Column: Defensive shift is killing baseball and needs to go
LAS VEGAS — Ask baseball managers what they think about the dreaded shift, and most of them have the same answer.
It’s not a problem if the hitters don’t make it one.
“There’s an easy way to combat that,” Oakland’s Bob Melvin said. “Just hit the ball the other way.”
It’s a simple enough solution, though certainly an obvious one. Who among us, after all, hasn’t screamed at a batter to push the ball the other way or even bunt for a sure hit when the defense is loaded up on one side of the infield?
The guys in the dugout surely have, even if job security dictates they do their screaming silently.
“If a guy can use the whole field, they’re not going to shift you,” the Marlins‘ Don Mattingly said.
Unfortunately, guys don’t use the whole field anymore. They haven’t for some time because they play baseball to make money, and the players who make the most money try to hit the ball as hard as they can to the place they’re most comfortable hitting it.
Hitters aren’t going to adapt. There’s no real incentive for them to go the other way, even when all the numbers add up.
So while managers at this week’s winter meetings talked about players adjusting to situations and shifts, their real audience is the guys in the dugout. And they, for the most part, aren’t listening.
Push one down the third-base line for an easy hit? You’d have better luck getting Manny Machado to hustle to first.
“The majority of the hitters, I’d say 90 to 95 percent, say, ‘To heck with it, I’m going to try to hit a homer and a double,'” said Kansas City manager Ned Yost. “Our numbers for singles as a baseball league last year dropped way down. And you just lose strategy, you lose the ability to steal bases. You lose the ability to hit and run or bunt if you want to.”
In other words, you’re losing a big part of baseball.
The shift, if you haven’t noticed, is killing baseball. Maybe not by itself, but as part of a new analytics culture in the game that doesn’t value steals, sacrifice bunts, hit-and-runs or any kind of strategy that doesn’t always make sense when all the numbers are crunched.
Major League Baseball has noticed, mainly because attendance was down last season and so were hits. Singles have been in decline for the last five years, and the league average of .248 was the worst in 46 years.
Meanwhile, for the first time there were more strikeouts than hits in the game, and the World Series — at least on the Dodgers‘ side — was a badly flawed microcosm of what the game has become.
That’s a big reason baseball’s competition committee is looking at doing away with the shift, a move commissioner Rob Manfred has said he is open to considering. Though baseball tends to move slowly, there’s an outside chance both the commissioner’s office and the players union could agree to do something about the increasing use of the shift before next season.
Banning the shift, of course, won’t magically make all the problems of the game go away. It might not change much at all, if you believe the analytics that show the shift mainly takes hits away from slow left-handed power hitters.
But it’s a step toward making baseball look like baseball again. And it’s a step toward being more proactive when it comes to winning back fans turned off by the slow pace of games and the interminable periods in games when nothing seems to happen.
“I just think that shift, it makes the game much, much more boring in my opinion,” said Yost, one of the few managers to take a stand against the shift.
Thankfully for baseball, there is an easy solution.
Two infielders on each side of second base. Both with at least one foot on the infield dirt.
You know, like baseball used to be played.
The guess is that it’s likely to happen, if only because no one but pitchers and the people in the analytics department have any love for the shift. That includes Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who used it so much last season that at times it seemed like third baseman Justin Turner was spending more time on the other side of the second base bag than in his normal position.
Roberts said he believes baseball is a better game without the shift, though for now his immediate plans are to increase the time his hitters spend hitting to the opposite field in spring training to try to combat it.
Here’s hoping they won’t need that extra practice.
It’s time for the shift to go.