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I love Joe Girardi, in large part because he looks like a Serious Dad. He’s got the kind of stern face that makes you believe that you were actually wrong to play Indoor Softball in front of the new TV.

By virtue of his Serious Dad Face, among other skills and virtues, Girardi has navigated two tricky[1] ownership groups, become the only manager ever to win Manager of the Year with a losing record and—most importantly—won the 2009 World Series.

And he’s done it with panache—when Girardi took over the Yankees, he chose to wear No. 27 on his back, a symbol of his intention to bring the Yankees their 27th title. After he did that, he switched to No. 28. What a badass heel leadership move. That’s the kind of thing you do because it’s impolite to steal your conquered enemies’ gods and bring them back to your home city.

And now Joe Girardi wants to ban the shift.

This is sour grapes, or as you might say if you’re rich enough to afford tickets to a Yankees game, cognac.

The Yankees got shifted on more than any team in baseball last year, and have suffered the sixth-most shifts in this young season, and if it weren’t working, other teams wouldn’t do it. Girardi wants the rules changed because they don’t benefit him, which is an appeal that tends to work better for investment bankers, for good or ill, than for managers of baseball teams.

As you can tell, it’s an easy stand to mock. But I’m going to make it with him. Ban the shift. I’m Spartacus.

My anti-shift credentials are well documented. In fact, here’s a 2013 BP article in which Sam Miller tells me how wrong I am. But my beliefs have evolved, if only somewhat, over the years.

If I’m totally honest, my hatred for the shift is also the result of sour grapes. The shift as we know it today started as a way to keep Ryan Howard from chucking dangerously hard-hit line drives into short right field night after night, and it worked.[2] As a Phillies fan, this infuriated me. It didn’t look like baseball, and it was hurting my favorite team, so I wanted it to stop.

For a long time, I believed that the easiest way to beat the shift—or at least, extreme shifts like the ones Howard faced—was for extreme pull hitters to go the other way. That a pull hitter could just alter his swing based on the defensive alignment is a belief that dates back to Ted Williams, who was a better hitter than Ryan Howard at any rate, and Williams didn’t do it. That’s fair enough—it’s hard enough to even make contact with a pitched baseball,[3] much less direct it to an unguarded quadrant of the field. This isn’t tennis, after all.

But you could bunt, right? Maybe that’s not an option for Ryan Howard anymore—I’m not sure he could beat out a bunt these days if he had a bicycle and a two-second head start. Now, Ryan Howard’s practically a minotaur; he lives to hit dingers and line drives, not to leg out bunt singles, but if he could bunt for a hit against the shift even half the time, he could do it frequently enough to give opposing infielders pause. That’s just good game theory.

So almost three years later, I’ve concluded that there must be some overriding reason why players who get shifted a lot haven’t started dropping down bunts, or else they would’ve taken the free base whenever it was offered. Because they’re not going around the shift, and I guarantee you it’s not because the thought hasn’t occurred to anyone in a big-league dugout or front office.

If it’s because they can’t, then they can’t. If it’s because they won’t, at this point, that’s pretty much the same thing, because I don’t think pro athletes should be so prideful that they charge into the strongest part of the defense in a blaze of suicidal glory, like Hasdrubal at the Metaurus, but ain’t nobody going to change just because I say so.

Right now, the only particularly restrictive rules governing the position of fielders involve the pitcher and catcher—everyone else just has to be between the foul lines. I’d alter that rule to add that no more than four of those seven remaining fielders can be on one side of second base.[4]

The reason for doing so is also largely subjective. My ideal form of baseball involves a lot of balls in play. Balls in play make people run and therefore encourage athleticism. Balls in play involve a lot of uncertainty, and are therefore exciting. Balls in play get more people involved than just the pitcher, catcher and batter, and are therefore egalitarian. Balls in play lead to plays like this:

And this:

Right now, strikeouts are at an all-time high and getting more common every year. Hits are near an all-time low, while home runs remain at an all-time high. At some point we don’t lose much by just having ghost runners and fielders. TV ratings and arm injuries and the cable bubble and lower run scoring in general don’t keep me up at night as existential threats to professional baseball, but this does. The real solution to strikeouts proliferating like the river toxin in Sahara is to somehow convince all pitchers to throw at, like, 85 percent effort, which would probably keep everyone healthier too, but that’s not going to happen either.

What we can do is to incentivize putting the ball in play by making defense worse, which is what an illegal defense rule would essentially do. We’d see more line drives fall for hits, more hard-hit ground balls sneak through the infield.

Or at least that’s the idea. I have no idea if this would even make a dent, or if we’re headed inevitably toward a future in which seven players can just pick dandelions on every play.



[1] There are euphemisms, and then there are euphemisms.

[2] Well, I guess it didn’t stop him from hitting those line drives so much as it made sure there was a man standing in front of them when he did, but that’s more or less the same effect.

[3] For evidence of this, see Ryan Howard since 2012 or so.

[4] At least until some enterprising manager put on a standard shift infield with the center fielder shaded one step toward the opposite field, then we’d have to change the rule again.

