Does Rob Manfred not get it?
Spoiler Alert: I don’t know!
When Rob Manfred’s comment about looking at infield shifts hit the Internet, some people reacted strongly. And Joe Sheehan was one of them! In his newsletter Thursday, Joe wished he could take back his reaction. But that doesn’t stop him from questioning Manfred…
With some distance, though, I understand why I reacted so strongly. It’s not that banning shifts is reactionary or a break with history or just fundamentally wrong. It’s that focusing on shifts belies all of the data that we have that demonstrate shifts aren’t the problem. Shifts are taking away singles from some categories of hitters — mostly pull-power, mostly left-handed — but they’re not having an impact on run scoring as a whole. David Schoenfield cites BIS’s projections of about a run a day, in the ESPN piece linked above. MLB BABIP was .297 in 2010, when shifting wasn’t an issue, and it was .299 last year. (Thanks, Fangraphs.) The commissioner of baseball went on television and proposed a solution that 15 minutes of research, by him or a staffer, would have told him would be a pointless exercise.Article continues below ...
I’ve already defended Manfred’s right to think about the extreme shifts, so I guess now it’s time to admit that it’s discouraging to discover that he seems to believe those shifts actually make a real difference, even though the data’s been around for a while now. That said, it’s not really fair to expect the new Commissioner to get into the weeds of sabermetric research, and presumably he’s not yet asked his underlings for an executive summary. We might guess that he’ll have one soon.
As Joe points out — and as I’ve been railing about for what now must seem like many years — the problem with scoring isn’t better or smarter defense, but rather pitchers who throw really hard and have learned that umpires are calling a lower strike zone than ever before. Simple as that. And yes, it does seem odd that Manfred plucked out of the air, of all things, infield shifts instead of something more … substantive.
But let’s not be too hasty. Joe’s big finish:
Addressing shifts is a Selig Era solution — take something that is visible, that seems like a problem but actually isn’t, and make a show of "fixing" it with a solution that releases a wave of unintended consequences. We should all want more for the Manfred Era than an update on "This Time it Counts" or the wild card or draft budgets. We should want Rob Manfred to do what so many of the teams in his charge have done: use data to succeed.
Manfred also sat down with Ken Rosenthal this week, and Rosenthal asked Manfred about gameplay.
ROSENTHAL: There also has been talk about the lack of action out there. The amount of balls in play. What can you do to address that, if anything?
MANFRED: There are a package of things that you might want to look at to address this action issue. But given the reaction I got on shifts I think Iâm going to stop right there (laughs).
No, Mr. Manfred. The lesson of last week isn’t to stop. The lesson is to do better.
I’m sure Joe knows this, but Manfred wasn’t suggesting he would stop thinking about doing better. I think he was suggesting (or joking) that he would stop shooting from the hip in situations like this, because when you off-handedly suggest radical changes to the game — banning shifts would be radical, just as requiring every relief pitcher to face two batters would be radical — all that happens is you catch a bunch of grief on Twitter. Which isn’t fun for anybody except the grief-givers.