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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Infield shifts and limiting rules

Scoring is down in baseball this season (and has been on a downward trend in recent years). Some of the decline is being attributed to the increasing use of defensive shifts, especially against left-handed pull hitters, with teams situating four defenders to the right of second base and placing the second baseman in shallow right field, where he is close enough to field a grounder and throw out the runner. SI's Tom Verducci shows the effects and offers an "illegal defense" rule--prohibiting teams from placing three infielders on one side of the field (so the shortstop could be only as far as even with second base) or requiring infielders to have one foot on the infield dirt (removing the rover in short right field).

In devising a framework to explain the Infield Fly Rule and other rules that seek to limit or eliminate strategic moves within a sport, I distinguish true limiting rules from aesthetic rules. True limiting rules are designed to avoid or eliminate extraordinary cost-benefit imbalances on plays, while aesthetic rules are designed to ensure the beauty of the game. For example, the I/F/R and the rules on uncaught third strikes are true limiting rules; Offside in soccer or rules designed to limit end-of-game fouling in basketball are aesthetic.

I had thought of the possible responses to shifts as aesthetic, because the cost-benefit disadvantage was not unavoidable if the batter could and would learn to hit away from the shift. But the stats Verducci musters give me pause. There appears to be a structural disadvantage for left-handed hitters, something baked into the game that works against these players and that cannot be overcome, at least without altering the game. And while playing the second baseman in shallow right field is not as obviously contrary to expectations as intentionally not catching a fair fly ball, it is out of the ordinary for what we understand of the game.

So the need for an "illegal defense" rule may be not a question of making the game look good, it may be a question of its basic situational competitive balance.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 24, 2018 at 11:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


I have not decided what I think about rule changes, so I am agnostic for the moment; my point is that we may have to look at it as more than purely aesthetic. What has changed since the time of Ted Williams is pervasiveness, which reflects a change of circumstances that might justify a rule change.

To carry this back to the Infield Fly Rule: The non-catch double play was around for some time. By the mid-1890s, fields were in better condition and infielders were using gloves; both changes made the play easier for the infielder, rendering the cost-benefit imbalance greater and more one-sided, justifying the rule change.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 24, 2018 5:26:15 PM

Verducci's argument is tied to the idea that baseball is losing fans, and failing to cultivate new ones, because batters (and especially lefties) aren't hitting enough singles. That concern seems misplaced and quite overblown, especially as to new fans, who mostly come to the game without aesthetic preconceptions about what ideal form the game should take (Jon Weisman made this point very well on Dodger Thoughts recently, writing about watching the game with his young son). It is almost universally people who have been around baseball for a long time--fogies--who think the game needs more singles in order to appeal to a younger crowd--as if anything MLB could do would make it seem action-packed compared to the NBA (and the NFL, to a lesser extent). If the substance of the game is really the root of baseball's marketing problems, incremental changes like futzing around with the shift aren't going to fix anything.

As for competitive balance, it is hard to believe the cost-benefit disadvantage is so severe as to require a rules change. All hitters, lefties concluded, can learn to "hit em where they ain't," either elevated over the shift or bunted down the line. The problem is that hitters don't WANT to do this--could learn, but not would learn, in your phrasing. At least not to bunt. A number of sluggers were interviewed recently about why they don't bunt against the shift, I think on FanGraphs, and the answer was basically that it's hard to score from first base, so they'd rather try for extra bases. Fine, if you can generate enough bases that way (Verducci mostly uses batting average to make his point, not exactly a reliable indicator of offense). If batters keep hitting into the shift, eventually they'll start bunting--like Kyle Schwarber, who has laid down three two-strike bunts for hits in recent memory. Bill James predicted hitters would have made the adjustment by now, now he thinks it'll be another 15 years. The shift has been around at least since Ted Williams. No reason to get rid of it now.

Posted by: emh | Jul 24, 2018 5:09:48 PM

As a former college baseball player (C), I have no sympathy for left-handed batters for the reason the first poster mentioned.

And as a heavy hitter, I have even less sympathy for them because if teams could play "no doubles" against me, why can't I call a shift for left-handed hitter that I know hits the ball 64% of the time to the hole between first and second?

However...what if the infield never shifted? What if one left the infield as is, pulled the right fielder in shallow and then covered the center of the outfield with the two remaining outfielders? Would that technically be illegal under such a rule?

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Jul 24, 2018 3:07:35 PM

The one Hall of Fame player who threw left and batted right was Rickey Henderson.

Posted by: PaulB | Jul 24, 2018 1:15:30 PM

As the parent of a travel team-level lefthanded hitter (who is otherwise righthanded but we would only let her bat lefthanded starting from age 3), I wholeheartedly endorse this proposal.

From a less self-interested standpoint, keep in mind that whatever disadvantage a lefthanded hitter has hitting against the shift, he also will have an enormous advantage in that about 2/3 of the pitchers he will face will be the "easier" hand. There's a reason that historically lefthanded hitters hit about 25 points better, and top 20 hitting lists -- both season-by-season, and all-time -- are littered with B:L/T:R players, whereas the opposite is nearly unheard of.

One thing that they do in competitive softball to counteract the shift is slap-hitting. For those who don't know, that's basically just a swinging bunt where the player starts running out of the lefthanded box while the pitch is en route and just throws out the bat. The goal is to put the ball in play softly to the left side. The conventional wisdom that it's only doable in softball because the bases are 60 feet apart, and not 90 like in softball, but maybe that's not right? Ichiro was essentially a slap-hitter, and he did fine for himself.

Posted by: My $0.02 | Jul 24, 2018 11:59:54 AM

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