have gone up, up, and up. There’s simply no reason to think baseball has any real worries over the next three or four years.

In the long term? Well, who can say. It’s possible that today’s youth are being lost because the games don’t have enough scoring. Really, though, who can say? What we know is that Baseball has, at various points during its history, made mechanical adjustments to change the levels of scoring. Sometimes up, sometimes down. But there was a time, before the union became so powerful, that Baseball responded, however heavy-handedly at times, to perceived imbalances.

Baseball can’t do that any more. Every single change to the rules or the playing conditions is subject to negotiations, whether officially or not. Every single change to the rules or the playing conditions is going to upset at least one player. Upset enough players, and now you’ve got a situation. And it really doesn’t take many; the union is innately and virulently conservative about everything except money (they want even more) and time off (ditto). Remember how long it took to do something about those exploding bats?

Anyway, nothing’s going to happen without a tipping point, because the owners are still making billions and the players will throw up roadblocks to any real change.

Now, Verducci’s been castigated for even bringing this idea to the masses. Is he wrong, though? Is there really something wrong with thinking about it? Seems to me that thinking should generally be encouraged. Yet a fair number of thoughtful people don’t want to spend even a spare thought on this.

Before we think any more, though, a video interlude!

There’s a lot in there to chew on. Before we dismiss the idea of an anti-shift, illegal-defense rule, let’s discard the notion that baseball’s so perfect that it’s not to be trifled with. It wasn’t perfect in the beginning, and it’s not perfect now. In fact, there was a time when a manager could put his nine fielders wherever he liked. You’re probably thinking, “You mean like they can now?” No, not like they can now. In the beginning, you really could put your fielders wherever you liked. Think about it. Why have a catcher with nobody on base? No reason for it. Better to put that man afield, where he can do some good. So managers were forced to place a catcher behind the plate. Did you know there’s a rule compelling the other eight players to position themselves in fair territory? All this is covered in Rule 4.03. Here, I’ll show you:

4.03
When the ball is put in play at the start of, or during a game, all fielders other than the catcher shall be on fair territory.

(a) The catcher shall station himself directly back of the plate. He may leave his position at any time to catch a pitch or make a play except that when the batter is being given an intentional base on balls, the catcher must stand with both feet within the lines of the catcher’s box until the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. PENALTY: Balk.

(b) The pitcher, while in the act of delivering the ball to the batter, shall take his legal position;

(c) Except the pitcher and the catcher, any fielder may station himself anywhere in fair territory.

It wouldn’t be easy to rewrite part (c) to require two infielders to remain on each side of second base until the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, because it’s not easy to define “infielders” and “infield.” But it certainly could be done.

Mind you, I’m not advocating such a rule. I’m just saying you’ll not be smite with lightning for thinking about it, and you’ll not fail if you actually try to devise a workable rule.

It’s just not going to bend that trendline.

A couple of days ago, Dave Cameron made an interesting point. I’d actually seen this mentioned a few weeks ago and meant to write something, but it’s Cameron’s and Verducci’s work that finally got me going. As Cameron notes, even with the dramatic rise of infield shifts, the batting average on balls in play has not changed.

In fact, this season’s .299 BABiP is the highest it’s been since 2009 (also .299). In fact, the MLB average has essentially held steady for the last 20 years.

When I first saw this, I was confused. If more and more teams are shifting, aren’t they saving more hits? And if they’re not saving more hits, then why are more and more teams shifting?

I asked John Dewan, co-author of The Fielding Bible and the leading documentarian (and promoter) of infield shifting. His response:

Rob, it's because the number of batted balls on a shift is still a small percentage of all batted balls in play.

There have been about 40,000 grounders and short liners in MLB this year. The batting average on all grounders and short liners in baseball is .262. On shifted plays it's .230, non-shifted plays .265. The shift is put on a little more than 10% of the time. The shift lowers the batting average on grounders and short liners by about 30 points (actually l35 points so far this year, 29 last year). So that's 3 points, and that's the drop in overall batting average from non-shifted plays to all plays, .265 to .262.

Now you factor in ALL balls in play and that 3 points gets lost further. So, the shift drops BABIP 1 or 2 points, and that gets lost in the noise between the year-to-year BABIPs.

Does that make sense?

It makes sense to me, but I’m not a math wiz. Does it make sense to you, out there in Internetland?

The alternate explanation, of course, is that shifting doesn’t really do anything at all. But I haven’t seen any evidence at all for that.

Getting back to the subject at hand, it’s fine to think about an illegal-defense rule, but it’s probably foolish to think it would actually have a significant impact on scoring. The only way to significantly boost scoring is to address the Strikeout Scourge, and the related drops in both walks and home runs.

It’s good that we’re finally thinking about the problem. Now we have to focus on the actual causes, instead of a bunch of managers fooling around with their infielders to save a few measly runs here and there.


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