Thank you for reading

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kalimantan
4/29
Yeah, why not, there's no reason why such a rule couldn't be made and done for precisely the reason you say. Nearly all sports have similar rules on placing of people, such as offside in soccer, and even cricket, that egalitarian brother of baseball where you can hit the ball anywhere, run only when you choose to do so, can place all your fielders close and catching or out on the boundary, even cricket has a couple of rules in place to govern how many fielders you can put in different parts of the park. So why not, baseball?
Kongos
4/29
I was going to use the example of cricket for an argument in favor of the shift, not against it. Cricket is like a complex chess game where you can put your fielders pretty much anywhere. It's a huge field and the team doesn't have nearly enough players to cover it adequately so the teams are putting fielders wherever they think that specific batter is likeliest to hit the ball of that specific bowler -- the whole game is one huge, complex shift. And that complexity, the endless strategizing, is a lot of the appeal of the game.

Please don't dumb down baseball by limiting one of the game's strategic elements, especially since they're just starting to explore how it can be used.
kalimantan
4/29
I've always thought along the same lines as you. But once upon a time in cricket fielding sides found you could take advantage of a certain type of player by banging the ball in one location and getting them caught fending it off to leg. This started to affect the enjoyment of the game and detracted from its true aesthetic. So they changed the rules to only allow two fielders behind square on the leg side.

I see a lot of parallels with this and the shift
smitty99
4/29
I think cricket has a position called "silly mid on." Baseball should have cool names like that.
bhacking
4/29
I agree that I'd like to see more balls in play. To do that one solution is to drop the height of the pitching mound. Adjusting where the fielders are standing does nothing to reduce strike outs.

I know it's a big change for pitchers so start with 1/2" and see what happens.
sbnirish77
4/29
Did everybody at BP go to bed before the Dee Gordon story broke last night?
GBSimons
4/29
Does every single one of your comments have to be so snide?
GBSimons
5/04
Actually, it does seem a bit odd that the only mention of Gordon's suspension was buried in the Hit List.
chlaxman
4/29
How does shifting affect the number of balls in play? You're suggesting that players are striking out more because they're trying to beat the shift?
BCermak
4/29
I entered the article willing to be convinced of the shift's evil, but now I just want a lowered mound or tightened strikezone
bhalpern
4/29
A couple of mentions here about lowering the mound. Given that the average pitcher is probably much taller than even twenty years ago, how about moving the mound back by an inch each year for at least six years to get to 61'. And also put a stop to the hopping forward ala Capps and Walden.
oldbopper
4/30
While willful arrogance, I will show those %#&^*% what I think of their ^%#*&ing shift, plays a role, I believe one reason players do not attempt to go against the shift is fear of failure. It is not unreasonable to think that they feel they have to succeed every time they go the opposite way and, for some bizarre reason, cannot accept even a .500 OBP, which seems like a reasonable expectation of success. Even if the contenders are hesitant, some awful team, the Braves, who can't hit it over the wall from the warning track, should attack the shift at every opportunity and see what the results are. It can't be any worse.
Mikeschmid56
4/30
As somewhat of a libertarian, I don't think legislation is the answer. Over time the players will figure it out.
floydwicker
4/30
Yes! Yes!
And I would go a little further: ban the change up, it's deceptive and sets a bad example for kids; end platooning as it gives an advantage to teams with good hitters; and stolen bases .... Do we really want to promote theft as a positive thing?
dethwurm
4/30
Bah. Shifts forever! Baseball strategy was so pitiful before they started shifting regularly ("Ooh, the third baseman is standing two feet right of where he usually stands! Will this gambit pay off or backfire spectacularly?????"). Brett Lawrie snagging line drives in middle-right field rules (well, it did when he still did that). Five infielders rules. Hell I'd relax the between-the-foul-lines restriction - if the A's wanna park someone in foul territory when a flyball pull-hitter comes up, let 'em! That would rule. If players like Howard can't adjust, you know what, sucks to be them. If you're stuck with one of them on your team, boo vociferously until they change, or the GM makes a roster move.

The only "fix" baseball "needs" (terms used loosely) is to revert the strike zone rule to pre-1996 no low-strike. More balls in play, fewer strikeouts, more hard hits and scoring.
norwaybbresearch
5/01
Even joking about banning the shift is horrifying...ok, maybe not horrifying, but really really bad... This is just an enormous (not overstated) opportunity for professional hitters to abuse shifting teams. Go the other way, get hits, score runs, and cash checks. I am mystified.
jnossal
5/01
The shift is as old as baseball itself. Get over it.

Tinkering with long-established rules in response to relatively recent trends in current play is what leads to pro football.
bpsinger
5/02
Maybe you could ask a few players who get shifted against WHY they don't bunt?
Dodski85
5/02
You want baseball to feature more athleticism and balls in play? The shift will create a Darwin effect that produces just what you desire! The lumbering, high K, single-minded players, hello Ryan Howard will either change or be forced out. So for what you want, the shift is good.
collins
5/03
Your last footnote about moving the CF a step towards left to abide by the rule is what occurred to me immediately. Given that most managers would do that frequently, how could the rules be changed to block the shift? Require that either the SS or 3B plays to the left of 2nd base?