The Tampa Bay Rays have been deploying the infield shift for some time now. The above shot is from 2008.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Remember last season, when it seemed like half the teams in the majors were deploying extreme infield shifts against half the sluggers? Well, it seems that particular movement has flatlined, and might even have reversed.
Just kidding. The movement is only getting bigger. At least if you believe Baseball Info Solutions (which I do). Here’s Tyler Kepner in the Times:
Teams shifted about 2,400 times in 2010 and 2011, said Ben Jedlovec, a vice president for the company, and about 4,500 times in 2012. Last season, the total jumped to about 8,100, and teams are on pace for 13,000 shifts in 2014.
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Dombrowski’s Tigers are using more shifts under their new manager, Brad Ausmus, but they are not alone. Entering the weekend, data showed that 23 of the 30 teams were on pace to deploy more shifts than they did last year.
The Houston Astros entered the weekend on pace to use the most shifts this season, followed by the Yankees, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Orioles and the Chicago White Sox, who ranked 27th last year.
So the White Sox are shifting a lot more, which is surprising since they have the same management team in place. It’s not surprising that the Tigers are shifting more, since Jim Leyland showed little interest during his tenure.
You’re going to be burned on it,” Billy Eppler, the Yankees’ assistant general manager/pro personnel, said Monday in a telephone interview. “You just want to have more instances of run-saving circumstances than run-yielding circumstances.”
“If you had a crystal ball, if you could conceive of what happens before it happens — if you could jump in your DeLorean and go back in time — you could turn every ball in play into an out,” Eppler said, slipping in an excellent “Back to the Future” reference. “A perfect opponents’ BABiP (batting average on balls in play) is .000. The average is between .302 and .305. You want to beat that. If you beat that, you’re going to be pleased.”
The Yankees’ opponents’ BABiP is .296.
Obviously, it’s still very early. But the trend is dramatic. In just four years, the number of shifts has increased by … what, roughly 450 percent? That’s phenomenal. I’m not sure there’s ever been a new tactic in baseball that’s been embraced so quickly and wholeheartedly across the sport. I remember John Dewan arguing, two or three years ago, that teams should be shifting a lot more than they were. I’m not sure how much more the top-shifting teams can shift, but the relatively non-shifting teams obviously have plenty of room for more.
And so I do expect more. In the absence of shift-beating tactics that we’ve simply not seen yet — with all due respect to these brave few — there’s simply no good reason to think the pull hitters won’t see more and more shifts everywhere they go.
Which, as I’ve no doubt written before, is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because … well, because it’s damned interesting. It’s not often that we’re treated to a real change in how the game is played. I mean, thinking back … Babe Ruth brought serious power to the majors in the 1920s. Luis Aparicio and especially Maury Wills brought serious steals to the majors in the late 1950s. Jose Canseco brought drugs and 800-foot homers to the majors in the late ‘80s.
I suppose you might argue that there was a radical change in relief pitching at some point, too. Probably in the 1980s, when Tony La Russa rarely allowed Dennis Eckersley to pitch more than one inning and used various lefties for just a batter or two. But with serious studying of the subject (again), I will suggest that La Russa’s relief-pitching tactics were more evolutionary than revolutionary.
This explosion of extreme infield shifts is wild, man.
Which doesn’t mean you have to enjoy them. I do and I don’t. I enjoy watching the game change before my eyes, but I do wonder if the game’s getting out of the “proper” balance — that is, the balance desired by me and maybe you — with the pitchers and the defenses conspiring to make runs scarcer than we might like.
I certainly don’t believe the shift should be outlawed; managers should be allowed to set their defenses however they like, as long as “however they like” falls within the rules and does not routinely lead to long delays in the action. All I’m saying is that all the recent changes in the game seem to have enhanced run prevention, and ultimately something might have to be done to help the hitters a little bit.
Which sounds sacrilegious to some of you, I know. But I also know that since its beginnings, baseball has engaged in various balancing acts in the pursuit of an attractive entertainment for the paying customers. And I know that if the strikeouts and the 2-1 games keep coming, there will be some balancing.