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 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.
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. 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, 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.
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:
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.
 There are euphemisms, and then there are euphemisms.
 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.
 For evidence of this, see Ryan Howard since 2012 or so.
 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.
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